The Huskers entered 2009 wondering who would replace the productive duo of Todd Peterson and Nate Swift, both dependable targets in their last two seasons at Nebraska. For the most part, the 2009 receiving corps was inconsistent and was one of the major factors in Nebraska's troubles on offense. By mid-season the starters included three players who didn't even play in last year's Red-White Spring Game. By the end of the season, the receiving corps appeared to have straightened out, with starters clearly established as the offense rolled in the Holiday Bowl beat down against Arizona.
This is your 2010 Nebraska Football Spring Preview for the wide receivers unit. Like the running backs, they're (mostly) the same guys, only better.
Niles Paul was close to becoming a much-endeared playmaker in 2009. Unfortunately, two of Paul's plays were so costly as to leave Husker fans scratching their heads wondering what the heck Paul was thinking at the time.
Against Texas Tech, Paul dropped a lateral pass, then stopped, allowing Tech defender Daniel Howard to pick it up and return it for a touchdown. The play set the tone for the 31-10 loss. The next week, Paul hauled in a long pass against Iowa State and was headed for the end zone with an apparent sure touchdown when he inexplicably fumbled the ball inside the five yard line. If Paul doesn't fumble, Nebraska most likely wins that game.
Regardless of those plays, Paul enters 2010 as Nebraska's most explosive offensive playmaker. He's had highlights as a receiver and in the return game, and if he can become more consistent in 2010, he could be one of the Big 12's best. If you had to pick an offensive player the Huskers wouldn't want to lose, it would be Paul.
Brandon Kinnie started 2009 slow and finished as a starter. (It wasn't as if we weren't told this is how it would happen). His 2009 stats aren't that impressive - 15 receptions for 141 yards and no touchdowns - but it was clear as the season continued that Kinnie was only warming up. 2010 should find him as a solid starter, the physical "go to" third down receiver that can be counted upon to make tough catches and keep the chains moving.
Khiry Cooper is a non-factor this spring as he's off playing baseball for the Huskers (I somehow felt the need to clarify that). Comments from fans who feel it's necessary for him to concentrate on football are interesting because Cooper choose to come to Nebraska after being drafted in the fifth round by MLB. If he focuses on a single sport, it won't be football.
Despite spending last spring playing baseball, Cooper got the chance to contribute as a receiver in 2009, starting four games and finishing the season with 13 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown. Will Cooper play well enough to start despite missing spring ball? It could be that he has enough athleticism, but I would expect a backup role and some contributions from him.
Mike McNeill moves from tight end to wide receiver, a clear signal that McNeill is a valuable commodity and the Husker offensive staff is trying to find a way to keep him on the field. It's understandable - McNeill disappeared at times throughout the season. Despite starting all 14 games, McNeill had zero receptions against Baylor and Texas, and only one each against Virginia Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado. McNeill may have NFL-caliber talent as a tight end, but he needs the opportunity to display it. 2010 should find him in a much better position to contribute to the offense, regardless of which position he's in come fall.
Antonio Bell had a beautiful, leaping catch in last year's Red-White Spring game leaving Husker fans to wonder if he would be "the guy" come the 2009 season. Unfortunately, it would be Bell's best play of the year. He finished 2009 with one reception for three yards. With Paul and Kinnie having tight grips on starting positions, fans should look for sophomore Bell to continue to gain experience and contribute to the offense in 2010, but not necessarily play a big role. That could come in 2011, after Paul has moved on.
Curenski Gilleylen's 2009 season was exact opposite of Kinnie. Gilleylen started 2009 as if he were ready to set the world on fire, leading all receivers in the first game against Florida Altantic with four receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. In the first four games, he had receptions of 51, 43, 35, and 43 yards. Against Iowa State, he had three receptions for 18 yards, then disappeared for the next six games, being busted back to the scout team. Gilleylen clearly has some big play talent, but what he does with it is anybody's guess. Perhaps he'll pull a Phillip Dillard and work his way back onto the field, or he may disappear all together.
Will Henry will enter his final season having contributed as a backup. Given the players on the depth chart, it will be hard for him to get on the field, despite his 6'4" height advantage. Tim Marlowe will contribute more in the return game than in receiving. Steven Osborne will fight for some playing time. If you want to root for an unknown walk-on, choose K.C. Hyland, the 6'6" dude from Lincoln's Pius X.
Bo Pelini's 2009 class includes three receivers, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, and Tyler Evans. None of them have enrolled early, so none will be practicing this spring. Given the amount of depth and experience at the receiver position, it's easy to see redshirts all around for this group.
2009 vs 2010
Entering 2010, the positions aren't entirely settled, but it's a safe bet that the starters will be Niles Paul, Brandon Kinnie, and Mike McNeill with others fighting for playing time. Given how Bo Pelini handled the receivers last year, you can be sure that these guys will be quickly replaced should they stop working their tails off.
I don't see any big surprises coming out of spring. Perhaps Antonio Bell can emerge as more of a playmaker, or Gilleylen can become more consistent, but for the most part, Husker fans and the coaching staff know what they have in these guys. Spring's questions will be about hard work and execution.