When Keyan Williams, the junior Fresno State transfer, went down with a hamstring injury two weeks ago, JD Spielman saw an opening.
Not the kind he sees when a bigger, slower linebacker lines up across from him in the slot, when his 5-foot-9 frame and quick feet gives him the chance to see some green field in front of him. More, a chance showcase his new and improved game. Spielman, a redshirt freshman wideout for the Huskers, wants his teammate to get back on the field as quickly as possible so they can run together, but in the meantime, he hasn’t minded the extra run with the first team.
“I’ve definitely viewed this as an opportunity to get a lot more reps,” he said late last week.
Williams is slated to be the top dog in the slot for Nebraska this season, but Spielman has been making a strong push for the position as far back as spring ball.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way compared to where I was in the beginning of summer,” he said. “Especially the transition from spring ball to here, I feel like I really added a lot to my game and I’m just waiting to get an opportunity to show it.”
Last season, Spielman was in a similar situation – hoping for a chance to get onto the field before ultimately, and at the last second, facing the redshirt. Part of his issue in 2016 was a freak offseason knee injury that set him behind the eight ball. He was forced to miss practices in the summertime, and his transition into the fall was made that much tougher.
“Year one, I don’t know man, I was out there lost,” he said. “The coaches said I was playing fine, but I knew in the back of my head I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was just kind of out there playing.”
Spielman relied on his quickness rather than technique, trying to just blow by defenders rather than running a crisp route to create separation. By his standards, his routes “weren’t that good.” And when the redshirt came, frustration set in.
“It was super different not being able to go out on the field,” Spielman said. “Especially coming out of high school and you’re always on the field and then you come to college and you don’t play at all.”
Instead of lamenting over things, Spielman used 2016 as an opportunity to get better. He worked on his route running and he worked with his scout team quarterback, a Tulane transfer named Tanner Lee (you might have heard of him), to develop his timing.
“Go run scout,” he thought, “go against the starters, get better, learn your playbook, learn your assignments and at the end of the day it’s all going to work out.”
In this case, it’s starting to look and feel like that work has paid off. With just one Saturday left to go before football returns to Memorial Stadium, Spielman feels much more comfortable in the offense, and much more confident in his play on the field. That scout team work with Lee, who’s now going to be playing pitch and catch with Spielman on Saturday’s, has proved incredibly helpful.
But Spielman didn’t just rely on past work, he wanted to run even more throughout the summer with Lee.
“I definitely feel some chemistry with Tanner,” he said. “I could tell that our timing was coming together. We’re really starting to click, especially after spring ball, so after a whole summer of just running routes and practicing, I feel like we’ve really got it down.”
There are no official depth charts yet – even though we have a pretty good idea of where guys will generally be – and Spielman said there’s still progress to be made before the season opens on Sept. 2. Williams should be nearing a return and a spot in the slot isn’t guaranteed. But Spielman feels like his natural quickness, now paired with over a year of work on everything else, has his prospects trending up.
“I really feel like I’ve added a lot to my game,” he said. “I know what I’m doing now and I’m feeling like I’m really starting to play well. It’s going pretty good.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.