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Nebraska’s JD Spielman: The Little Big Man From Paul Bunyan’s Hood

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Minnesota Native Looking To Reach All-B1G Status Again This Fall

Nebraska v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

JD Spielman knows looking like a chump in film session is bad. Very bad.

“I realized when I pointed, I started to slow down, and I realized I need to speed up again,” Spielman said about his 99-yard kick return TD in which he monetarily pointed at the stands and was flagged for it. “There would be nothing worse than pointing at the forty and getting caught at the thirty. I thought it was completely legal.”

Getting caught from behind on your very first college play would be hard to live down, especially for an undersized player to begin with. At 5-9 (listed height) Spielman knows it can be easy to overlook him, literally and figuratively.

In addition, he has every right to worry about looks more than most as he had several things working against him at Eden Prairie High School in the Gopher State, despite his on-field accomplishments. Those achievements included being named the Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, the Minnesota 6A Player of the Year and the USA Today Minnesota Offensive Player of the Year.

Early on in the recruiting process the undersized receiver was seen as more of a lacrosse prospect than football and he was verbally committed to Ohio State to play that sport.

However, there was always varying interest from most schools for football, but not the top tier of recruiting with the programs that typically finish in the top 10-15 of those rankings, outside of a late offer from Michigan.

In fact, at the Husker recruiting press conference in 2016, the questions centered around ballyhooed recruits Lamar Jackson and Matt Farniok, not Spielman. To be fair to recruiting pundits, most classes have an “athlete” or two without a defined position, so the speculation can be tamped down a bit for them.

Not one peep about someone who was soon to be a Freshman All-American, make Third-Team All-Big 10 WR and earn his nickname of “Taz,” referring to the Tasmanian Devil, terrorizing defenses.

Spielman redshirted at Nebraska in 2016 to get stronger and learn the playbook better. Also, NU was fairly deep with a few seniors starting in 2016 and a wide receiver in Stanley Morgan Jr. was beginning to assert himself in his sophomore season.

However, at the time, Spielman was wanting to play but realizes it all worked out well for him so far as a Husker.

“A week or two weeks before the first game, I was getting reps with the ones, so I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t redshirt,” Spielman said. “But then I talked to Coach Riley and I remember him telling me I was going to redshirt. He said I could be sad, or take as opportunity to go versus the first team defense and improve. Now I’m glad I redshirted.”

Spielman took it as a chance to work hard and improve his abilities that fall in Lincoln. He was named the 2016 Scout Team Player of The Year for his efforts versus the Blackshirts in practice.

Coaches knew when the time was right in actual games, Spielman would be a handful for defenses, undersized guy or not. A BTN analyst highlighted the dual nature of the issues he can cause a defense.

“Spielman is a headache for a defensive coordinator with his speed in space, which translates to an ability to stack on a ton of yards after the catch” said BTN’s Alex Roux.

While he did have the big return in the season opener versus Arkansas State in 2017, making many catches wasn’t happening right away his freshman year and that was gnawing at a guy used to being the man.

Spielman mentioned his frustration but kept working and got to know the offense better with studying the playbook more. His receptions and reps at WR increased over the year as a result by season’s end.

A former teammate of Spielman’s mentioned that studious part of him because he not only relies on his physical gifts but is always looking for an edge.

“JD is trouble because he isn’t only freaky quick,” ex-Husker Josh Banderas said, “but he is very smart and rarely will make the same mistake twice. He will capitalize if the defense makes a mistake.”

Spielman used that “freaky” quickness to have an astounding freshman year. Overall, he ranked in the top 15 nationally in all-purpose yards and was 40th in receiving yards per game.

The Minnesota native’s Husker freshman-record of 291 all-purpose yards versus the Gophers was the 10th-highest total in the country on the season. Also, his school-record 200 receiving yards against Ohio State ranked 23rd nationally and was the only 200-yard receiving effort by a freshman.

After an accolade-filled freshman campaign, Spielman started fast versus Colorado in 2018. NU lost the game but not before the Minnesotan flashed big-play potential from the line of scrimmage, not just on special teams, and a national writer was impressed.

“For a WOW play, I’d point to his 57-yard TD from Adrian Martinez in the Colorado game last year,” Roux said. “He showcased his speed and got behind the secondary and hauled in a beautiful toss over his shoulder with defenders in pursuit.”

In the first half of the 2018, the catches and yards came for Spielman but the wins did not follow as NU started off 0-6, with plenty of close losses and almost unheard of bad luck. In a competitive game versus Wisconsin until midway through the fourth quarter, Spielman set a few records hooking up with quickly becoming freshman sensation QB Martinez.

Versus the Badgers, the sophomore caught nine passes for a NU-record 209 yards, which ranked as the second-highest total by a Big Ten receiver in 2018. He had a 75-yard touchdown at Wisconsin for his longest catch of the season and his second career TD reception of 75 yards+. Spielman totaled 212 all-purpose yards against UW, the third-highest total of his career to date.

In the second half of the season, NU rebounded to win of the final six games as Spielman continued to make plays while many times being the second option behind senior Morgan. Even with missing the last two games of the year with an injury, he still earned third-team All-Big Ten recognition.

To garner that award, Spielman started the first 10 games and had 66 receptions for 818 yards and eight TDs. His 66 catches ranked third in Husker history, while his eight touchdown catches was seventh and his 818 yards receiving ranked ninth. Also, he caught at least three passes in all 10 games he played.

Looking ahead to 2019 there will be no Morgan, Spielman will be an upperclassmen and have a few more expectations.

“Martinez to Spielmam is definitely a connection we could see a lot more of this season,” Roux said. “He’ll get a big chance to prove he’s WR1 material following Stanley Morgan’s departure.”

The “WR1” label is not for chumps getting hawked from behind and Spielman looks to wear it well in 2019.