With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers have transitioned to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months.
With coaching limited in the summer, many Husker players will have to take it upon themselves to keep whatever momentum they’ve gained this spring heading into fall camp.
This can be a big summer for some, even a crucial period for others, and a time to recover for guys who made waves in spring. So we’ve been taking stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining. We close with…
Projected starters on Aug. 28: Omar Manning (X), Samori Toure (Y), Oliver Martin (Y)
Scott Frost made headlines prior to spring ball’s start when he called this current crop of wideouts the deepest and most talented group he’s had since returning to Nebraska. That’s three years and rooms that featured record-setters like Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman, and Wan’Dale Robinson.
Robinson, Nebraska’s leading receiver in 2020, transferred to Kentucky this winter. Some interpreted Frost’s praise as backhanded toward the departing star. In reality, Frost simply felt he and the rest of the Husker offensive coaching staff have more quality wideouts to work with than they’ve ever had. And as spring ball moved along, Frost doubled and tripled down on that belief.
Mostly, Nebraska got a good, long look at a group that projects as the top performers this fall during the spring. Samori Toure, a transfer from the FCS ranks, showed up and lived up to expectations. Oliver Martin, in his second year with the program, tested off the charts and developed good chemistry with quarterback Adrian Martinez. And then Omar Manning, prized addition from the 2020 recruiting class, was… well… out there making plays.
That’s where the optimism starts.
“I thought he made huge progress,” Frost said of Manning’s spring. “Just being able to go out there and line up, know every signal, run every play the right way. He’s had a few things that have kept him off the field but when he’s out there he’s a difference-maker for us. He’s had a really good spring and, again, we just need consistency from him. If we get that kind of consistency of him being there all the time and helping us, he’s going to be really good and we’re going to be better.”
Toure’s transition back to the slot (he played there to start at Montana before moving outside as an upperclassman) worked smoothly. The first big play of the Spring Game—a 27-yard RPO completion from Martinez to Toure on a slant—showed exactly why Nebraska wants him working on the inside. He’s pretty smooth in his route-running and the combination of speed and size makes him a matchup problem.
Several times during the scrimmage, Nebraska lined he and Manning up on the same side of the formation. With Martin, a deep threat in his own right, on the other side, it’s not hard to understand Frost’s optimism.
“I feel like when we’re on the same side, in my mind they gotta pick one of us to take away, and you can’t take us both away,” Toure said. “That’s something that’s gonna be really important.
“Me and Omar have actually gotten pretty close. I love the guy. He’s just starting to have a handle on everything. He’s getting the playbook down more and he’s just putting in maximum effort all the time. You can just tell he wants to be great. I’ve heard things about last year, I don’t know what happened, but from what I’ve seen Omar wants to be great. And I think he can be.”
Solidifying the top three will be important. Doing so allows the younger, less experienced receivers in the room time to develop at their own pace rather than being thrown to the fire and relied on for contributions.
Zavier Betts saw just 14 targets as a true freshman last season. He showed his potential, but a somewhat quiet spring perhaps shows the depth of the room he’s working in. Betts could be good for Nebraska in 2021, but the staff probably doesn’t feel like he has to now.
Will Nixon, a second-year player who missed all of 2020 with a preseason injury, made strides in spring ball. Wyatt Liewer continues to draw praise from Frost for his improvement. Nebraska is adding 2021 signees Latrell Neville, Shawn Hardy II, and Kamonte Grimes to the picture this summer. Surely they could factor into the picture with a big camp, but Nebraska’s coaches feel they’re finally above water with regards to receiver depth.
After spring ball ended, NU saw departures from two members of the 2019 signing class at wideout—Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance. Both players appeared to be on the wrong end of the depth chart following the spring, so the news came with little shock from the fanbase, but it did serve to highlight perhaps why these last few seasons have been challenging in the passing game.
In the 2018 class, Frost’s first at Nebraska, the transition class, Nebraska added five players who would play wideout. A sixth—Dominick Watt—signed but never arrived.
In the 2019 class, Nebraska added four more wideouts, later adding a fifth in Cal grad transfer Kanawai Noa.
Robinson, from the 2019 crop, had 91 receptions for 914 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons before transferring to Kentucky.
Noa had 17 catches for 245 yards and two scores in his lone season in Lincoln.
Mike Williams, a junior college take in 2018 thought to be an immediate help at the position, had 17 catches for 231 yards and no scores in two years.
The other seven receivers added to the roster over those two classes have contributed a total of six receptions and 53 yards to date. Williams and Noa are the only two receivers to finish their playing careers in Lincoln, the other eight all transferred to other schools.
That kind of situation would put any program in the same pickle Nebraska has been in.
The early, post-spring indication is that NU has perhaps reached the light at the end of that long, dark tunnel.
Quotable: “Last year in games, I don’t know if that was the first read in a lot of our games. Now there’s more of an emphasis on if there is a vertical route in a concept, give it a look even if it’s not supposed to be the first read.” — Oliver Martin
Last season, Adrian Martinez’s 71.5% completion rate was fourth-best nationally and a single-season program record at Nebraska, but his 7 yards-per-attempt average ranked 70th. In the Big Ten, Nebraska had fewer 20-plus-yard pass plays than everyone but Wisconsin. In terms of explosive play rate (20-plus as a function of passes thrown), Nebraska connected on a deep shot on 7.9% of its attempts, which ranked 98th nationally and was better than only Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Rutgers in the league.
The brain trust in Lincoln refocused on the vertical passing game this spring and felt improvement was made. “When he has to put touch on the ball, he’s putting touch on the ball,” said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick of Martinez. “That’s why we’re hitting on more deep balls than we have in the past.” Wideouts came to the same conclusion. Lubick said the quarterback was making the receivers look good, and the receivers were making plays.
- Oliver Martin (fifth-year junior): Nebraska is Martin’s third school. They say third time’s the charm, and Nebraska feels lucky to have the former Iowa man. At 6-foot-1, Martin can work the intermediate zones or go deep. His 40-inch vertical was the best on the team in post-winter testing, he posted the fifth-best pro agility run (3.95 seconds), the sixth-best 10-yard split (1.59 seconds), and a 4.5 laser-timed 40. “We do one-on-ones just about every day and I don’t think he’s lost a rep of that,” Wyatt Liewer said of Martin. After spending the first four weeks of the 2020 season ineligible, Martin was working with the team for the final five. He couldn’t get the necessary practice reps before being cleared to play, so it might be best to consider his first year—five catches, 63 yards—with the benefit of the doubt. Martin seems poised to be a key contributor in the fall.
- Wyatt Liewer (fourth-year sophomore): He worked his way into the fold last fall and made appearances in every game. The O’Neill native only caught three passes, but he did snag a touchdown on a well-executed bubble in the red zone against Purdue. Every time Frost talks about the wide receiver group, Liewer’s name is brought up. The 6-foot-3 wideout is one to watch.
A talented group. A deep group. A good spring. Lots of progress.
All just words at this point. It has to translate to the field when the reps matter. Less than 100 days. . .
The rest of our “Taking Stock” series: