Just before Mickey Joseph’s media session was about to start Feb. 28 following the Huskers’ first spring practice of the year, a Nebraska official set a time limit for questions—25 minutes.
“Twenty-five?” a smiling and perhaps surprised Joseph asked as he warmed up his hands. “We got film to watch.”
Joseph, the high-profile receivers coach who was hired away from LSU in December, wanted to turn on the tape to see what his receivers did their first time out. The former Husker quarterback and New Orleans native knows what good wideout play looks like. He’s credited with developing what may have been the best trio of pass catchers in college football history on LSU’s 2019 national championship team—Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall. They combined to catch 241 passes for 3,991 yards and 51 touchdowns.
To play for Joseph, those three receivers had to love the game, not just like it. That’s exactly what Joseph wants to instill with his current group of Husker pass catchers.
“You gotta kind of be a little crazy to want to play football and love it,” Joseph said. “That means you’re going to do the extra, that enough is never enough. When a coach tells you, ‘Good job,’ you work even harder. When a coach tells you, ‘Hey, that’s not a good job,’ you even double up what you have to do to get better.
“They have to love the game. You’re going to have to love the game to play for me. You’re going to have to love the game to play for Scott (Frost). You’re not going to be able to like it, because when you like it, you’re not going to play.”
Joseph has tasked himself with finding the players in his room that love football. He wants to develop a rotation that goes nine deep. That amount may seem high, and once the best players are identified the rotation might tighten, but right now nine is the number. With over 15 receivers in his room, the competition will be fierce. He’s OK with taking until fall camp to determine his nine. After five practices and one scrimmage, everyone is getting an opportunity.
With the competition playing out in the spring, the players will get to know Joseph’s coaching style, which may or may not make friends.
“I’m going to coach you with energy. I’m going to coach you hard, I’m going to coach you with energy. I’m going to give you confidence, but I’m going to coach you hard,” Joseph said. “I’m going to coach you really hard and I’m going to tell you something every play, either it’s going to be good or it’s going to be bad, but I’m going to communicate something to you every play.”
Who will be in Nebraska’s nine-deep rotation when the Huskers take the field against Northwestern on Aug. 27? We took a stab at answering that question. Here are the top nine names, in no particular order:
During his first press conference of the spring, Frost was asked if any offensive players caught his eye. It didn’t take long for Frost to mention Brown’s name.
“He’s had a really good offseason and he really has a voice in the wide receiver room that we’ve needed,” Frost said, “and I hope he keeps coming on the way he has because we’re seeing some good things from him.”
Brown played in 11 games last year but had just three catches for 30 yards. In 2020, his first season in Lincoln, he had three catches for 41 yards. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder is looking for more consistent playing time in 2022, and he seems in position to get it because of what he’s shown Joseph, whether that’s practically living in the facility or showing up on time when the quarterbacks want to throw routes.
“He’s a kid who loves football,” Joseph said of Brown. “That’s the number one thing, that’s the number one problem with NCAA football today, that these kids don’t love it, they like it. They get on Twitter, they get on IG (Instagram) and they like stuff. Alante loves it. He loves the game. You can win with kids that love the game. When they like it, you’re going to be in trouble.”
While Brown hasn’t made a real impact on the offense yet, he has shown bits and pieces of what he could bring if he gets the ball in space. Here’s an example from last year against Fordham, where he ran a quick 5-yard hitch route and made a couple defenders miss:
A Bellevue West High School product, Betts has grown up and matured since Joseph has been with him, the coach said. He’s what Joseph looks for in a true X receiver—someone who’s big, fast and has great hands. The 6-2, 200-pound Betts fits the mold.
Betts flashed at times last year when he caught 20 passes for 286 yards and rushed for 109 yards and one score. But like many in the receiver room outside of Samori Touré, he saw inconsistent playing time. Joseph wants to turn that inconsistency into stability. For that to happen, work needs to be done on and off the field.
“Zavier was an immature kid when I first got here, but now he’s grown up, he’s starting to ask questions, he’s starting to just understand why he’s here at Nebraska,” Joseph said. “And sometimes, being from Nebraska and playing here and being an in-state kid, it’s a whole bunch of pressure, a whole bunch of pressure. I want to tell him all the time, ‘Hey, you just have to be Zavier, you just have to play ball, don’t worry about that, I’ll take everything else off you.’ But it’s not easy.
“It’s just like a kid from Louisiana playing in-state football—it’s not easy for a kid from Nebraska because everybody wants to know why you’re not playing, when you’re going to do this, and they’re pulling at you. An out-of-state kid? They’re not getting pulled at. Zavier, he’s getting pulled all over because he’s an in-state kid, he was a great football player in high school and people want him to be a great football player right away. His best football is ahead of him, but I’m happy where he’s at right now and I think he’s doing a great job.”
