Nebraska’s tight ends didn’t see many balls thrown their way during Scott Frost’s first two seasons in Lincoln. Tight ends caught just 28 passes in 2018 (10.9% of Nebraska’s completions). That number improved last season with 34 receptions (17.5%) in a more run-heavy offense, but that still only equalled 2.8 catches per game.
With 100% of the team’s tight end production returning and the addition of Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek following his redshirt season, the coaches said getting the tights ends more involved was a priority for 2020. The addition of Matt Lubick as offensive coordinator appears to be paying dividends toward that goal.
“I think Coach Lubick has done a great job of coming up with some route schemes and stuff like that to help not only the tight ends but everyone else get the ball and put us in the best situations to win,” senior Jack Stoll said last week. “I think that’s part of it.
“I think the other part of it is we’re just going out there and making more plays because we’re a little more detailed on some of our routes, we’re running at full speed more of the time, and just some of the smaller details like that that really end up turning what could be a throw to the flat for 3 yards into a 15-yard gain because we ended up coming out of our break a little bit faster.”
On Saturday against Ohio State, the tight ends played a prominent role with five receptions for 55 yards.
On the first play of the game, Stoll sat down in the middle of the field and Adrian Martinez found him for a 9-yard gain, sparking a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Early in the second quarter, Martinez went back to Stoll. On third and 3, two receivers ran crossing routes underneath while Stoll worked his way down field and sat down in the middle of the defense. Martinez hit him with room to run and he picked up 15 yards, though a shot to his knee knocked him out for the rest of the game.
On the very next play, Martinez took a shot downfield to Vokolek, though Ohio State’s best cornerback, Shaun Wade, recognized what was coming and peeled off his man to break the pass up. Later in the drive, Nebraska ran a clever play that left Austin Allen unguarded and Martinez hit him on a rollout pass with no one near him. Allen caught the ball and took it up the right sideline for a gain of 26 yards. The Huskers eventually scored on that drive as well.
In the third quarter, Nebraska had a second and 5 and Martinez hit Allen in the flat. The Buckeyes tackled him a yard short of the line to gain, but Martinez picked up the first down on the next play.
Frost gave Luke McCaffrey a chance to run the offense for most of the fourth quarter. On his first drive, McCaffrey evaded a pair of rushers and tried to find Vokolek near the right sideline, but a defender broke on the ball in front of the tight end and knocked the pass down. On the next drive, McCaffrey hit Nebraska’s fourth tight end, Kurt Rafdal, in the left flat, but a defender closed on him and knocked him out after a gain of just 1.
So to recap, five receptions on seven targets for four different tight ends. Last season, Nebraska had just one game all year with more than six tight end targets, and seven of the 12 games included for or less tight end targets.
Five receptions on 16 completions in game one of 2020 is a 31.3% rate. Tight ends coach Sean Becton echoed Stoll’s comments about the impact Lubick has made on the offense.
“Coach Lubick and Coach Frost trust how well those guys have worked and performed throughout this time period, starting with last year, the guys that were here,” Beckton said. “Obviously when Coach Lubick took over the offensive coordinator reins with his experience, one of the strengths of our offensive scheme was utilizing our tight ends and he has a long history of doing that at various other places, at Oregon and at the University of Washington.
“Some of the things that he’s brought to the table are making sure that we have tight end targets, where we’ve changed some things up where the read goes first to the tight ends opposed to being a situation where it was maybe a last outlet.”
Lubick took over as offensive coordinator at Oregon in 2016 when Frost left to take the UCF job. That season, Oregon tight ends caught 71 balls, 27.6% of all Duck completions (5.9 receptions per game).
Lubick left Eugene after the season and spent two years as the offensive coordinator at Washington. In 2017, high ends caught 52 passes (21.7%, 4.0 per game) and in 2018, it was 50 receptions (18.9%, 3.6 per game).
Unfortunately, Stoll’s injury was a big blow to Nebraska’s offense. He accounted for 46 of Nebraska’s 62 tight end receptions the last two years. Frost did not have an update on Stoll’s status after the game. If he has to miss time, the Huskers will have to rely more heavily on Allen whose two receptions for 30 yards against the Buckeyes tied his 2019 highs in both categories. The Huskers will also have to find a way to get Vokolek, who caught 16 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore at Rutgers in 2018, more involved.
With a stacked 2021 tight end recruiting class headlined by blue chip commit Thomas Fidone and some highly-touted targets on their board for 2022, turning the tight end position into a real weapon is important for both the present and future. Though the final score didn’t go their way, Saturday’s game against Ohio State was a good first step toward making that happen.