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Nebraska Cornhuskers tight end Austin Allen makes a catch
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Taking Stock of Nebraska’s Tight End Room on the Heels of Spring Ball

May 18, 2021

With spring ball now in the rearview mirror, the Huskers transition to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months as players finish up finals and catch a few weeks rest. 

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. With the Huskers’ season beginning on Aug. 28, the start of fall camp is just about three months away. 

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’re going to take stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining. 

Tight End

Projected starter on Aug. 28: Austin Allen

Only one other Big Ten tight end was more efficient with his catches than Austin Allen a season ago; Allen’s 13.1 yards-per-catch average ranked second among league tight ends.

Of course, 37 other Big Ten players had more receptions than the 6-foot-8 man and Wan’Dale Robinson got almost three times as many catches on his own team, so how impactful Allen’s production was in reality was a little neutered—Nebraska had a 6-foot-8 tight end with good hands and targeted him four times in 35 red zone trips. 

That’s been the case of the Husker tight end for three years: interesting potential, peculiar usage. Still, last year was a step in the right direction for Nebraska. NU targeted the tight end on 16% of its pass attempts in 2019 and on 22% of attempts in 2020. 

With Allen in particular, Nebraska has looked to the tight end as a way to compensate for its lack of downfield receiving threats. No one on the roster had the frame or catch radius that Allen has, and until this spring, Nebraska hasn’t expressed a ton of comfort with the ability at wide receiver to push downfield consistently. So, those jump balls, however seldom they were, were to Allen. 

Then this spring featured a change in mindset for the Huskers when it came to the passing game. 

With Omar Manning and Samori Toure and Oliver Martin solidifying the top three spots at wideout, Nebraska asked its quarterbacks to look at the deep shot early in their progressions. Even if the design previously had the first read elsewhere, coaches put an emphasis on looking deep first and then working back. 

Assuming that wideout talent remains available week in and week out and that spring commitment translates to a fall gameplan (Nebraska here, so assume with caution), those particular offensive tweaks make the tight end spot interesting heading into the summer months. How does their role within the scheme change, if at all? 

A season ago, Robinson was the unquestioned safety valve for quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey. He got 28% of all targets. Nebraska will hope to spread the ball around a little more in 2021, but the “break in case of emergency” role, so to speak, is seemingly open in the offense. 

Does that become a guy like Allen, with whom Martinez probably has the most trust/chemistry built at this point in their careers? Nebraska’s spring game offers little in the way of insight into how things will develop this season; head coach Scott Frost has said several times now they were overly vanilla with what they showed.

This spring, the fifth-year junior took a step toward becoming a captain; he’s a leadership voice within the offense and the locker room. But on the field, Allen’s coaches talked of an NFL talent preparing for a No. 1 role. 

“He’s gonna be an NFL player if he continues on the path he’s going,” said tight ends coach Sean Beckton this spring. “He’s got elite pass-catching skills and route-running ability and he displayed that all spring.” 

Beckton wanted Allen to work on his blocking this spring, and Allen set a goal for himself of becoming a team captain. From a pass-catching standpoint, Nebraska feels it has a weapon that doesn’t need much fine-tuning. 

An injury to Jack Stoll in the Huskers’ season-opener pushed Allen into a No. 1 role he might not have been fully ready for last season. And yet, he showed steady improvement each week from that point on. Coming out of the spring, it feels like Nebraska is just itching to see what Allen can do this year. 

His growth lessens the short-term impact of Thomas Fidone’s injury. It extends the runway for a guy like Chris Hickman to keep coming along. Travis Vokolek (nine catches, 91 yards last year) seems a capable No. 2. This room still makes a lot of sense.

Quotable: “We brought (Chris Hickman) back over when Kurt Rafdal decided to hit the portal, he jumped out and day one I threw him in and it was like he never left. He’s a kid that started with me. He understands how I coach. He’s really been a pleasant surprise in coming back and understanding what we’re doing in the tight end room to be able to execute at a high level.” — Sean Beckton

Beckton says Hickman, a third-year tight end from Omaha Burke, will be able to help Nebraska at the point of attack because of his toughness. Hickman has been slow to put and keep weight on while a Husker, but Beckton likes that he’s been a fighter regardless. 

“Biggest thing about Chris is he doesn’t care if he’s going against a 300-pounder and he’s 205, he’s going to fight him,” Beckton said. “He gets that weight back up, he’s going to have some kind of role for us this year.”

Sometimes you yoyo a player back-and-forth between positions and they can become so much of a tweener that they’re serviceable at a number of jobs but not really reliable at any specific one. Hickman is still early in his development, so perhaps sticking in the tight end room will prove beneficial. Of course, there’s a player like Nick Henrich, Hickman’s high school teammate, who said he felt his understanding of the defense grew more when he moved from inside to outside linebacker and then back in. 

Whatever happens, Hickman’s one to watch. His target weight is 220 pounds, and with Fidone being unavailable for at least the first half of the season, there will be snaps to be had as the No. 3 tight end behind Allen and Rafdal. 

Stock Rising: 

  • Nate Boerkircher (second-year freshman): The 6-foot-4 tight end from Aurora, Nebraska, drew some praise this spring. A walk-on, Boerkircher put himself into the mix with scholarship guys like Hickman and James Carnie. 

Fall Outlook: 

Fidone suffered a non-contact knee injury late in spring ball. The expectation is that he’ll be unavailable for the start of the season, and barring an accelerated comeback, he’ll shoot to get a few games in before the 2021 season ends. Considering the excitement surrounding his addition to the team, the injury puts a damper on the group as we move into the summer. 

Shouldn’t be forgotten that this is still a strong room at the top. In reality, Fidone was going to push for meaningful snaps right away, but with the way Nebraska talks about Austin Allen, it would have been hard to imagine the freshman eating into the starter’s opportunities.

And the tight end group made progress this spring as far as the top is concerned. There is a solidified one-two punch and a player in Allen who appears to be coming into his own. As a whole, this is still a group trending up. 

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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