Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Football

Life After Stanley Morgan in Nebraska's Wideout Room

March 19, 2019
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Breaking news: Stanley Morgan Jr. is going to be hard to replace. He owns Nebraska program records for: career receptions, career yardage, yards in a season (which he set twice), receptions in a season, 100-yard games in a season (which, oddly enough, wasn’t in his record-breaking 1,000-yard season) and consecutive games with a catch. 

For anyone that would look down on those records and say, “Nebraska’s just never had a consistently great receiver,” consider this: over the last four years in the Big Ten, no other wide receiver has touched Morgan’s production.

Morgan since 2015 Stat B1G rank
Receptions 189 1st
Yards 2,747 1st
Touchdowns 22 1st

The next closest receiver in terms of receptions would be Northwestern’s Flynn Nagel — in Morgan’s class — who ended his Wildcat career this year with 160 receptions (with Nebraska accounting for, like, half of those... a joke, please don’t hate me). The next closest in yardage would be Maryland’s DJ Moore and Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs, who, from 2015 to 2017 when they both graduated, each had 2,027 yards. The next best scorer is Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, who has 20 touchdowns since his freshman year in 2016.

Morgan had 325 targets over four years, which means over the last four years, every fifth pass a Husker quarterback has thrown has gone Morgan’s direction. He’s got a 19.0 percent target rate over his four years in Lincoln. 

JD Spielman, entering his junior season, seems on pace to shatter Morgan’s receiving marks. Most receivers take a year or two when they first arrive at their school. If they don’t redshirt their freshman season, they put up something close to 100 yards and a few touchdowns. The sophomore campaign represents a bump, but the big numbers don’t come until junior and senior years. 

Spielman is already on pace to end his Husker career with 370 targets, 242 catches (Morgan’s school record is 189) and 3,296 yards. He’s got 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons, and given the offensive renaissance happening in Lincoln, it’s possible he could have at least 10 in each of his next two seasons.

“We’re going to miss Stan, but it’s great to have JD back,” head coach Scott Frost said when spring ball opened. “He should have been a 1,000-yard receiver for us as well [last year, before he missed the final two games], so it’s a luxury for a guy like that to come back.”

But Spielman’s life will almost certainly change without Morgan in the picture, both on and off the field. 

With Nebraska searching for consistent, game-to-game producers at wideout to put next to Spielman (and that search likely to extend into the season, there are too many unproven pieces in the room to really know what you’ll get on a Saturday after just Husker-on-Husker work), it’s highly probable opposing defensive coordinators early in the season load up coverage on Spielman. If the options are “most definitely get beat by Spielman” or “maybe get beat by Jaevon McQuitty,” defenses are going to gladly give up the lower percentage plays. 

Whereas Morgan was the unquestioned No. 1 last year, drawing gameplan focus and double-teams all over the field, that role now belongs to Spielman. A guy like Wan’Dale Robinson could slide nicely into that “don’t forget about me” secondary option in the passing game, but Spielman is going to have to adjust to being eyeballed every step he takes. 

Nebraska needs a deep threat to stretch defenses vertically and open up things underneath. Regardless of whoever that deep threat may be, offensive coordinator Troy Walters has talked about the need of having that guy. Spielman is deadly at working into soft spots in zone coverage and beating man coverage with his quickness. A lot of what the Huskers have tried to do with him over his first two years includes quick-hitting routes from the slot to get him into space. (He’s really good working in the slot.)

It’s harder to do that stuff without an outside threat to keep the defense honest. Nebraska could absolutely develop that guy — senior Mike Williams seems to be having a strong spring and freshman Jamie Nance is already one of the Huskers’ most explosive athletes, per Walters — but that will take time. 

There’s another part of the game that will change for the 5-foot-9 Minnesota native, and from the coaches’ perspective (their ability to scheme up success for Spielman could be a wildcard that renders that deep threat issue a lot less of an issue, to be honest), the locker room stuff will be more important. 

“Stan was his man, Stan was his guy that he could look up to and now he plays the role that Stan once had,” Walters said. “Now he’s the leader. He’s one of the faces of the offense, so even in the media, you all are going to want to talk to him. He’s kind of a quiet kid, but he’s going to have to step in front of the media and be that spokesperson for the offense.”

That’s something that, to this point in his Husker career, Spielman hasn’t seemed comfortable doing. The faces of the team — Adrian Martinez, Mohamed Barry, Ben Stille, Dicaprio Bootle — took the podium when Nebraska opened spring ball a few weeks ago, but Spielman wasn’t there. If things keep trending up, he’ll have to talk a little more than he has, and it’s not about appeasing the media (he doesn’t owe us anything), it’s more about setting the example for the other wideouts in the room.

“The younger guys are going to look at him and he’s got to lead,” Walters said. “They’re going to look at him in meetings and see what types of notes he takes. On the practice field, he’s got to be the one that sets the tempo. Stan was that guy last year. Everyone looked at Stan and he did a great job and now JD, he assumes that role.”

Spielman will have help in that regard, Walters said, listing Williams and sophomore Kade Warner and junior Todd Honas as guys who can be an example of how to do things the right way, but Spielman is now the leader. 

In their first meeting of the season, Walters asked his wideouts, “Who in this room has made plays at the college level?” Spielman was the only one who raised his hand. The attempted effect there was to show everyone around Spielman that there are positions open and opportunity to be had. But it also did something else.

It was the clearest visual confirmation he could have that the room now belongs to Spielman. 

 
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