Throughout Nebraska football’s offseason, Travis Vokolek has been immovable.
While the Huskers replaced four offensive assistant coaches and brought in a variety of new players, the tight end spot remained more unchanged than any other on offense and arguably the entire team. Starter Austin Allen departed for the NFL and a few freshmen arrived, but that was it.
As far as players go, Vokolek has been the model of that consistency. He held his position as the top tight end for 2022 back in the spring, and position coach Sean Beckton reiterated this fall that he was the only one to have a spot on the depth chart locked up. Until Casey Thompson was announced as starting quarterback this past weekend, Vokolek was the only offensive player who was known, at least publicly, as a starter.
He stood out once again on that side of the ball when the team’s captains were announced, and he was the only offensive player among the four chosen.
“It means everything,” Vokolek said in a press conference Sunday. “I’ll bring up Austin (Allen), one of my best buddies, he was a captain last year. I talked to him last night. He really made sure to make it known how big it is to be a captain on the Nebraska football team. So, I’ve soaked it in, I think it is a great honor to be a captain, and I am really ready to attack it.”
The team’s captains were voted on by players. Throughout fall camp, players and coaches have made note of Vokolek’s leadership capabilities.
To anyone not familiar with that praise, the tight end may not stand out on paper. A former three-star recruit, his best statistical season came in his sophomore year at Rutgers, when he had 16 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Neither of his Nebraska seasons have matched those numbers, and he’s yet to score a touchdown or record 40 yards in a game for the team.
Still, Vokolek’s name has come up routinely throughout the offseason. He was one of the players who represented the Huskers at Big Ten Media Days this summer as well.
The stats from the past two years shouldn’t be taken as the full picture of his talent level. Allen was the team’s starting tight end for the past two years, being named the conference’s tight end of the year in 2021. He was also a captain in 2021, and now is with the New York Giants.
As Vokolek mentioned, his predecessor has played a part in preparing him for this moment.
“I’ve looked up to him, one of my best buddies,” Vokolek said. “He said be the best leader that you can be. Be vocal. Confront people. Just be the best leader that you can be.”
That chain of leadership predates Allen as well. Another advantage of Beckton being with the team since head coach Scott Frost arrived is that he’s been able to oversee how leadership responsibilities have been passed down in the unit. He mentioned that all the way back in February, when he first mentioned Vokolek earning the starting spot.
“It’s been beautiful for me,” Beckton said of the group’s leadership at the time. “I think we try to assign guys in every position group. For me, it was Jack Stoll a couple of years ago, Austin took it over last year and now Travis has kind of naturally taken it over.”
Vokolek was limited in the spring due to an injury, which in turn allowed him to essentially serve as another coach. He’s also on the team’s leadership council, and Thompson mentioned that Vokolek and others helped him integrate as a leader.
“They’ve done a good job of taking me in and allow me to lead when I need to lead,” Thompson said in an August 10 press conference. “And also I’m able to sit back and listen to Travis Vokolek and Garrett Nelson and Turner Corcoran and Nick and those guys.”
Of course, the tight end is hoping to improve on the field as well. Beckton said he’s done that, and that he was able to work with Vokolek on some of the fundamentals while he was held out of contact drills in the spring.
“He’s been a dominant run blocker, he’s better in the passing game,” Beckton said on August 1. “I was able to fundamentally get him a little bit better at the top of his routes, understanding who he’s working, being able to use his big body and positioning to where he’s always open.”
There may be enhanced opportunities for Vokolek in offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s scheme. Vokolek praised the coach for giving the team’s playmakers opportunities at every position. That includes the tight ends behind him, who he said he’s close with.
It still may be a tall task to repeat the production Allen turned in last season, but Vokolek is likely to play a significant role in the offense. Either way, his main focus lies with getting the team ready for this week’s season opener in Ireland.
“We know what needs to be done. And we are going to have some fun over there, too,” Vokolek said. “We’re going to try and not be uptight the whole time but have some fun and stay relaxed. It’s football. We know how important this game is. We are ready to attack it.”