It is time to look at the wideouts. This position group is a bit of an adventure to project. You will likely find a reason (or fourteen) to yell at me in the comments.
Matt Lubick is in his first year at Nebraska after replacing Troy Walters, who departed for the Cincinnati Bengals. Lubick worked with Frost at Oregon where he was the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach when Frost was offensive coordinator*. At that point, Oregon was still among the shiniest things in college football (literally as well as figuratively.)
*updated and fixed Lubick’s position at Oregon
Looking Back to 2019 & Program Departures
The biggest loss is senior JD Spielman - who transferred to TCU (2019 stats: 12 games, 49 catches, 898 yards, 5 touchdowns). He was on track to be the all-time leader in Husker history in receptions and yards, but he didn’t feel that he fit in with the Frost regime.
Kanawai Noa - graduation (2019 stats: 10 games, 17 catches, 245 yards, 2 touchdowns)
Mike Williams - graduation (12 games, 5 catches, 109 yards)
Jaevon McQuitty, transfer to South Dakota (3 games, 2 catches, 14 yards)
Jaron Woodyard - transfer to Marshall (3 games, 3 catches, 9 yards)
Darien Chase - transfer to FCS Portland (4 games, 1 catch, 13 yards)
In 2019, this group struggled to find consistent playmakers outside of Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson. Wan’Dale split snaps between running back and receiver, but after Dedrick Mills emerged, he played outside more. Unfortunately, injuries limited him a great deal in the second half of the season. Kade Warner was limited by injuries early in the season. Kanawai Noa never really broke out, but was a solid option. Overall, it was a frustrating season at wideout where not only was the receiving production less than expected, but the blocking was also inconsistent. It is telling when Husker fans got renewed energy over this position group when Luke McCaffrey lined up wide for a game or two.
2020 Roster Review
The only seniors on the roster are walk-ons (at least I assume they are walk-ons) Levi Falck and Ty Chaffin. Falck transferred from South Dakota (I guess we traded McQuitty for Falck?) while Chaffin is a big bodied receiver (spoiler: this will be a theme) who did make one game appearance as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and was on the travel roster for another. He hasn’t made any game appearances since.
The elder statesman of the position group is now Kade Warner (2019 stats: 7 games, 8 catches, 101 yards). Warner was limited in the early part of 2019 due to injury but proved to be a reliable option despite not being a spectacular athlete. At 6’1” and 210 lbs, he was also the largest receiver in the starting rotation in 2019. He is not speedy, but has good hands and is a solid blocker.
JUCO transfer Omar Manning has Husker fans excited about his potential in a Frost offense. At 6’4” and 225, he certainly fits the mold of the tall receiver this staff has been recruiting.
Oliver Martin also transferred to Nebraska (walk-on) as a junior after first enrolling at Michigan and then transferring to Iowa and now Nebraska. If he finds his stride at Nebraska, he could be a solid addition.
The final junior on the roster is Christian Banker, a Nebraska native walk-on who has yet to appear in a game.
This class is headlined by Wan’dale Robinson (10 games, 40 catches, 453 yards, 2 touchdowns; 88 rushes, 340 yards, 3 touchdowns), who was electrifying in 2019 as a true freshman, but hampered by some injuries.
The other sophomores are both Nebraskans, Bennett Folkers and Wyatt Liewers. Folkers has appeared in one game for the Huskers and was on the travel roster for two others in 2019. Liewers has yet to appear in a game.
The Nebraska roster has 22 wideouts listed. Thus far, we’ve talked about two seniors, four juniors and three sophomores. That leaves 13 freshman (four redshirt and nine true freshman)!
So, when you set your expectations for this position group for 2020 - remember the extreme youth movement.
Two of the redshirt freshman have game appearances for the Huskers. Chris Hickman saw time in four games at both tight end and wideout, and seems poised to spend more of his time at WR. Jamie Nance played in one game for Nebraska in 2019. At 6’6” (215 lbs) Hickman is the kind of player you want to especially see targeted in the red zone while Nance (6’0” and 170) is a speedy, agile kind of receiver. Nance was a top 50 WR recruit for the Huskers.
Demariyon Houston (6’0”, 180 lbs) did not have a game appearance in 2019, but was recruited to the Huskers as a top 50 player at the position. He is also speedy - being a high school track star as well as football standout.
