As Brandon Vogel wrote on Saturday, the Nebraska football program is pretty much lost at the moment. In the midst of a 4-6 season with 4-8 being the most likely final record, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about.
However, if there’s one thing the fans desperate for a ray of sunshine can grab on to, it is the play of redshirt freshman slot-back JD Spielman.
In Saturday’s blowout at Minnesota, the 5-foot-9 receiver led everyone with nine catches for 141 yards, the second 100-yard day in his young career, joining Nate Swift as the only Nebraska freshman to crack triple digits receiving twice. The performance bumped Spielman up to 49 receptions for 733 yards through nine games, pushing Spielman past Swift and making him Nebraska’s all-time freshman leader in receptions and yards. Swift’s previous records were 45 catches and 641 yards.
Making Saturday’s performance all the better was the fact that it came not too far from his home, as Spielman, the son of Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, is a native of Eden Praire, Minnesota.
“The way he practices and plays, it’s easy to say that because he’s coming home but I think he’s kind of the same every time,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “Really consistent in his preparation. It probably did, he had more family and friends around, but the guy shows up every game and it doesn’t look any different wherever he plays.”
Spielman also returned seven kicks for 150 yards, giving him 291 all-purpose yards on the day. That is enough to move Spielman past Ahman Green to the top of the freshman all-purpose yardage record chart. Spielman now has 1,445 yards, bettering Green’s previous record of 1,259 with two games still to play.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck did not sound thrilled at his post-game press conference that Spielman had left the state to play his college ball.
“They attacked us through the air in some play action pass game from two really fast, really explosive receivers, one here from the state of Minnesota,” Fleck said. “We have to keep those types of players here in the state of Minnesota, period. So everybody listening, whoever you know that’s a great player, keep him here, 18 class, 19 class, keep him here because those type of players continue to make us better.”
(For what it’s worth, Nebraska currently has a verbal commitment from the top-rated 2018 recruit in Minnesota, linebacker David Alston.)
Swift and Green weren’t the only Huskers Spielman surpassed on Saturday. He also overtook junior Stanley Morgan Jr. (four catches for 37 yards on Saturday, 47 catches for 727 yards on the season) for the title of the team’s leading receiver. Spielman and Morgan are also second and third, respectively, in receiving yards in the Big Ten.
Morgan came out on fire this season, surpassing 90 yards receiving in each of his first five games. However, in the last four weeks, Morgan has only hit that mark once — a four-catch, 115-yard performance against Wisconsin that included an 80-yard bomb.
Meanwhile, Spielman has stepped up his game, recording 70 or more yards in four of the last five games. Spielman is at his best with the pressure on, and he has become quarterback Tanner Lee’s favorite target on third (and fourth) down. More than half his receptions have come in those situations.
Spielman has caught 21 passes and averages 15.8 yards per reception, moving the chains on 18 of those receptions. That means Spielman has accounted for about a third of Nebraska’s third down conversions this season. Toss in fourth down where Spielman has caught six more passes (9.7 yards per reception), converting five of them. As a team, Nebraska has converted 12 fourth downs all season.
“You can trust that he’s going to read a coverage or break the correct way or, if he’s got an option, do something that’s going to be right,” Langsdorf said. “He’s been a great target. A lot of fun to be able to motion and move around in a lot of different ways.”
Conversely, Morgan has caught 13 passes on third and fourth down, converting 11 of them.
JD Spielman is fast becoming a star, and Nebraska should continue to get him as many targets as he can handle. The fact that Spielman is only in his second year playing wide receiver after serving as more of an all-around weapon (but mainly running back) for his team in high school yet has still been this good this early says a lot about what kind of a ceiling Spielman may have as he continues to learn the finer points of his position.
Pairing Spielman with Morgan has given Nebraska perhaps the best wide receiver duo in the conference, or at least the most productive. It’s going to be tough for either one to hit that 1,000-yard mark this season with just two games to play and more than 260 yards to go, but based on how the last few games have gone they’ll get plenty of chances to shoot for that mark.
Very little has gone Nebraska’s way this season, but one thing Mike Riley and his staff certainly got right was JD Spielman. He’s going to be a star.
That is, if he’s not already there.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.