Wide receiver Zavier Betts #15 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers catches the ball in front of defensive back
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Wide Receivers

January 12, 2021

For two years running now we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

We begin this year with. . . 

Wide Receivers

Returning: Alante Brown (2Y FR), Will Nixon (2Y FR), Zavier Betts (2Y FR), Jamie Nance (3Y FR), Demariyon Houston (3Y FR), Chris Hickman (3Y FR), Omar Manning (5Y JR)

Notable walk-ons returning: Ty Hahn (2Y FR), Brody Belt (4Y SO), Wyatt Liewer (4Y SO), Oliver Martin (5Y JR)

Incoming: Latrell Neville (FR), Shawn Hardy II (FR), Kamonte Grimes (FR), Samori Touré (SR)

Returning production: 40.9% of targets (56/137), 37.8% of catches (37/98), 39.7% of yardage (379/955), 75.0% of touchdowns (3/4)

TargetsCatchesCatch %Yds/catchTDsYards20+yd rec
Wan'Dale Robinson645179.7%9.014617
Levi Falck201365.0%9.411221
Zavier Betts141285.7%10.911311
Oliver Martin10550.0%12.60631
Kade Warner9555.6%8.00400
Marcus Fleming8562.5%15.00751
Alante Brown5360.0%13.70411
Wyatt Liewer5360.0%7.31220
Chris Hickman11100.0%0.0000
Omar Manning100.0%0.0000

*Names that have been italicized are to indicate players not returning in 2021

The numbers were modest across the board as Nebraska’s passing game struggled to move the ball. Wan’Dale Robinson wasn’t immune to the up-and-down quarterback play that plagued the year, and yet he was good for 50% of the receiver production in 2020. 

He saw 64 targets, compared to 58 in his freshman season, but he averaged fewer yards per catch in 2020 than in 2019. Fewer big plays. That can be explained pretty easily: Robinson was relied on to create magic from nothing, not allowed to routinely dazzle in space. 

That’s been a common criticism of the Frost-Nebraska era so far; everything feels incredibly too hard.

Now Robinson’s gone. 

The junior-to-be announced his intention to transfer on Monday. For the second offseason in a row, Nebraska is losing a young man who would have been its top returning receiver. (JD Spielman left following the 2019 season.) There is absolutely no way around it, Robinson’s departure is a significant body blow to an already wobbly offense. 

The big-picture reasons were discussed at length on Monday. The immediate, 2021 impact is curious for a few reasons. 

Robinson will end his Nebraska career with 91 catches for 914 yards and three receiving scores. He also had 580 rushing yards and four rushing scores. In total, he had 225 offensive touches. For those running the numbers in their head, that’s a touchdown produced every 32 touches. Put another way: the scoring production wasn’t necessarily there to begin with, so from a points-added standpoint, how much worse can it really get? 

But Robinson set up touchdowns, too, be it through determined running or a spark of electricity through the air. To start the year, Nebraska looked lethargic and it couldn’t get the ball to Robinson. As the season wound to a close, the Huskers looked better while feeding him the ball. Is there a causality at play there? We’ll soon find out. Head coach Scott Frost’s style has never been to force-feed one player, but Robinson was used more like a crutch than a cog in the wheel of success as a Husker. 

It’s understandable if that wore on him. 

But defenses already lacked respect for Nebraska’s passing attack. Will it be disregarded altogether now? What’s to stop opposing defensive coordinators in the first three weeks of the season from saying “We’re gonna put 11 in the box, figure it out” to Nebraska?

Four years of wideout problems have officially caught up to Scott Frost. It’s make or break time.

The head coach has added 15 wide receivers to his roster with the 2018, 2019, and 2020 recruiting classes. They include Jaron Woodyard, Andre Hunt, Miles Jones, Justin McGriff, Mike Williams, Robinson, Darien Chase, Demariyon Houston, Jamie Nance, Chris Hickman, Kanawai Noa, Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming, Alante Brown, and Will Nixon. 

Seven of those 15 either have or will finish their careers elsewhere.

Two—Williams and Noa—exhausted their eligibility while at Nebraska. Williams played two seasons, Noa one. They combined to produce 34 catches, 476 yards and two touchdowns. 

Hunt was a nightmare scenario for reasons bigger than football and left Nebraska without a catch to his name.