The final redshirt freshman on the roster is Austin Jablonski who is an athletic player and high school quarterback from Omaha. At 6’2” and 215 lbs, he has sneaky potential to emerge as a contributor.
The true freshman are listed in jersey number order. If this group develops and plays to their potential, this class is absolutely loaded for the Huskers. Wideout could quickly emerge as a strength of the team.
[siren sounds] Alante Brown is not tall at 5’11, but at 190 lbs, is solid. He was rated the #1 prep WR in the nation by 247 (think of prep school as an in-between from high school to college) and held some solid offers before choosing the Huskers.
[even more siren sounds] Marcus Fleming was an ESPN top 300 player and high four-star recruit from Florida. He is listed at 5’10 and 170. I mentioned some speedsters in the redshirt freshman group, but Fleming is getting some hype as the ‘outrun everyone on the field’ guy.
Will Nixon chose the Huskers over a number of other good schools. Unfortunately, he is recovering from an ACL injury and will not likely be available for the 2020 season. (He’d get siren sounds if he was healthy - he is a great pickup for Nebraska.)
[siren sounds crescendo] Zavier Betts is an in-state recruit and another big body (6’2” and 200 lbs) who was the #20 (nationally) ranked WR by 247. He had some good offers, but was always a Husker at heart. The only issue was whether he would qualify academically and he did after much wailing and gnashing of teeth by Husker fans.
Ty Hahn is an in-state player who lobbied hard to get a scholarship offer from Nebraska. He finally got a deal where he will walk-on at first (I believe for two years, maybe three?) and then will go on scholarship after that. He is the kind of talent that I suspect will have coaches from schools like South Dakota State whispering sweet nothings in his ear, trying to entice him into playing time elsewhere. I hope he breaks through and sees the field at Nebraska - he is an outstanding athlete.
Barron Miles, Jr. - If his name sounds familiar, yes he is the son of former Husker defensive back Barron Miles (‘94 national champ team and also in the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame.) He is a walk-on at Nebraska and has battled injuries, but appears to be finally healthy. Having a legacy player like him is a good thing for the kind of culture Frost wants to build.
Elliot Brown and Brock Douglass are both Nebraska kids who will walk-on to the program.
Matthias Algarin hails from Minnesota and will be a dual-sport athlete at Nebraska (on scholarship, but I’m not sure which sport he counts against) in football and track.
Looking Ahead to 2020
If you have read this far, congratulations! You are really hoping for good news aren’t you?
The known quantities returning are Wan’dale Robinson, Kade Warner and (somewhat) Chris Hickman. Much will be expected of Omar Manning and quickly. I would be surprised if the starting wideouts at Game 1 are not a combination of those players.
After that, there is a whole lot of recruiting stars, athleticism and raw talent to mold. To be sure, it is an exciting mix of size, speed and potential. [Insert name of your favorite recruit, redshirt or underrated walk-on here] could be contributors this season. The coaching staff has been pretty disciplined about preserving redshirts, but this position group is only an injury away from needing significant contributions from someone, somewhere who has probably not seen a snap at the FBS level. Even without injuries they likely need contributions from someone who has probably not seen a snap at the FBS level. In a Frost (and now Frost/Lubick) offense, they really need a rotation or 5-7 guys they can throw out there to avoid fatigue and build experience.
There are a lot of young players that could find their way onto the field. Those maddening horizontal passes (the ones that have made up my football nightmares for a few years now) require good blocking. Right now, Kade Warner is a solid quantity there (Chris Hickman’s TE background will probably show through too) but any of the young guys that want to see the field would do themselves a favor to take pride in their blocking. That, along with special teams play, could be a ticket to playing time (okay, catching passes is their ticket to playing time, but blocking is the key to Husker fans’ hearts.)
A wild card here is Luke McCaffrey. Given the lackluster 2019 season Adrian Martinez had (and if you believe that some of it was due to poor preparation and not just injuries) then Luke might ascend to the starting QB position. But, if Adrian hangs on to his starter role, McCaffrey is the presumed backup. He is too good an athlete to hold a clipboard. He should be on the field. However, no coach in their right mind would risk their backup QB to injury, much less lose teaching time, by sharing them with another position group.
McCaffrey might be worth breaking at least some of the rules for.
Overall, I expect our postseason breakdown and next season’s preview to be very different. We should have a much better idea of who has the goods and who is going through the motions. There will likely be more departures through the magical transfer portal.
And Wan’Dale will still be awesome.
Hopefully many others will too.