Nebraska Cornhuskers tight end Austin Allen listens to coach Sean Beckton during football practice
Photo Credit: John Peterson

Tight End Room Close to Full Strength as Huskers Prepare for Ohio State

November 02, 2021

Sean Beckton’s tight end room will arguably be as healthy as it has been all season as Nebraska hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

Travis Vokolek, the de facto co-No. 1 alongside Austin Allen, missed the first three games because of a preseason injury. Since his return, Beckton has looked to get close to even reps between Allen and Vokloek while working in Chancellor Brewington in certain sub packages.

“That’s been great, having him back,” Beckton said about Vokolek. “We’re trying to split reps with those two. You can see sometimes those guys are in there playing together and then sometimes Travis and Austin will split a series. That’s keeping those guys fresh, and I want good, quality reps on everything that they’re doing … I try to keep a pitch count on those guys and give those guys good reps. Then obviously Brewington has done some good things in certain packages.

“[Chris] Hickman, I’m hoping to get him going again. He’s finally gotten himself healed up from a knee and a shoulder injury. And also continuing to work Thomas [Fidone II] and Nate Boerkircher; those guys are all on my field working to get ready for this game here.”

Fidone, the Huskers’ blue chip 2021 tight end recruit, dressed for the first time this season as he’s working his way back from a knee injury he suffered during spring ball, though he did not play.

“His comfort level is increasing every single rep, every single day,” Beckton said. “We’re patient with him and taking our time with him. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, it’s more or less mentally getting the reps, getting back into the groove of stepping with the correct foot, going back on the right technique on our line blocks, running crisp routes, those types of things. It’s going to take a little time to get him back in the flow of things there.”

Beckton said he spent time after practice working with Fidone on Tuesday. Fidone is still a little slow in his ability to read the signal, line up quickly and execute his job, so Beckton went through a script-and-a-half with him to help him in that area.

Beckton’s primary focus is playing the players that will give them the best chance to win, but he’ll also look for opportunities in the last three games to get Fidone on the field if the situation presents itself.

“We’re just trying to get him an opportunity,” Beckton said. “We get four games, obviously, to try to play him. I’m not going to burn his redshirt year and I didn’t want to do that with [James] Carnie or AJ Rollins. It’s his turn to try to get a few snaps here and there. It’s going to help him getting that feel of going out and competing in a live setting. Nate Boerkircher has had that situation there; I’m trying to hold his redshirt year also, but he’s gained some experience. And then Thomas has gained experience in practice, but I’d like to get him some game experience before the season’s out.”

Boerkircher, a walk-on out of Aurora in his second year with the program, has played in three games this year and can appear in one more while maintaining his redshirt.

As for the guys in the rotation, Vokolek described the tight end group’s performance this season as “decent.”

“Obviously, there’s always room for improvement,” Vokolek said. “We’ve really been working on being more physical on our blocks and striking and driving instead of just going to block guys and hold them up. Coach Beckton and Coach [Steve] DeMeo really emphasize driving in the run game. Then we’re still trying to find ways to get the tight ends the ball.”

Adrian Martinez certainly got the ball to Allen against Minnesota to the tune of five catches for a career-high 121 yards and a touchdown. He caught just three passes for 28 yards against Purdue, but it could have been four catches as a defender knocked a ball out of his hands before he could secure it and the Boilermakers plucked it out of the air for another interception. Allen, an Aurora native, was hard on himself in the post-game presser, saying he let down the team and the state.

“He came over and hugged Adrian and told him he should have made that play for him, because obviously he felt that Adrian didn’t need that last one there,” Beckton said. “He’s more for the team and he was kind of beating himself up and I encouraged him, ‘Hey, you’re not going to make every play.’ … One of those unfortunate deals.”

Even with the unfortunate play against the Boilermakers, Allen has still developed into a dangerous receiver in his fifth year at Nebraska. He’s second on the team in catches (27), receiving yards (371) and receiving touchdowns (two) and stands out with his 6-foot-9 frame. Vokolek only has five receptions for 74 yards this season, but at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, he has a pro frame as well.

Both tight ends could return next season because of the COVID-19 eligibility freeze, but they could have an opportunity to go pro after this season. Beckton said he’s encouraging the duo to focus on Ohio State this week and then to take some time during the bye week to do some research regarding their futures, though he doesn’t expect a final decision until after the season.

“I think the world of those two,” Vokolek said. “They’ve put themselves in a situation where they’ve got an opportunity to make a good decision for themselves. I’m not going to steer them in the wrong direction in that.”

In the short term, though, Nebraska will need Allen and Vokolek at the top of their games as the Buckeyes come to town.

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