In 2008, Mike McNeill set a Nebraska single season reception record as a tight end with 32 receptions. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch and finished the season with 442 yards and six touchdowns, one touchdown reception shy of the single-season tight end record held by Junior Miller (1979), Johnny Mitchell (1990) and Gerald Armstrong (1992).
McNeill finished 2008 third in receptions behind Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. He enters his junior year as the top returning receiver and with 33 career receptions is just past half way to Matt Herian's career reception record for tight ends at 65.
McNeill has the potential to be the best one of the best tight ends in school history, so I thought it'd be interesing to see how McNeill's career to this point compares to Nebraska's other great tight ends.
Junior Miller played from 1977-1979 and is regarded as the best tight end in school history. When he finished his Husker career he held every receiving record for a tight end. Miller was first team All-Big 8 in 1978 and 1979 and was selected as a consensus All-American in 1979. He was also selected as the tight end on the Husker All-Century team that was put together through an online poll in 1999.
Miller was a dominating blocker (otherwise he wouldn't have been on the field in Tom Osborne's offense) and he possessed the speed needed to get behind the defense in the play-action passing game. His speed and playmaking ability are evident in the clips shown here.
(Clips were taken from "Greatest Plays of the of the 20th Century" by bestofbigred.com. "Greatest Plays" is a two DVD set consisting of four hours of plays. Pretty cool, especially for remembering all those plays from stars throughout Husker history. Clips require the Quicktime plug in.)
Miller represented the ultimate vision of a Husker tight end. As you watched the game, you knew the play-action play would come sooner or later - the fake into the line and the ball flying over the defense to a tight end running toward the end zone. There was something so beautiful about the anticipation of the ball in the air on those plays. Part of that beauty was that the defense knew the play would come sooner or later, but when it came it was set up so well there was little they could do to stop it. It was a back-breaking play for many teams.
Note that Miller had 33 receptions in 1978, which means that McNeill's 32-catch 2008 season should haven't broken the single-season reception record, yet McNeill's reception record is recognized. Also note that the 2007 media guide shows a total of 55 career catches for Miller, but he had a total of 61 receptions. The discrepancies are because the NCAA did not include bowl games in statistics from 1946 to 2001. This was changed in 2002, largely because it should have been changed, but it's a great example of how difficult it is to compare players between eras.
You could make case that Johnny Mitchell was the best tight end to ever play for the Huskers. Mitchell had a career-high 31 receptions in 1991. For those who never saw Mitchell play - think of him as Jeremy Shockey, complete with the talent and the big mouth. He never stopped talking, but like Shockey, if you threw the ball anywhere near him, he could make the reception as is evident in the two clips of him shown here.
The second clip shows a Mitchell catch during the ‘91 Oklahoma game. The game began as a nightmare, with the Huskers giving the Sooner three fumbles and a 14-0 lead early in the game. The Huskers fought back - and I remember the catch. It came on a crucial third and nine play. Mitchell came up with that reception to keep the drive alive. He was amazing and finished the game with seven receptions for 137 yards.
Unfortunately, Mitchell is largely forgotten by Husker fans - he doesn't even rank a bio entry at Huskers.com. This is because Mitchell left Nebraska after his sophomore season to enter the NFL draft, where he was selected in the first round as the 17th overall pick by the New York Jets. My heart broke when I saw his name appear on the NFL draft ticker. I couldn't believe it - I was depressed for a week.
Matt Herian holds the tight end career reception record with 65 catches, playing from 2002-2006. Herian was a perfect fit as a tight end in Bill Callahan's West Coast offense, and played in 12 games as a true freshman. He had an amazing season, averaging 43 yards per catch, with four of his seven receptions going for touchdowns.
In his sophomore season, he averaged 22 yards per catch and gained first-team All-Big 12 recognition as he finished as the top Husker receiver with 484 yards and 22 receptions. In 2004, his junior season, Herian was on his way to setting single-season records when he suffered a severe broken leg against Missouri, ending his season. At the time of his injury, Herian was the leading receiver with 24 receptions, 308 yards and three touchdowns. Despite missing nearly half of the conference games, he gained honors as second-team All Big 12.
Herian sat out 2005, but returned to the field in 2006, picking up 12 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was unable to regain his former form and his injury ended up destroying his chance as a potential NFL first-round draft pick. Despite the injury, Herian remains one of the best tight ends in Husker history.
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Today's Tight End
Tthe offense has changed a lot since Osborne's teams overpowered their opponents on the ground and then used play-action to break their hearts through the air. Despite those changes the attributes that made Junior Miller a great tight end are the same that are required of Mike McNeill should he ascend to Miller's level.
McNeill has displayed playmaking abilities in the passing game. Much like Miller and Herian, McNeill has shown the speed needed to get behind the defense and come up with big plays in the process. In order to duplicate his success in 2008, he will have to display Mitchell's ability to catch the ball in traffic as defenses will be watching out for him much more this coming season. He must develop further as a dominating blocker as the Huskers must have a good run game in order to achieve offensive balance.
As Nebraska's top returning receiver, big things are expected of McNeill this coming season. If he can deliver, he takes another step towards being one of the best tight ends in Husker history.