Only six of the 15 are currently part of the football team. To date, they have produced a combined 17 catches for 172 yards. 

Betts is the only Frost-recruited wideout still on the team with more than five career catches. While he might become the best of the non-Robinson bunch, that’s still quite the statement considering he was a true freshman in 2020. 

The walk-ons have provided admirably, but you cannot afford to have the misses Nebraska has had at wideout when the room was initially identified as a problem area. 

Woodyard and Williams were in the first group of “help needed” JUCO guys, but they were miscast. Williams played out of position. 

When it came to athleticism, UCF was part of the AAC’s one-percent. In the Big Ten, the shifty, short guy (I say that lovingly, as a short guy) is fine in moderation but he needs to be complemented; Nebraska created positional homogeneity right away. Stanley Morgan Jr.’s presence made the situation tenable for a year but Nebraska’s immediate strategy change after, said everything that needed to be said. The vast majority of wideout commits since have been 6-foot or taller.

Jones was supposed to be what Robinson became. Chase left with only four appearances to his name. Houston and Nance have never seen the field. Hickman was limited to a blocking role in fourth-down packages. Nixon got hurt before ever having a chance to fight for a spot. Robinson wants (reasonably) to be close to family. 

Omar Manning, the top junior college player in the 2020 cycle, was supposed to take the offense to the next level. Frost threw coal in the train’s engine, calling him an NFL guy right away. Manning played four snaps in 2020.

Not all of this is on the staff.

Has the quarterback struggled because of his targets? Or have the targets struggled because of the thrower? Chicken or egg? The truth is always somewhere in the middle, though images of guys running wide open through opposing secondaries might haunt Frost during the summer months of 2021. 

Because, again, you can talk yourself into a group of wide receivers that demands respect and inspires excitement.

Manning (6-foot-4) could have a bounce-back year that reminds everyone in the country why he was so highly regarded coming out of Kilgore College in Texas. He remains a supremely talented wideout when available. 

Brown (5-11) could slide into Robinson’s role in the slot. He might be the guy the room turns to.

The tight ends should be fabulous. That would lessen the necessity for more than one or two of the other guys to step up. Martin? He jumped right on the field once available mid-year. Warner? Frost trusts him as much as anyone. Betts? His ceiling, according to Robinson, is “through the roof.” And the 6-foot-2 Nebraska native looked as promising as any wideout this year. Said Frost: “He doesn’t have any idea of how good he can be if he stays on track.” 

Neville (6-2) is exciting. Nixon (5-11), by most accounts, was poised for a role before his injury. 

And there’s the newest addition whose announcement Monday was lost to the shadow of Robinson’s departure: Montana transfer Samori Touré. At Montana, he was a possession receiver who could get vertical and come down with jump balls (6-3). He was described to me as a sure-handed guy with good speed and a high football IQ. He had 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, earning FCS All-American honors in the process, and broke an FCS playoff record held by Randy freakin’ Moss for yards in a game (Touré had 303). 

A grad transfer with NFL aspirations who can stretch the field, provide a steady presence on the field, and a veteran presence in practice… that sounds exactly like what the Huskers need, doesn’t it? 

A central question that muddies the conversation: can anyone confidently project development in a room where progress has been slow to show? 

There’s an argument to be made that Matt Lubick, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator and wideout coach, can truly put his mark on the room in ways the coronavirus-altered offseason didn’t allow in his first year. Lubick’s career warrants giving the coach the benefit of the doubt. 

However, there’s a DeVonta Smith-sized argument that one wideout can change an offense, and Nebraska just lost its best guy from the room. Robinson was the guy upon which the gameplan was built. 

Does Nebraska decide to go all-in on the run in the aftermath?

The variance with its wideout room might be as significant as with any position group on the team. In giving the room an 8/10 score a year ago, I wrote “it still needs to be put together, but all the pieces to the puzzle seem to finally be on the board.” There is once again a compelling collection of talent on paper, but there’s little evidence in Frost’s first three years that it can be pieced together. 

So, what’s the puzzle look like now?

And how important a piece was Robinson to it?

Score: 4/10

UPDATE (1/26 11:00 a.m. CT): Kade Warner opted to put his name in the transfer portal. He won’t return to Nebraska.

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