With JD Spielman departing, Nebraska's young wide receivers will have to mature quickly
Wan’Dale Robinson didn’t shy away from the moment when he arrived at Nebraska. From the first time the all-purpose back and wide receiver put on the red-and-white uniform he appeared primed and ready for the spotlight, even as a true freshman.
In just a few months, Robinson has transitioned from young, rising star to veteran leader in Nebraska’s wide receiver room. It’s his mindset that head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick need the newcomers to adopt — quickly.
Surprising news broke earlier this week when senior wide receiver JD Spielman and Nebraska came to the “mutual decision” to part ways. Spielman took a leave of absence from the team and was spending time with his family in Minnesota. The two sides thought it was best if he didn’t finish his career in Lincoln.
“He’s made a lot of plays at Nebraska and I wish him the best and I think everybody here hopes the best for him,” Scott Frost said during an appearance on Sports Nightly. “In talking to him, I think both parties were pretty sure that a fresh start and moving on was probably the right decision at this point.”
Left behind are 170 receptions, 2,546 yards, 15 touchdowns and three years of experience on the field with the Huskers. The last statistic is the one that might serve as the biggest blow to Nebraska’s offense in 2020.
Robinson and Kade Warner now become the two most-experienced players in the wide receiver room, which features 11 freshmen. Robinson, a true sophomore, totaled 40 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns last season. He was used frequently in the rushing attack, totaling 88 carries for 340 yards and three tuddies. Warner, a redshirt junior, has hauled in 25 receptions for 196 yards in his career.
Those two are the only receivers remaining on the roster who caught a pass for the Huskers a season ago.
Frost knew bulking up the wide receiver position was a necessity during the 2020 recruiting cycle. He did exactly that, bringing five pass-catchers to Lincoln, several of which were highly-ranked targets. Zavier Betts and Marcus Fleming were both four-star additions, Omar Manning was a four-star talent at the junior college level and Alante Brown and Will Nixon were both three-star prospects, per 247Sports.
Star rankings evaporate into the air when players arrive on campus, though. And while the Huskers certainly have the talent on paper at the receiver position to make up for Spielman’s departure, being mentally prepared for a significant role in the offense will be the challenge for Nebraska’s newcomers.
“[Robinson] is going to have to be a big part of it. We’ve got Kade Warner coming back and Chris Hickman is playing receiver now, so there’s definitely some guys that have been here that we’re going to count on,” Frost said. “But Lubick is going to have his hands full, too. He’s going to have to earn his spot as a coach trying to get some new talent ready.
“Whether it’s Omar or Alante or Marcus Fleming, Zavier Betts, Will Nixon, a lot of these guys are talented kids and we’re going to need them to come in ready to play.”
The positive news for Frost, Lubick and the rest of the offense? There’s plenty of experience everywhere else.
Adrian Martinez has been a two-year starter for the Huskers at quarterback. Dedrick Mills flexed his muscle late in the season in 2019, establishing a presence in the running game. The offensive line should be much improved with Cameron Jurgens, Boe Wilson and Matt Farniok all returning.
Even with Nebraska’s receiver room transforming into the Fountain of Youth, 2020 should be the best offensive season the Huskers have enjoyed under Frost. Improving on the 28 points per game average from last fall shouldn’t be a problem — at least during the first half of the schedule.
With help from the incoming receivers, Nebraska’s offense could start to resemble those high-powered units at UCF. We might finally catch a glimpse of that scheme Frost said would give B1G defenses trouble.
Those newcomers have to learn from Robinson’s example. They have to be ready for the spotlight. As good as he is, Robinson can’t shoulder Nebraska’s wide receiver room alone.