With JD Spielman opting to not play his senior season in Lincoln, there's been some recent shuffling at wide receiver for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. One move that appears to signify how Matt Lubick's crew is changing is Chris Hickman's shift from tight end, a spot appropriate for the 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman, to wideout.
Now that Hickman is ready to wreak havoc along with the likes of Wan'Dale Robinson, Scott Frost is hunting for a suitable replacement.
Frost's success at UCF was aided in no small part by having a tight end that could both bully as a blocker and make crucial catches. In 2016, Jordan Akins had 23 receptions for 347 yards and two touchdowns placing him third on the Knights' receiving chart. During UCF's undefeated run the following year, he tallied 32 catches for 515 yards and four touchdowns.
Part of this resulted from McKenzie Milton's relationship with receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson. The duo combined for 1,866 yards and 21 scores during the Knights' magical year. Factor in the success of both Milton and Adrian Killins Jr., who spearheaded the UCF ground attack, and Akins easily snuck in for an average of 16 yards per grab.
Frost's offense demands as much diversity as can be afforded. Finding a less rocky year-to-year transition of running backs in Lincoln is vital, as is the retooling of a wide receiver corps under Lubick. However, a game-changing tight end assists Nebraska's head man with play calling and gives his quarterbacks another potential security blanket.
Jack Stoll has placed third and fourth, respectively, among Huskers in receiving yards over Frost's first two seasons. However, his output has been meager at best. Nebraska's 2018 campaign saw him haul in 21 receptions for 245 yards and three touchdowns, while last season resulted in 25 catches for 234 yards and a single score.
Depending on how well Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek performs heading into the regular season, Stoll's starting role may be up for grabs. This is only one area where lost weeks of spring practice hindered the Big Red as both players could’ve used the competition.
Even if Vokolek takes the reins from Stoll and has a productive season, he'll only have one year of eligibility left. If no one pans out as Frost's Big Red version of Akins, it's back to the recruiting trail. Fortunately, Nebraska appears to be in on a prospect that ticks all the necessary boxes.
It's roughly a one hour drive from Lincoln to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is just across the Missouri River from Omaha. It's is also the home of arguably the best tight end recruit in the nation: Thomas Fidone II.
A product of Lewis Central High School, he has offers befitting a player of his pedigree. Not only does the 247Sports Composite Index rank him as the Class of 2021's second-best prospect at his position, but he's also 91st overall.
While currently a four-star prospect according to the service, he has five-star allure likely sitting at the top of the Huskers' wish list. And the Big Red staff wants him well aware they see him.
Why is the Adidas All-American Combine participant such a crucial get for Nebraska? Not only is his size ideal for the gig (6-foot-5, 225), his athleticism is through the roof. His ability to stop on a dime and cradle passes with oversized mitts is just the thing to aid what ails a scoring attack that has had fits with regularity under Frost.
The Huskers last saw significant offensive output from a tight end during Kyler Reed's 2009-12 stretch. Reed tallied over 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches during that span, including an eight-score outburst in 2010. No other player in that role has racked up over three touchdowns in a single season since his departure.
Looking back to Frank Solich's final days with the program and the beginning of the Bill Callahan era saw Matt Herian as a potential standout. But a knee injury made a significant impact on his athletic ability.
Taking extreme caution to not anoint Fidone the next Rob Gronkowski, his ceiling is exceptionally high. Any detailed projection of his potential career in Lincoln is admittedly difficult. Still, seeing him overtake everyone in the tight end room prior to the 2021 season would be far from a surprise.
While Fidone may embark on all of his official visits — and in the wake of a pandemic that has drastically limited on-campus contact, that would be more than understandable — his interaction with current Nebraska commits and targets is intriguing.
Most recently, he was among a Twitter-wide slam dunk competition and the kid's got hops.
Tea leaves aside, he has all the potential to be The Man at tight end for years should he cross the mighty Missouri to play in The Cornhusker State. Now it's up to Frost and company to bring a full-court press and seal the deal.