With the 2021 campaign in the books and an offseason full of recruiting and transfer portal-ing underway, it’s as good a time as any to look at where each of Nebraska’s position groups sit heading into spring ball.
We’ll be breaking down this series into nine position groups—receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, specialists and, of course, quarterbacks—and giving them a 1-10 score, with 1 meaning the group isn’t looking too good and 10 meaning it’s in great shape and you, the Husker fan, should be excited.
The first position group tackled was the receivers. Next up are the tight ends. First, let’s take a look at who the tight end room is losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal.
Losing: Austin Allen
Returning (with how many years they’ve been in the program): Travis Vokolek (4th year), Thomas Fidone II (2nd year), Chancellor Brewington (2nd year), Chris Hickman (4th year), James Carnie (2nd year), AJ Rollins (2nd year)
Incoming: Chase Androff (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: Nate Boerkircher (3rd year)
There’s no way to spin it—the loss of Allen, the Big Ten Tight End of the Year and school-record holder for single-season catches (38) and receiving yards (602) for the position, hurts Nebraska’s offense in 2022. Husker tight ends combined for 57 catches for 853 yards and three touchdowns last season, and Allen had well over half of that production. After five years in the program, no one should blame Allen for moving on and chasing his NFL dreams over returning for an extra year that was granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where does the loss of Allen leave the Nebraska tight end room? There’s still plenty to work with. Tight ends coach Sean Beckton will still have starter Vokolek and Fidone, a former highly-rated recruit who fought adversity to get on the field in his true freshman season.
Vokolek, whose frame at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds is suited well for run blocking, was often used as an extension of the offensive line last season. As a receiver he only had 11 catches for 127 yards, but flashed excellent hands against Oklahoma and Michigan State:
“He’s really, really good at the point of attack as far as blocking,” Beckton said of Vokolek in October. “He’s really improved at his pass catching ability. A lot of people don’t see it, but he’s open quite a bit in a lot of situations.”
Vokolek should also act as a mentor of sorts for the talented, but inexperienced, Fidone, who tore his left ACL last spring but attacked the rehab process and was able to get valuable reps late in the season. A former four-star prospect, the 6-6, 235-pound Fidone was the gem of the Huskers’ 2021 recruiting class. He was rated as the top tight end in the nation according to 247Sports and chose Nebraska over programs like Alabama, LSU and just about everyone else, including his home-state Iowa Hawkeyes.
Hickman and Brewington will bring experience to the tight end room. Hickman has been bounced back and forth between receiver and tight end by the coaching staff and has battled injuries during his career. Brewington carved out a role in the Huskers’ short-yardage and goal-line package as a blocker, and produced some highlight-reel pancake blocks. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see Brewington getting reps as a wideout, as that’s where the 6-3, 185-pounder may be more comfortable, though he looks right at home throwing his body into unsuspecting defenders near the goal line.
Beckton will continue developing a young group of tight ends who are learning under Vokolek, including Carnie, Rollins and Androff, the lone tight end recruit in the 2022 class. Carnie and Rollins were members of the 2021 class, and each have traits that gets Beckton excited about their future and areas where they need to grow, like all young players do.
For example, the 6-5, 230-pound Carnie has speed to burn and is a natural pass catcher. Folks at Norris High School saw plenty of that when he was tearing up Class B football. What he needs to work on is his strength and run blocking—which is common for young tight ends, especially in the physical Big Ten.
“I’m down in the weight room sometimes, just to check on those guys and see how hard they’re working,” Beckton said of Carnie. “Early on, I didn’t feel he was working hard enough in the weight room. I kind of put a little nudge on him, and he’s really progressed. You can see it now in the way he strikes and he’s a lot more confident in what he’s doing.”
The 6-6, 230-pound Rollins, a multi-sport standout from Creighton Prep, has that nasty edge you’re looking for in a Big Ten tight end, Beckton said.
“One of the things that stood out was he was very tenacious at the point of attack. He’d drive people out of bounds 10 yards, just had that mentality,” Beckton said. “He’s more of a thumper, more of an in-line (tight end). But he has the qualities to go out and catch passes. He’s a natural striker.”
The 6-6, 230-pound Androff decided to not play basketball for Lakeville South High School in Minnesota and instead chose to focus on building his strength before getting to Lincoln. Androff was in a run-heavy offense in high school and didn’t do much receiving, but head coach Scott Frost is confident Beckton and the staff will develop that part of his game.
“You gotta be big on the edges in this league, there’s a lot of big six techniques and fives and nines,” Frost said on the first day of the early signing period. “Tight ends need to be able to block those guys. He’s (Androff) got the frame to do it.”
How do you grade the Huskers’ tight end room in 2022? Vokolek’s return provides stability following the loss of Allen. Though he was mostly used as a run blocker last season, Vokolek showed he can make catches you didn’t think he could in the pass game. Returning a veteran like Vokolek should do wonders for the learning curve of Fidone, and the rest of the inexperienced tight ends for that matter. Sprinkle in a little Brewington here, maybe a little Hickman there, and Beckton’s unit is looking like the best room on the offense.
Yes, an accurate passer and improved offensive line is needed in any offense that wants to throw the ball—and Nebraska still needs to figure those parts out—but the idea of a Vololek-Fidone duo in a Mark Whipple-Frost offense is intriguing. This past season at Pittsburgh, the Panthers’ Whipple-led offense had two tight ends—Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew—combine for 64 catches, 760 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Could Husker fans continue to see more 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) sets in 2022? It might be worth exploring.
Nebraska’s tight ends get a score of 7/10.