Nebraska will enter spring ball with just four scholarship wide receivers. That’s going to prove challenging on a number of fronts. Receiver depth has been an issue at Nebraska for three years now and each offseason head coach Scott Frost and his staff seem on the right track to flipping the narrative and then things derail that progress.
JD Spielman is not with the Huskers. He’s back with his family in Minnesota tending to a personal matter. Nebraska doesn’t expect Spielman back for spring practices, which begin Monday, March 9, and run through April, but it also doesn’t expect Spielman’s eligibility to be harmed.
“Everyone’s focus right now is on JD’s well-being and providing him with the appropriate support,” Frost said in a release Monday morning. “We anticipate JD returning to the team in time for summer conditioning.”
And if he doesn’t? Phrasing at the least indicates the door to that disaster isn’t shut and locked.
Nebraska’s wideout room without Spielman, the first receiver in program history with three 800-yard seasons, would be quite the initial test for new offensive coordinator and wideout coach Matt Lubick. Without Spielman, Nebraska would return 30% of its receiver yardage from last year and 38% of its catches. Returning production would take a serious hit.
When spring ball opens, Nebraska will have a true freshman early-enrollee in Alante Brown, two redshirt freshmen in Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance (who will be seeing his second spring ball), and a sophomore in Wan’Dale Robinson. Walk-on wideout Kade Warner is in the picture, but Warner has been for each of Frost’s two seasons and that hasn’t stopped the coach from talking about the need to stockpile more weapons.
A skill position is not a place a team wants to be bereft of scholarship bodies. Yet that’s where Nebraska finds itself again.
The opportunistic friend in the group will look at the three freshmen and say, “One of those guys is going to get all the opportunity he could hope for and should make a jump.” That would certainly be the cleanest and easiest path forward for Nebraska.
But maybe the most unrealistic. So far, Nebraska’s tendency with new wideouts in this system is to slow-play them. (Wan’Dale Robinson wrecks the curve but his situation and immediate/obvious talent makes him exempt from this discussion.)
Darien Chase was the only non-Robinson freshman to catch a pass in 2019. Miles Jones caught one pass as a freshman in 2018. Jaron Woodyard caught one pass as a JUCO guy brought in to immediately help.
Whether it’s complexity of concept or simply missing on targets that’s creating a barrier to the field, the Huskers signed 10 wideouts in the 2018 and 2019 classes and only one of them has made a consistent on-field impact so far.
Dominick Watt never made it. Andre Hunt imploded. Chase, Jones and Justin McGriff left (though McGriff was getting moved to defense anyway). Mike Williams and Woodyard graduated with a combined 21 catches.
Nebraska’s primary focus now has to be getting Omar Manning and Zavier Betts, two of the brightest gems of the 2020 class, on campus. That duo, along with Marcus Fleming, should arrive in the summer.
Can Nebraska go that long without key figures at a position that needs to invest serious hours in the lab with quarterback Adrian Martinez building chemistry?
With the announced departures of kicker Barret Pickering and wideout Jaevon McQuitty, Nebraska has two scholarships to work with and several options. Adding another wideout to the bunch before the start of the season seems like more of a need than a luxury at this point.
Nebraska could dip its toes into the transfer portal and shoot for a big name. Oklahoma State’s CJ Moore, a 6-foot-5 wideout from the class of 2018, is in the portal after not making much of an impact. He was recruited by Nebraska before picking the Cowboys. With Cowboy offensive coordinator Sean Gleason leaving to take the same position at Rutgers, could he be a guy Nebraska feels it has a good shot at getting a waiver to play right away?
If it took a sit-out guy, that player would need to have a strong case already to make before the NCAA. Maybe Colorado’s Braedin Huffman-Dixon is in play after having lost his coach this offseason. Former Husker offensive coordinator Troy Walters recruited Huffman-Dixon in the class of 2019. A 6-foot-2 wideout, he redshirted in 2019.
Michigan State’s Cam Chambers doesn’t have a connection to Nebraska or its staff, but he’s a 6-foot-2 wideout who graduated in three years from MSU. He had 19 catches for 264 yards in 2018, but only played in two games in 2019. He’s making a decision on his future in May.
There are immediately-eligible receivers in the portal like 6-foot-1 former Arkansas wideout Jordan Jones (592 yards on 38 career catches), 6-foot former Illinois wideout Trenard Davis (430 yards on 40 career catches), and 5-foot-10 former Buffalo wideout Jordan Overton. Davis got interest from Central Florida when Frost was coaching in Orlando. Overton got interest from Lubick at Oregon.
There’s also another Oklahoma State wideout in the portal who is immediately eligible to play, stands at 6-foot-1, and was recruited by Matt Lubick to Oregon in the class of 2016. Tyrell Alexander, from the same hometown and high school as recently signed Husker Omar Manning, is in the portal after just two career catches at Oklahoma State.
Alexander briefly played both ways as a sophomore in 2018, earning snaps at cornerback, but saw most of his action over the last two seasons on special teams.
Or Nebraska goes the route of a guy no one has thought to look into.
The transfer portal can be a crapshoot in that respect.
“I think it's been a big influence, probably not as big as some people thought it would be,” Frost said during a Sports Nightly appearance in early February. “Some good players end up in the portal, but I don't think it is the gold mine that some expected it to be.”
And for that reason, Nebraska has been reluctant to really go all in. It took two grad transfers in 2019, Darrion Daniels and Kanawai Noa, but had connections to both. It took two transfers in 2018 as well, Noah Vedral and Tre Neal, but had even stronger connections with those two: both former players for Frost’s UCF squad.
The portal is not a building tool, but more of a hole-plugger.
It’s just unfortunate for Nebraska this particular hole seems large.
Assuming everyone who needs to make it makes it, and everyone who is here stays, Nebraska will have eight scholarship wide receivers in 2020. JD Spielman’s return to the team would make nine. When Frost took over in 2018, Nebraska was coming off a season in which it had six scholarship wideouts and one of the most-talked-about offseason storylines was how that number needed upping.
Three classes later and a whole lot of change hasn’t changed much.
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.