Pernell: Previewing the Receivers and Tight Ends
It all starts with senior Stanley Morgan Jr., who was named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Morgan is on his way to one of the best careers by a wide receiver in Nebraska history. He was named 2nd team All-Conference by the coaches and media last year, after leading the Big Ten with 89.6 receiving yards per game and the second-most touchdown receptions (10). Morgan finished with a school-record 986 receiving yards on 61 catches, making him the top returning wide receiver in the Big Ten statistically and one of the most productive returning pass-catchers in the nation. Expect him to be targeted often in this offense. Provided he stays healthy, Morgan will have a good shot at breaking several team records. His career numbers heading into the season are 119 receptions, 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns. The career mark for catches (181) and receiving yards (2,689) belong to Kenny Bell, while the touchdown receptions (25) record belongs to Johnny Rodgers. Morgan would need a finish 2018 with 63 catches for 947 yards and 11 touchdowns to own all three records. It’s definitely achievable.
Morgan’s decision to return for his senior year was huge. He’ll be one of the better wideouts in all of college football this season. He likely would have been a 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but now has the chance to play his way into the first round. If he goes before the fifth round, which is a virtual certainty, he would be the highest Husker receiver drafted since Irving Fryar went No. 1 overall in 1984. There’s no doubt Morgan will be a foundational piece of Frost’s first offense in Lincoln.
There are only two returning players in the Big Ten who had at least 800 receiving yards last year: Morgan and JD Spielman. In fact, Nebraska and West Virginia are the only FBS teams with multiple returnees who accounted for at least 825 receiving yards in 2017. Like Morgan, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore was named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award. While operating mostly out of the slot, Spielman set several school records, including: Single-game receiving yards (200 vs. Ohio State), Freshman receptions (55), Freshman receiving yards (830) and Freshman all-purpose yards (1,572). He ranked first or second among all FBS freshmen in receiving yards, receiving yards per game, catches and all-purpose yards in 2017. He was named freshman All-American by both the Football Writers Association of America and USA Today, as well as 3rd team All-Big Ten. Not bad for someone who had only been playing the position for two years.
In conference play, Spielman became just the second Big Ten freshman since 1985 to lead the league in receiving yards per game during the conference season (88.1). He tied Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for second in the Big Ten with an average of 157.8 all-purpose yards per game in league play and was fifth in catches per game. He was best on third and fourth down. He had 23 third-down catches and seven fourth-down grabs, the latter of which led the nation. The coaches are excited about how his ability to play in space should translate to their system.
Morgan and Spielman promise to be one of the best duos in college football. But the talent behind them is what makes this position group so strong, and so dangerous. One of the biggest benefactors of Scott Frost coming to Lincoln and implementing his offense is Tyjon Lindsey. Ironically, Lindsey revealed during the spring he was ready to commit to Oregon shortly after being offered by Frost as a sophomore in high school, until Frost left for UCF. Frost has said Lindsey is the kind of talent the new staff wants to recruit to Nebraska because he’s so dynamic in space. The Huskers are looking to use him much in the same way De’Anthony Thomas – a mentor of Lindsey’s- was utilized at Oregon.
The expectations were hard to ignore for Lindsey in 2017. The California native came to Nebraska as one of the highest ranked recruits in years and was regarded as a can’t miss prospect in most people’s eyes. He earned a lot of buzz during his first fall camp, where he often made defenders miss in space during workouts open to the media. But like many true freshmen, it took some time to adjust. Last years staff tried to put together a package of plays for him, but they failed to utilize his incredible open-field talent. Typically the former staff would try to call at least one or two designed calls Lindsey’s way, but he failed to have any play go longer than 8 yards. In fact, Lindsey touched the ball only 19 times on offense, with 12 catches for 76 yards, and seven rushes for four yards, despite being regarded as one of the most explosive receivers in the country.
He had an inauspicious start to the Frost era. During the second week of winter conditioning workouts, he was admitted to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis. He was there for three days and lost a total of 20 pounds. He bounced back in a major way, though, enjoying an excellent spring. He has taken that momentum into fall camp and has turned the heads of both teammates and coaches. He has proven to be the perfect fit for the new offense that many expected he would be and could really breakout as a sophomore. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Lindsey’s future now looks brighter than ever.
One of the most impressive newcomers on the entire roster has been junior college transfer Mike Williams. Frost and his staff moved quickly adding Williams to the 2018 recruiting class. The Huskers offered on January 7 and by the 10th he was on campus enrolling. Williams began his career at Georgia Southern in 2016, appearing in 11 games, before heading to East Mississippi C.C. for his sophomore season in 2017. He played a key role in helping EMCC win the NJCAA national championship, totaling 669 receiving yards (22.3 ypc) and seven touchdowns on 30 catches. Williams quickly embraced this staff and impressed with his weight rooms gains during winter and summer conditioning. The 5-foot-10 Williams arrived from EMCC weighing 160 pounds. He gained 11 pounds in the first month on campus and is now listed at 185-pounds on the official roster. Not long into spring practice, he was asked by Troy Walters to move from primarily the slot to the outside. “We felt like he knew how to play in the slot. Ideally I want to cross-train all the receivers,” Walters said. “He knows the slot. For him to go outside with his speed, he’s going to create mismatches with his speed.” Walters is a big fan of Williams’, on several occasions drawing comparisons to himself: a smaller guy with good speed who is going to work hard. Williams has continued to impress this August. What we’re hearing about Williams this spring and summer is similar to what we heard about JD Spielman before his breakout freshman season. Williams is fast (he reportedly ran a 4.37 at EMCC) and elusive, and coaches are giddy over him.
