Nebraska football: Should Huskers’ young WR talent make appearance at Northwestern?
One of the biggest concerns that the Huskers fanbase came away with after the Oct. 24 loss to Ohio State was the downfield passing threat — it didn’t exist.
Nebraska’s 6-foot-8 tight end, Austin Allen, had a 26-yard catch — which was the longest passing play the Huskers had that day — but that specific route wasn’t meant to test the the Buckeyes’ defensive backfield vertically. Instead, Allen, lined up behind and just outside of left tackle Brenden Jaimes, acted like he was going to block on a split-zone run after the snap, but then got skinny and slipped past a couple of Buckeyes to the flat for the play-action pass. He did well getting the most out of the short — and safe — passing play.
Austin Allen got skinny on this and I love it. pic.twitter.com/wpm5Xj4tb8
— Steve Marik (@YNTMarik) November 1, 2020
But if Nebraska’s offense wants to hum the way Scott Frost wants it to, will short-and-safe always be enough in the passing game? Against Ohio State, no one expected Nebraska to win, and the smart thing to do was to take what was given.
Knowing the monumental task going in and the likely outcome, is it crazy to think that Frost and his staff intentionally held some of the playbook — and players — back so there wasn’t anything on film for Wisconsin, and now Northwestern, to prepare for? I don’t think that’s a crazy thought at all.
Does that mean we’re going to see Adrian Martinez chucking deep balls against the Wildcats this Saturday? Not at all. I still expect Martinez to take what the Northwestern defense gives him — that’s the smart play.
But maybe, we see Nebraska’s highly-touted receivers from the class of 2020 — junior college transfer Omar Manning and true freshmen Alante Brown, Marcus Fleming and Zavier Betts — get snaps in non-garbage-time situations, which didn’t happen in Columbus.
Manning didn’t even make the trip, and his health status still seems up in the air. And what about Chris Hickman, the 6-6, 215-pound Omaha product from the class of 2019? He has battled injuries in his young career, but he, Manning and Betts have bigger bodies that I’m sure Martinez would love throwing to.
The coaches know their roster better than I, and maybe it’s as simple as those guys not being ready, mentally or physically, to play immediately against one of the best teams in the nation — that’s understandable. Frost and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Lubick harp on their wideouts needing to block on the perimeter, and if someone is incapable of doing that or unwilling to, he won’t play. And if I had to guess one area where a true freshman receiver needed to improve the most in, it’d be blocking.
But in the B1G, it’s easier for receivers to play early in their careers than it is for linemen. It’s big-boy football in the trenches, and older, stronger players are better suited for the war along the lines. Frost echoed that to the media after the game.
“You know, the Big Ten, it’s hard to play as a freshman in this league. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s just a big, physical league, and it helps you to be 21 or 22 years old, instead of 18 or 19 years old,” Frost said. “So it takes a little while to develop those guys, not just knowing the Xs and Os — but physically. We had a bunch of guys that played a lot for maybe the first time on Saturday. I expect we’ll have some more this week out of that ‘19 class, and out of the ‘20 class. When those guys are up and ready to go and ready to contribute, we’re going to be a better football team.”
The knee injury to tight end Jack Stoll stings — he’s a clear leader on the offense. But if there’s a silver lining anywhere, it’s that the Huskers’ tight end room is stocked with big and talented dudes. Allen had sort of a coming-out party in Columbus, while Travis Vokolek, the 6-6, 260-pound Rutgers transfer, will likely keep getting targets.
Linemen needing extra time to get bigger and stronger before playing is understandable. But wideouts? What’s the harm in throwing these young receivers out there once in a while to see if they can run past a corner or safety? We don’t need to see them out there on every snap, but Nebraska’s offense needs a big-play threat. If it doesn’t find one, defenses will continue to focus on Wan’Dale Robinson, making his life much harder.
Nothing against receivers Kade Warner and South Dakota transfer Levi Falck — they block their tails off, are solid options as possession-type receivers and do everything their coaches ask of them. But at the end of the day, do they scare B1G defenses? No.
It’s still early in the season, and this may be a misguided overreaction. It’ll be interesting to see what the wideout rotation looks like in Evanston against what looks to be a stout Northwestern defense.