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With Season Fast Approaching, Nebraska WRs in a ‘Really Good Place’

October 01, 2020

It might have been Matt Lubick’s best line from his nearly 20 minutes speaking to the media Thursday afternoon: “At the end of the day football is about blocking and tackling.”

That’s Nebraska’s new offensive coordinator. But, maybe more importantly, that’s Nebraska’s new wideout coach.

Lubick, from those who know him, cares deeply about the less-glamorized aspects of playing wide receiver. Run crisp routes. Be sharp. Block your tail off.

Nebraska hasn’t had enough of that in recent years, particularly perimeter blocking. Head coach Scott Frost says it often: the mark of a great offense is the quality of its blocking on the edges and  out in space. It’s what takes a 7-yard gain and makes it a 70-yard touchdown.

Lubick learned his blocking techniques from Scott Frost.

The latter is hoping the former can spark improvement in that department. But it’s not just better blocking that’s needed from the wideout group.

Though the head coach technically has play-calling responsibilities and offensive line coach Greg Austin has the title of “Run Game Coordinator,” all of Nebraska’s coaches overlap in terms of voice. Lubick says NU has pro elements to its offense that can look similar to what you’d find on a Sunday afternoon. They can spread it out and go up-tempo all the same.

“The thing I love about this offense is we’re able to adapt to our talent,” he said.

For Frost’s first two years in Lincoln, life has been a struggle on the perimeter, and the necessary adaptations have been trying to counteract that.

Whether it was misuse, injury, or underperformance (likely a combination of the three), Nebraska hasn’t had the kind of high-end production from pass-catchers many would have expected following the glory days of the Chip Kelly-Oregon Spread and the Frost Fast UCF attack.

Nebraska has had two wideouts it consistently relied on each of the last two years. In 2018, it was Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman. In 2019, it was Spielman again and a first-year Wan’Dale Robinson. A clear No. 3 wideout never emerged. And all of that was happening while talk about involving the tight end failed to manifest on the field.

It can and has been said that Frost took the necessary steps to retool around his quarterback this offseason.

Lubick enters, replacing the Cincinnati Bengals-bound Troy Walters. Austin assumed the new title. Nebraska added the top JUCO wideout in the country in Omar Manning. It added the top-rated prep player in the country in wideout Alante Brown. The wideout room this season looks—at least on paper—as promising as any Frost has had.

Lubick agrees with Frost’s and quarterback coach Mario Verduzco’s level-headedness when it comes to the quarterback position: too much cheering of the good, too much bemoaning of the bad. Frost likes the refrain “praise and blame are all the same.” Verduzco commonly refers to his ‘cubes as a “cog in the wheel of success.”

“Everyone sees what the quarterback does, but when we watch cut-ups of last year’s season it’s the people around him,” Lubick says. “If Adrian performs well, we’ve got to help him do that.”

And part of that help has to come from the wideout room.

Robinson has 40 career catches to his name. Walk-on Kade Warner has 25. Chris Hickman is the only other listed wideout on the roster with a collegiate catch. The loss of Spielman hurts.

Frost has said it before: Lubick’s work is and has been cut out for him in getting the room prepared for a season. This is a new room in more ways than one.

“The biggest thing, it sounds simple, but it’s just to do your best,” the coach says of what he stresses to his guys with 20-ish days before the season-opener. “I think guys come in here and they feel a pressure to perform, they put it on themselves. You can’t learn the whole playbook in a day. We talked about just daily improvement. When you’re a young guy, or brand new to the system, you’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes are a good thing because that’s how you learn.”

Last offseason, quarterback Luke McCaffrey was lauded as a guy who poured over the playbook, spending night and day to learn the ins and outs of the offense to give himself the best chance of carving out a role. The fruits of that labor paid off: Nebraska used a true freshman quarterback as a wideout late in-season and gave McCaffrey spot duty behind center. That doesn’t happen without the kid’s work throughout the spring and summer.

This year’s McCaffrey might be Alante Brown.

Another early-enrollee, the Chicago man was a major winner at Thursday’s availability.

“Alante has turned some heads,” said senior tight end Jack Stoll. “When he goes full speed, I don’t think there is anyone that can stop him.”

Added Lubick: “I think his attitude and how hungry he is to get better has definitely impressed the coaches, but (also) his teammates. He always stays after and catches balls. He’s done a ton of work in the summertime to learn the offense, so he’s a brand new guy that’s not just new to Nebraska but he hadn’t played receiver before. So everything’s new to him, technique, scheme, plays, terminology. To actually have a chance to play at that position, you have to put a lot of time in on your own, and he did that.”

(When Lubick says “hadn’t played receiver before,” it’s because Brown—5-foot-11, 190 pounds—was a three-year starter at quarterback at Chicago’s Simeon High School. He was originally in the 2019 class before going the prep-school route, where he landed as a do-everything athlete for St. Thomas More, catching passes, lining up in the backfield and returning kicks. He threw for 41 touchdowns as a senior and ran for 12. The kid knows how to make plays.)

Manning grabs most of the attention in Nebraska’s wideout room, and rightfully so, though Lubick said he’s battled “nagging injuries” since arriving on campus this summer, but other guys have impressed in limited workouts. Stoll also mentioned graduate transfer walk-on Levi Falck.

Bottom line: Nebraska should have more options it feels comfortable with this season.

“It’s not just one or two guys any more, it’s six or seven of them now, maybe eight of them now, that can be put on the field,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said earlier this week. There’s more speed. There’s more athleticism. There’s more variety, more ways to attack a defense. There’s just more. “So it makes practice more competitive every day.”

Now that the pads have come on, Lubick wants to see the same things he’s seen over the past few weeks carry over.

I asked Lubick where his wideouts were at in terms of their chemistry with the quarterbacks in comparison to where he’d normally like to be this close to the start of a season. Surely the pandemic, and the altered scheduling it has brought, had an adverse effect on an almost entirely new group of wideouts gaining trust and familiarity with NU’s quarterback, right?

“I think we’re in a really good place,” he responded. “I’ve seen it just from an improvement standpoint. Our guys have taken advantage of the time. They threw a lot on their own when they could. I think the guys have done a lot of stuff with this pandemic off the field and bonded that way.

“Our guys handled it great with extra opportunity to do things on their own.”

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