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Scoring the Huskers: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the Huskers: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

January 29, 2020

This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now. Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs | Offensive Line

With the defense covered last week, the attention this week is on the offensive side of the ball. Up next. . .

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Returning WRs: Jamie Nance (rFR), Darien Chase (rFR), Demariyon Houston (rFR), Luke McCaffrey (rFR) ((lol jk)), Wan’Dale Robinson (SO), Jaevon McQuitty (JR), JD Spielman (SR)

Returning TEs: Chris Hickman (rFR), Travis Vokolek (JR), Kurt Rafdal (JR), Austin Allen (JR), Jack Stoll (SR)

Incoming WRs: Zavier Betts‍ (FR), Alante Brown‍ (FR), Marcus Fleming‍ (FR), Will Nixon‍ (FR), Omar Manning‍ (JR)

Returning Production: 78.0% of targets (209/264), 84.3% of catches (134/159), 83.2% of yardage (1,805/2,168), 80.0% of touchdowns (8/10)

  Targets Catch % Yds/Rec. TDs Yards 20+yd rec
JD Spielman 78 62.8% 18.3 5 898 19
Wan’Dale Robinson 58 69.0% 11.3 2 453 9
Kanawai Noa 41 41.5% 14.4 2 245 5
Jack Stoll 40 62.5% 9.4 1 234 5
Kade Warner 12 66.7% 12.6 101 2
Austin Allen 11 63.6% 11.9 83 2
Mike Williams 9 55.6% 21.8 109 4
Jaevon McQuitty 3 66.7% 7.0 14
Jaron Woodyard 3 100.0% 3.0 9
Darien Chase 3 33.3% 13.0 13
Chris Hickman 3 33.3% 0.0
Miles Jones 2 0.0%
Kurt Rafdal 1 100.0% 9.0 9

*** Tight ends are italicized. Players who will not return in 2020 are in red. I’m leaving returning starts out of this discussion because they’re pretty useless to this conversation and not representative of what was going on with the room; four times Nebraska opened with a two-tight end set and that means nothing more than Scott Frost wanted the first play of his offensive set-up to be with two tight ends on the field.

Oh boy. Where to start?

I think I want to start with Mike Williams, because I have no idea how to properly categorize his situation.

Brought to Nebraska in the class of 2018, Scott Frost’s first in Lincoln, as a junior college receiver expected to be a right-away kind of guy for a room sorely lacking depth. He had 12 catches for 122 yards while playing in every game and starting the first two. But he struggled to hold his own blocking on the perimeter and he lost snaps to the bigger, taller Kade Warner as the year progressed. 

In 2019, Williams was one of five wideouts under 6-feet tall. Two of those five were JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson and there are only a handful of receivers in the conference who can take reps away from those guys regardless of how tall they might be. So Williams had to fight for attention with the rest of the pack. He saw fewer than one target a game.

Nebraska needed a bigger receiver, so it again went to Kade Warner and then to Darien Chase in a limited capacity so as to maintain his redshirt. Jaevon McQuitty, viewed as the next Stanley Morgan Jr. kind of guy when he signed in 2017, was talked about but couldn’t get on the field. Jamie Nance, a taller deep-ball threat, early enrolled but couldn’t get on the field. Williams was relegated to a bench-warming role as a senior. 

Then, he gets out into draft prep and shares this.

Is that not exactly what the Husker wide receiver group was missing last season? Is that not exactly what was said to be needed from the non-Spielman, non-Robinson guys? An ability to get open? Williams still needed to improve his perimeter blocking, but when the ball was thrown to Williams in 2019 he was wide open. Not kinda open, not thrown open, wide open. That was the kind of player people expected him to be—a speedster who could create big plays. Twice he landed in my “Top 10 Intriguing Huskers” preseason list because he’s just too physically talented.

He turned four of his five catches into 20-yard gains, and he could have had more but the ball didn’t find him. (Evaluating this group is different from, say, evaluating LSU’s. No part of Nebraska’s offense functioned consistently, and that probably plays a bigger role in the depreciation of pass-catcher numbers than the overall talent of those pass-catchers.) 

There are questions with the wide receiver room with hard-to-find answers. Williams’ head-scratching case of “Why didn’t it work and why couldn’t he make an impact?” isn’t unique to him. They’re all over the place. 

I think, at the end of the day, that’s why Frost changed wideout coaches this offseason. Frost calls the plays. His offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach needs to help coordinate the passing game, but he first and foremost needs to develop a group of wide receivers. 

The answer I’m starting to come to is underutilization. 

All indications are that Troy Walters is a well-respected, well-liked and talented coach. He was a Broyles Award finalist, a guy some thought would get a look for the UCF head coaching job and a Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver. Sometimes situations don’t work because the situation doesn’t work, not because the coach doesn’t. Walters finding success elsewhere won’t surprise the guys he left behind.

Now, however, Matt Lubick enters the picture and he inherits a room that is actually more loaded than you’d think. 

The fan poll here saw an average score of 6.8, and the skepticism is certainly warranted; those who responded on the lower end have concerns about the non-Spielman and non-Robinson positions. Only three wideouts last year averaged more than one target a game, and one of those guys is gone.

Entertain me for a moment. Let's do a quick run-through.

  • Sean Beckton’s tight end room is looking deep, isn’t it? Jack Stoll is a returning starter and a more-than-capable option in the passing game. Behind him last year was a 6-foot-8 former basketball player in Austin Allen, who saw his gameday responsibilities and locker room presence grow as the season went on. Nebraska then has a 6-foot-6 Travis Vokolek, who had to sit out 2019 per transfer restrictions but remains a player coaches are very, very high on, and a redshirt freshman Chris Hickman, who folks are similarly high on. Stoll might not get that starting job back and it could have nothing to do with his offseason.
  • Spielman is a proven star and Robinson is a superstar in the making in this offensive system provided he stays healthy.
  • Omar Manning was one of the most sought-after wide receivers on the trail during the last recruiting class and Nebraska inked his signature. If we’re placing bets on instant impact newcomers for the Huskers in 2020, Manning, at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, would be even money. He could very well be as seamless a fit next to Nebraska’s two established wideouts as there is. Death Lineup 1.2 anyone?
  • Finally, Nebraska has Zavier Betts, Alante Brown, Marcus Fleming, Will Nixon, Chase, Nance and Houston all in the pipeline. Even a 15- or 20-catch season, or something close, from just one of those guys would be huge considering the Huskers still have a guy Frost trusts in Warner. 

Anything from McQuitty is extra sprinkles on top of the sundae.

This collection of wideouts makes sense. And it has a year-after-year-after-year kind of proven commodity in Lubick coaching them up in a system he already knows and can therefore hit the ground running. There’s something to be said for being able to learn your players right from the jump rather than having to first learn a new scheme. 

How much does Nebraska want to involve the tight end and how often is quarterback Adrian Martinez going to have the time to throw to them? Was Stoll a first or second option very often in Martinez’s progressions in 2019? [vigorously shakes head from side to side] It’s hard to involve him when the protection or the snap only affords you time to get through one or two of your reads.

Same goes for the guys behind the top two at wideout. Those guys making an impact depends on a number of factors that go beyond their own individual ability. For that reason, feel free to remain in the “Prove it to me first” phase.

Nebraska still needs to get better at blocking outside the hashes, too. But a deep threat the defense has to respect helps there as well by keeping the secondary from pressing up.

It still needs to be put together, but all the pieces to the puzzle seem to finally be on the board. This feels like it could be a bounceback kind of campaign for the two rooms. 

Score: 8/10

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