Redshirt freshman Jaevon McQuitty is anxious to finally hit the field for the Huskers. He had shoulder surgery in December, 2016, prior to his arrival in January. It limited him during his first spring on campus. He came back and was enjoying a strong fall camp before suffering a season-ending knee injury August 10 in a blocking drill. The former four-star recruit seemed like a safe bet to play last season. At the time of his knee injury last summer, he was “definitely in the conversation” for playing time, according to former Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. The 6-foot, 205-pound McQuitty is completely healed now and enjoyed a strong spring game. He should provide a needed physical presence to the wide receiver corps.
Jaron Woodyard is another junior college receiver brought in by this staff. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is an intriguing prospect for Frost’s offense because of the speed he brings to the table. He turned down Power Five offers for track coming out of high school in Maryland, where he ran a 10.68 in the 100 meters and a 21.50 in the 200. Last season at Arizona Western, Woodyard was regarded as the fastest player in all of junior college football. He was the No. 2-ranked junior college receiver and No. 11 junior college prospect in the country according to ESPN. Woodyard played running back in high school and was moved to receiver when he arrived at Arizona Western. Woodyard made huge strides between his freshman (11 catches) and sophomore (36) seasons and should continue to get better under the tutelage of Troy Walters. He’ll be in the rotation this fall.
Another pair of true freshmen who are hoping to earn playing time this fall are Andre Hunt and Justin McGriff. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound McGriff reminds me of a young Devin Funchess in terms of size and early glimpses of his skillset. McGriff, who arrived in January, is currently playing receiver but could move inside to tight end if future physical development warrants a move. He had been committed to UCF but followed Frost to Lincoln. McGriff’s work ethic has been impressive since spring ball, when he was spotted several times staying late after practices to get in work with Tristan Gebbia or working on change-of-direction moves against dummies. The staff has made positive comments about the play of Hunt as fall camp closes. Another speedster, the 6-foot, 190-pound Californian had once been committed to USC. As a senior, he made 67 catches for 1,185 yards and 18 touchdowns and was named to the Division 5 All-CIF team. Both figure to take advantage of the new rule allowing players to participate in up to four games and preserve their redshirt.
Another couple names to keep an eye on are senior Bryan Reimers and redshirt freshman walk-on Kade Warner. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Reimers was recently put on scholarship by Frost. He has appeared in 22 games as a Husker and started against Oregon as a sophomore in 2016. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Warner is the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. While playing for Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, he broke the state record for most career catches in 11-man football, with 241. Warner was a two-time all-state receiver and was named the 2016 Arizona Wide Receiver of the Year and the 2017 District Player of the Year. Warner had a solid spring coming back from an injury and had a 57-yard touchdown catch in the spring game. He has reportedly enjoyed a strong fall camp and has looked good in the two major scrimmages the team has played.
At tight end, Nebraska replaces virtually all of its production for the second straight season. Luckily, over the past few years, the Huskers have recruited the tight end spot well. They’ve added an impressive variety of different athletes and body-types to fill the room. Sophomore Jack Stoll is the clear No. 1. Tight ends coach Sean Beckton has been quite complimentary of Stoll since the spring. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Stoll has long been an effective blocker, but it’s the way he has improved as a stand-up perimeter receiver that separated him from the rest of the group. This offense asks a lot out of the tight end position. “He has to play like a receiver, he has to block in-line on the line of scrimmage, he’s gotta be able to catch bubble screens, he’s gotta block screens on the perimeter, he’s gotta block on the end line, and all the adjustments to go along with it,” Beckton explained. Stoll, who was named to the Mackey Award watch list, is the most well-rounded tight end on the roster. He’s an emerging leader in the locker room and seems to have a bright future.
You can expect to see Frost use plenty of two tight end sets to create mismatches. There’s a nice competition that’s been going on since spring for that No. 2 spot. Sean Beckton has said redshirt freshmen Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen have made the biggest gains of any players in his room. Both Rafdal and Allen had offers from UCF and Beckton out of high school, so obviously the coaches saw a fit for the pair in Scott Frost’s offense. The two of them have gone back and forth and could probably be considered co-No. 2’s. Mike Riley and Tavita Thompson raved about the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Allen’s athleticism. He has made some nice gains in the weight room and has started to fill out his frame. At 6-foot-7 and 250-pounds, Rafdal is another imposing presence. Both of them have the potential to be matchup nightmares, especially in the red zone.
The top three guys heading into the season are set with Stoll, Allen and Rafdal. But the staff likes what they added with the 2018 recruiting class. Cameron Jurgens has a bright future. He is coming back from a rough injury, though. On October 20, he broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle in a state playoff game. No one has ever been committed to Husker football longer than Jurgens. He committed to the previous staff on August 6, 2015 and stuck with it for 867 days before signing this past December 20. The 6-foot-3 and 270-pound Jurgens is already a devastating blocker. He needs to continue to refine his pass catching before he is ready to make a big push for consistent playing time. The staff also has high hopes for Katerian Legrone. He was one of the first UCF commitments the staff reached back to after taking the Nebraska job. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Georgia native fits the profile Frost will likely target moving forward. Legrone can play split out at the Y-Receiver spot or in-line as a tight end in this offense. His versatility is exactly what the staff likes in the position. I think both will be allowed to redshirt and begin to make their marks next year. Position Grade: A-
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25-years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.