We wrote this series last year, but admittedly started it a little too early. Over a multiple-week stretch in May, we looked at 10 Huskers who seemed like some of the most interesting men in the locker room. An older guy waiting to break out? A new guy looking to provide unexpected contributions? A young guy who seemed poised to fullfil crazy potential?
We came up with five names on offense and five on defense. In the end, we had three guys who left the team before the end of the season and another who saw his year ended by injury four games in. Hopefully the hit rate is a little higher this time around.
(But No. 1 was Adrian Martinez and he was picked as the lone quarterback over Tristan Gebbia, so please give me a medal for that bold and completely out-on-a-limb prediction.)
We’re going to space this year’s 10-man list out a little more. Two new names a week, leading up to Big Ten Media Days in July. Like last year, we’ll start at No. 10 and work our way up.
I’m not ready to give up on Mike Williams.
Nebraska brought in two JUCO wideouts last season in Williams and Jaron Woodyard who would both have two seasons to play and projected as speedy slot guys. One of the thinnest positions on the team, Scott Frost identified early on, was wide receiver and the hope was at least one of the two could provide immediate help.
Stanley Morgan Jr. was the star, and the guy who would get the lion’s share of the targets and production. JD Spielman would be Morgan’s Robin. But Nebraska needed and wanted a third guy. Early on that looked to be Williams.
He emerged from spring ball and fall camp as the third guy. At 5-foot-10, he’s a springy, speedy receiver who was described as one of the strongest pound-for-pound Huskers on the roster. It seemed like a pretty good situation to be in from a receiver’s standpoint, playing with two other guys who could take all the defensive attention off you and allow you single coverage play after play. But he struggled to fully grasp the offense, was porous at times blocking out on the perimeter — an absolute no-no with this staff — and found himself replaced four games into the year.
Williams ended 2018 with 12 catches for 122 yards on just 15 targets. Walk-on wideout Kade Warner had more targets, as did tight end Jack Stoll and running backs Maurice Washington and Devine Ozigbo.
Assistant coaches, as is their job, replaced Williams this offseason.
Wan’Dale Robinson — who, spoiler alert, is pretty high on this intrigue list — came in from Kentucky. Darien Chase, Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance joined the fold as taller, downfield receivers. Cal grad transfer Kanawai Noa brought his 18 starts, 96 catches, 1,267 yards and six touchdowns to Lincoln. Morgan may have graduated, but Williams will be in an absolute dog fight for playing time this season.
Neither Greg Smith nor I had Williams on our projected two-deep after the spring game in April. And that was before Noa announced he was coming. Nance enrolled early and got a full (crucial) summer in the weight room to work on adding to his frame. If he or one of the other two non-Wan’Dale freshmen hit, Williams will be hard-pressed for snaps, let alone targets.
If Andre Hunt — a Cali product who showed some last season but flashed real potential this spring — takes hold of a spot, same thing happens for Williams.
If the Huskers veer more into multiple-tight end looks as expected, same thing happens for Williams.
He has an important fall camp ahead of him, to say the least. I still find him incredibly interesting, though. He came in at No. 5 in this series last season, when I wrote this about him:
“Buy your Mike Williams stock. Buy it now. (It’s still going at a reasonable rate after just three catches for 18 yards in the April 21 spring game.) As a freshman at Georgia Southern, Williams had three catches. As a sophomore last year at East Mississippi, he had 30 and seven touchdowns at a 23.2 yards-per-catch clip. If that doesn’t scream #PlayMak6r I don’t know what does.”
Nebraska still needs playmakers. There’s no one in that wideout room who has proven much of anything at the D1 level outside of Spielman and Noa. I suspect the competition is very much open throughout the fall as the Huskers look for a Morgan replacement and a solidified third option, and Williams seems the kind of player and person that loves competition.
Robinson complicates projections a bit because we don’t really know how much Duck-R he plays (or how often Nebraska is in that personnel grouping in general) relative to other positions, and him being on the field more could mean Williams is out there less.
The funny thing about this whole conversation is the fact Williams’ weakness last season — and subsequent reason he wasn’t on the field more — could be the thing that separates him from the pack this offseason.
“No block, no rock” is what offensive coordinator and wideout coach Troy Walters tells his unit. Frost says it all the time, too. Perimeter blocking separates good teams from great teams. Just watching the spring game from this season, there are a handful of runs to the edges that would have busted for huge gains or even touchdowns with better blocking from the skill guys.
Williams has every tool needed to be a plus blocker. He’s an athletic freak and he’s sort of built like a bullet. With excellent lower body strength, the only thing keeping him from being a capable blocker is himself. Maybe after a year of having the importance of it drilled day after day, Williams has taken teaching to heart. If so, he’s got a leg up on the new guys who need to add strength and get better in their technique. If his blocking has improved, he’s really competing with Warner and Hunt for snaps on the outside. And I like Williams’ odds in that scenario.
Of course the most important thing is chemistry with the guy throwing him the football. We’ll find out once fall camp begins who Martinez spent the most time with this offseason. For now, there are a lot of reasons to keep an eye on the senior.
I tend to think Williams’ first season with Nebraska was more of a feeling out process than an indication of who he really is as a receiver, so I think he’s a name to pay attention to once fall camp begins, but by virtue of being a senior he’s running out of time to make an impact.
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.