It’s hard to imagine the 6-4, 225-pound physical specimen Manning not being a member of the rotation. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said he’s having the wideouts playing and learning all of the receiver positions. That helps create depth and keeps the players fresh for fourth quarters.
That means Manning is playing in the slot, or inside. Whipple likes what the former top-rated junior college player in the country has done on the inside, where he could potentially be a matchup problem against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.
“It’s more than he can run,” Whipple said of Manning. “He’s big, and it also has something to do with the run game and the blocking. But you’re getting him on safeties, you’re putting him on linebackers where he can bounce and get over the top of those guys. He’s been really impressive inside.”
Manning saw snaps on the inside last season, even catching a short toss to the flat against Purdue and turning it into a 16-yard touchdown:
There’s no doubt Palmer, a transfer from LSU who Joseph helped convince to come to Nebraska, can help the team. Palmer is an electric athlete who won’t just be a threat in the passing game, but on special teams as a returner, too.
Last season at LSU, Palmer hauled in 30 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He also brought one punt back for a score in 2019 and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2020. While Palmer produced at LSU, Joseph has benched him before, too. The receiver knows what his position coach is about and helps his new teammates learn it, too.
“Trey tells them, ‘Hey, he’s not going to let you get away with that,’ so he sets the standard with them also,” Joseph said. “But he’s a good leader—he was a good leader at LSU, but he’s a really good leader here because he understands what I want. I’ve been knowing him since he’s been 15, so he’s been under this pressure since he’s been 15. So he understands it, he understands that, ‘Hey, you have to go full speed, you have to understand that you have to be on time.’ I don’t want the academic people calling me. He understands all that and relates it to them well.”
Garcia-Castaneda, a transfer from New Mexico State, has been limited this spring but Joseph is excited to see what the 6-foot, 185-pounder can do. Joseph mentioned him as someone who will get a good look to play in the slot. He’s played both on the inside and outside in his career.
After becoming a 1,000-yard receiver in his first season of college football at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, Garcia-Castaneda transferred to New Mexico State where he caught 37 passes for 578 yards and four touchdowns last season:
Belt may be a walk-on, but the coaches clearly trusted him near the end of last season when the running back room was hit with injury and Jaquez Yant’s playing time was impacted due to off-the-field issues.
At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Belt is an all-purpose back who would be a solid secondary option to chip in at both running back or receiver when needed. In small windows, Belt has the make-you-miss shiftiness that would produce yards after catch. He also knows how to run routes and has good hands.
“We’re going to have four kids who can go inside and play,” Joseph said. “It’s going to get to the point where we’re going to get our best three on the field. If our best three are Zs, somebody is going to play X and somebody is going to play R. But we’re going to get our best three. But right now, with Trey, Omar and Brody, and then Isaiah will be back, that’s a pretty good group right there.”
Palmer, Manning, Garcia-Castaneda and Belt are players who Joseph wants to play inside. The top trait Joseph said he’s looking for with inside receivers is twitch—they need to be quick. Another is to be a willing participant to run routes over the middle of the field, which, at times, leads to the potential for big hits from linebackers and safeties.
Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson even went out of his way to praise the work that Belt has been doing.
“Brody Belt is like a young Wes Welker,” Thompson said.
Here’s an example of Belt doing a good job of recognizing zone defense and sitting his route down in the middle of two Michigan State linebackers for a first-down catch:
And here’s an example of Belt’s hands—he toe-tapped this pass from Logan Smothers late in the game against Iowa last year:
After a six-catch, 103-yard, one-touchdown outing in the season-opener at Illinois, Martin sustained an injury and fell out of the rotation the rest of the season. The former transfer from both Michigan and Iowa is healthy now and would provide an experienced option in the rotation who has shown an ability to make contested catches:
Shawn Hardy II
Hardy didn’t play at all in 2021 as much of his first season in Lincoln was used to develop his body and skills. He apparently did plenty of those things, so much so that he was named the offensive scout team player of the year. Maybe 2022 will be the season he takes the next step and sees game snaps.
Hardy, a 6-3, 190-pounder from Kingsland, Georgia, had an impressive offer list coming out of high school for a three-star prospect. LSU, Ohio State, Purdue, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina, among others, all offered Hardy.
Thomas Fidone II
If we’re talking route running and pass catching, it might be wise to throw the potential matchup nightmare at tight end, Fidone, into the group. Listed at 6-6 and 235 pounds, Fidone provides a big target in the passing game for whoever wins the starting quarterback job.
Fidone has recovered from the knee injury he suffered in spring camp last year and has been a full participant this year. That’s important, because with Travis Vokolek being limited as he rehabs offseason surgery, Fidone will likely get a crack at being TE1. The Council Bluffs, Iowa, native was a top-50 national recruit and the top-rated tight end in the 2021 class according to 247Sports.