Six more members of the 2021 class got to campus this past week—wideouts Latrell Neville and Shawn Hardy, tight end AJ Rollins, defensive backs Koby Bretz and Malik Williams, and linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli.
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) June 2, 2021
Coaches say this all the time, it’s beneficial to arrive in the winter and get through that first period of training in an offseason. As we’ve run through in recent weeks, there appear to be clear groupings that have formed in most meeting rooms after the spring. So, with only three players still to arrive on campus from the 2021 cycle, let’s run through what the immediate future looks like for the six who just showed up.
The Wideouts: Latrell Neville, Shawn Hardy
In the wideout room, which offensive coordinator Matt Lubick will be tasked with piecing together in fall camp, it’s really up to what you choose to believe. One could argue the top group is set after the spring, with Oliver Martin, Samori Toure, and Omar Manning being the first-teamers as long as they’re healthy. Behind them would be guys like Zavier Betts, Alante Brown, Levi Falck, and Wyatt Liewer. Lots of names for a newcomer to jump on the depth chart ladder.
One could also argue few of the guys just listed have proven anything at this level to warrant a firm place on the depth chart, that lots will still be up for grabs in fall camp.
That’s completely fair. Wideouts got 137 targets last season and only 41% of those went to returning players; Wan’Dale Robinson was the only Husker wideout last year with more than one 20-yard reception; and the room as a whole produced only four touchdowns.
Perhaps Zavier Betts’ situation a year ago (immediate playing time, 12 catches, 131 yards, a touchdown) is a parallel for one of these incoming receivers, but it would take a huge camp from one of them. And even then, the situations aren’t perfectly comparable; Nebraska didn’t have the big-bodied receiving threats a year ago that it has now.
When Betts was making his move, he was competing with Brown (5-foot-11), Marcus Fleming (5-10), and Kade Warner (6-1) for snaps on the outside. (Martin wasn’t eligible to play early in the year.) At 6-foot-2, he was one of the only big guys in the room.
Neville (6-3) and Hardy (6-3) join a group that has a 6-4 Manning, a 6-3 Toure, a 6-1 Martin with the best vertical on the team, and Betts. (Kamonte Grimes will fill out the receiver class when he arrives soon, and he stands at 6-foot-2.)
Nebraska still needs vertical stretch threats same as last season, but the difference being that it now has the options to try and correct that problem.
With more and more teams putting their best receiving threats in the slot—no longer just the little guy—and Nebraska following suit, maybe someone like Hardy goes into the slot to learn behind Toure. But you have to think Brown will factor in at that position with health as well.
A 3-star prospect from Missouri City, Texas, Neville is my favorite of the bunch to play early. He had 21 catches in eight games as a senior, but he was regularly seeing two and three defenders. If he does get on the field this fall, that won’t be an issue.
The Defensive Backs: Koby Bretz and Malik Williams
Marques Buford, an early-enrollee from the 2021 cycle, missed all of the spring with an injury. Tamon Lynum, a freshman last season, missed a chunk of the spring as well. Nadab Joseph, a sophomore junior college take last year, missed the spring game. Depending on what Nebraska decides to do with its two remaining scholarships this summer, it’s not outside the realm of possibility Williams could come in and push for early playing time.
Nebraska is unsettled at one corner position, and only really goes two deep at each safety spot with both Isaac Gifford and Javin Wright spending chunks of time at nickel.
While I’ve argued to see what you have in guys like Quinton Newsome, Braxton Clark, and Joseph at corner, it’s no secret Nebraska is looking. A former 5-star and Buckeye cornerback was just on campus. If Nebraska does take a player from the portal, the betting favorite is that he’s a defensive back.
That would give Lynum and Williams and Buford time to develop. That being said, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has had no issue playing freshmen early. Newsome and Cam Taylor-Britt played right through the four-game redshirt threshold as first-year players.
Safety is a little more interesting. Bretz is a big, physical safety who has no issue coming down in run support or laying a hit on a receiver. At 6-foot-2, he’s got good size with length and athleticism. That’s a weapon for Fisher to work with.
Nebraska didn’t have much of a rotation last season with its defensive backs, but that probably won’t be the case again in 2021. You factor in a shorter schedule last year and at points throughout a lack of available bodies and it makes some sense. With Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams returning, Myles Farmer healthy, and Noa Pola-Gates ready, NU has four guys Fisher can play with confidence. Bretz giving him a fifth would go a long way. Again, if Nebraska doesn’t add a defensive back from the portal, maybe Bretz can see time right away.
The Tight End: AJ Rollins
A raw tight end prospect from here in the state, Rollins didn’t get great opportunities to feature his talents on the field for Creighton Prep last fall, but he does have a good amount of upside and a great deal of athleticism.
Nebraska has Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek as the Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart, a pair of veteran players who know the offense and have position coach Sean Beckton’s trust. They’ll play the lion’s share of the tight end snaps. Chris Hickman is officially back in the tight end room as well, and Nebraska likes the look he gives as a blocker in certain packages. Thomas Fidone, when healthy, will play despite being a first-year player.
That doesn’t leave much for others. Expect Rollins to redshirt and get the time to work on his frame and comfort in the offensive scheme.
The Linebacker: Wynden Ho’ohuli
As early-enrollees, we didn’t hear much about Randolph Kpai or Seth Malcom, two other linebackers in the 2021 class. Both on the inside and outside, Nebraska has older options, and it didn’t seem as though newcomers made much headway this spring toward breaking into the two-deep.
Probably safe to assume Ho’ohuli will enter in a similar spot as a summer arrival. And if he starts on the outside, there are a good number of guys he would need to jump to earn a defensive role. Run through the list of outside linebackers who will absolutely see the field in the fall and you very quickly get to five or six guys.
That being said, Ho’ohuli was the highest-rated prospect from the state of Hawaii last cycle, a 4-star linebacker who can play either inside or outside. He’s got great length, explosiveness, and a 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame that allows him to play sideline to sideline or in the backfield. Nebraska needs that. It needs lots of that. Ho’ohuli fits the profile Nebraska has long sought after at outside ‘backer.
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.