JD Spielman is taking a leave of absence from the team this spring but is expected to return by the summer
For Scott Frost's offense to hum, Nebraska's wide receivers need to be versatile, efficient and accurate in their movements. That was only magnified during both the small victories and greater defeats of the 2019 season.
While the Big Red's quarterbacks and running backs look to find their balance, let's recap what was and what is to come for Husker wideouts.
To no one's surprise, last year's receiving chart was dominated by JD Spielman. The first Husker to ever have back-to-back-to-back 800-yard seasons, he is primed to not only do it again but quite possibly break Stanley Morgan's single-season record (1,004 yards).
Wan'Dale Robinson making his presence felt right away as a true freshman wasn't exactly a shock, and it was certainly a welcomed development. The four-star recruit from Frankfort, Kentucky, tallied 40 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns with a physicality that transcended his stature.
Despite missing five games, Kade Warner proved to be a valuable asset, especially as a blocker. It's hard to argue that any receiver was as tenacious and efficient as No. 81 when it came to getting their hands dirty.
Unfortunately, Nebraska never really had another true threat. Graduate transfer Kanawai Noa finished third in receiving yards, but his numbers (245 yards, 2 TDs) were more of a footnote during a largely forgettable 5-7 campaign. Mike Williams provided even less production (109 yds. on five catches in 12 games) while Jaevon McQuitty and Jaron Woodyard were basically no-shows.
Jack Stoll led all tight ends for another year but was often just a step slow or had balls thrown just out of his reach. A few attempts were made to get Austin Allen in on the action, but nothing ever truly took. Overall, the position provided ample opportunity for frustration.
Key Departures: Kanawai Noa, Mike Williams, Darien Chase
Key Returnees for 2020: WRs JD Spielman (Sr.), Kade Warner (Jr.), Wan'Dale Robinson (So.); TEs Jack Stoll (Sr.), Austin Allen (Jr.), Kurt Rafdal (Jr.), Travis Vokolek (Jr.), Chris Hickman (RFr.)
There's a great deal of qualification that must be done with both of these groups. With the receivers, while the aforementioned Noa and Williams technically provided depth, they didn't contribute much in the way of actual offensive output. From this standpoint, Nebraska loses players who were at the top of the depth chart, but none of them were true difference-makers.
Meanwhile, the two receivers responsible for almost 53 percent of all receiving yardage in 2019 are expected to return as does the leading tight end and everyone backing him up. It's also going to be curious to see if Chris Hickman actually stays at the tight end spot. He could be moved into the role of a physical presence at wideout.
Focusing on receivers for a moment, JD Spielman and Wan'Dale Robinson obviously rule the roost. But the announcement on March 2 that Spielman was taking a leave of absence to focus on a "personal health matter," adds uncertainty to the situation. Frost said he anticipates Spielman returning in the summer, but that's far from a given.
Additionally, Darien Chase, part of the 2019 recruiting class who is currently in the transfer portal, according to 247Sports, and recently opened up on social media about his struggles with mental health and depression, is listed as a key departure because he could have easily challenged for playing time along with redshirt freshmen Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance.
This opens the door for a player like 2020 signee Alante Brown, who has both the talent to stand out and the benefit of being an early enrollee.
All that being said, new offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Matt Lubick has his work cut out for him in establishing a pecking order as opportunity abounds. Nebraska has a clear need to further establish options aside from the aforementioned starting duo.
At tight end, while Stoll may technically be a returning two-year starter, he hasn't exactly thrived with 479 yards and four touchdowns during that span. Neither Austin Allen or Kurt Rafdal seem to be much of a threat to overtake him. It'll be interesting to see if the now-eligible Travis Vokolek can become the player Frost needs at the position for his offense to properly function.
While the Big Red may at least be closer to identifying a starting tight end by the end of spring camp, they brought in some major talent at wide receiver via their most recent recruiting class. Junior college prospect Omar Manning likely takes over the final starting receiver role come the fall. Who supplements the guys at the top will likely be a fluid situation throughout the offseason.
Position Grade for 2020: B (Wide Receiver); C (Tight End)
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and enjoy the Big Red Three and Out Podcast. To contact him, click here.