With JD Spielman entering the transfer portal, the Nebraska Cornhuskers see more than the loss of a 14th player with remaining eligibility after the end of the 2019 season.
Losing Spielman, who hauled in at least 800 yards in each of the last three seasons, will hurt, but the team already had to operate as though he wasn't returning in the fall. The undersized wideout headed home to Minnesota to focus on his mental health instead of reporting to spring practice, and now the divorce is official.
Moreover, his departure underscores the evolution of the wide receiver room since Matt Lubick came onto the scene as the Huskers' new offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach.
Before last year began, Nebraska's scholarship wideouts averaged a height of 5-foot-11 and weighing 186 pounds. By contrast, 2020's roster features a collection of players who stand at a median 6-foot-1 and check in at 192 pounds on the scales. Naturally, there's some important context that needs to go along with these numbers.
Last year's newcomers (Demariyon Houston, Kanawai Noa, and Wan'Dale Robinson) averaged about 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. The trio accounted for 698 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Those efforts were good for second and third on the stat sheet, respectively. Robinson's numbers likely also go up if he also wasn't relied on as a rushing threat (third on the team with 88 carries).
The newest faces (Alante Brown, Marcus Fleming, Omar Manning, Will Nixon, and Zavier Betts) give you a wide receiver who measures up to be an inch taller and four pounds heavier if averaged out. That might not sound like much of a difference. But let's use that as a starting point and also examine what Lubick is chasing in terms of recruits.
Nebraska currently has one wide receiver committed for the Class of 2021 in Shawn Hardy (6-3, 190). Some of their main targets include Christian Lewis (6-3, 190), Eric McAlister (6-3, 180), Cristian Dixon (6-2, 187), and former Virginia Tech commit Latrell Neville (6-3, 195).
You're no doubt seeing a trend.
As a refresher, have a look at Adrian Martinez's quarterback rating chart put together by ESPN's Bill Connelly:
Lubick clearly understands the junior signal-caller's strengths. It's those troublesome sideline tosses that had to be immediately addressed.
Spielman attempted to handle the bulk of those last season while playing beyond his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame. He tried to make play after play on throws Martinez had difficulty with and paid for his trouble with nasty hits by opportunistic defenders.
Not only is he gone, but so are five other receivers for various reasons.
Despite these departures — and the fact Nebraska is essentially starting from scratch at the position except for Robinson — the Huskers aren't taking an exceptional step backward. Yes, Spielman's production will be missed much in the way Stanley Morgan Jr.'s was following his departure. A dependable 800 receiving yards per year is always a plus.
That said, Lubick's vision for the Huskers' offensive future appears to include not only bigger wideouts who can take the fight to defensive backs both as pass catchers and run blockers. He also wants to lend Big Red quarterbacks a hand with receivers who don't necessarily have to lay out or risk potential injury to make a play if passers struggle with accuracy.
It'll take a moment for every new name to get into a groove. Even Manning has to adapt to the speed of FBS football. But a former Nebraska junior college transfer with a similar stature should give Husker fans hope.
While Maurice Purify played in all of Nebraska's games during his first two years in Lincoln (2006), he only started five. Despite that, he ended up second on team with 630 receiving yards and hauled in seven touchdowns, averaging 18.5 yards per catch. Manning actually has a leg up on Purify, as he'll no doubt get the starting nod from day one.
Something else that should be encouraging is the Huskers have a rushing attack that shouldn't demand nearly as much of Robinson. Yes, he'll probably be utilized here and there for a change of pace. But running backs Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins and others will handle the main duties.
Again, losing Spielman isn't a good thing for Nebraska's production. However, it does allow both parties to turn the page to a new chapter. That's clearly for the best.