Pernell: Previewing the Wide Receivers

Categories: 2019 Football
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JD Spielman
JD Spielman had a school-record 209 receiving yards.
Stanley Morgan was the most productive receiver in Nebraska football history, breaking six school records and becoming the program’s first-ever 1,000-yard receiver last season (1,004). He and JD Spielman formed one of the best duo’s in the Big Ten over the last two seasons. But production outside of those two was minimal. Between Morgan and Spielman, you’re looking at 77 percent of 2018 receiver targets, 86 percent of the receiver yardage, and 100 percent of the receiver touchdowns. They were the only two wideouts who had more than 25 targets on the season. Despite the loss of Morgan, however, coaches are optimistic the overall depth of this group will be better than last season.

You know what you’re getting in junior JD Spielman. For the second year in a row, the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder was named to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list, as well as the Paul Hornung Award watch list. Spielman is a big play guy, he’s proven it two years in a row playing in two different systems and with multiple different quarterbacks. He arrived on the scene in a big way as a redshirt freshman, setting 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). In conference play, he became the first freshman since 1985 to lead the Big Ten in receiving yards per game (88.1). Spielman 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 FWAA and USA Today, and was named third-team All-Big Ten by the coaches. Not bad for someone who had only been playing the position for two years.

He followed that up with a tremendous sophomore season. Despite suffering a high ankle sprain Nov. 10 on a punt return against Illinois and missing the last two games of the season, Spielman finished with 66 catches, which ranked third in school history. His 818 receiving yards were the ninth most in the Big Ten, and his 8 receiving touchdowns were good enough for fifth in the conference. Spielman averaged 8.1 yards after the catch, third best in the conference. His rapport with Martinez grew as the season went along. After just 13 catches over the first three games of the season, Spielman had seven or more catches in five of the other seven games in which he played. For his efforts, he was named third-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and media.

The Minnesota native has a chance to go down as the best to ever play his position at Nebraska. Spielman already has 121 catches for 1,648 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first two college seasons – 21 career games. No Nebraska player has ever reached 100 catches or 1,000 yards faster than Spielman. In fact, he had 1,000 career receiving yards and 2,000 all-purpose yards by his 15th game – the fastest Husker to ever hit those marks, beating Johnny Rodgers to them by one game. His career yardage mark ranks third nationally among non-seniors. Spielman’s 68 catches away from Morgan’s career receptions record, and 1,099 yards away from his career yardage mark. It’s possible that he could track down one or both of those records this season. If Spielman avoids the temptation of the NFL and returns for his senior season, you’re likely to see him put several Husker records into the stratosphere.

Nebraska needs someone to step up and fill the void left by Morgan’s graduation. They can’t replace his production with just one guy, though, it’ll need to be done by committee. The Huskers had enough trouble finding a solid No. 3 to compliment Morgan and Spielman last year. This offense still needs that, except now it needs to find a solid No. 2 to take pressure off Spielman, who is going to be the primary focus of opposing defenses.

Halfway through spring practices, Troy Walters was pretty candid about the situation he was facing. “I told them you’ve got six practices to show what you can do. And some of you all have been here a long time … since we’ve been here. And if you can’t do what we’re asking, then we’ve got to move on,” Walters told reporters following a spring practice. “And we’ve got some incoming freshmen, and if we have to go out and find a grad transfer, you know we’ll do what we have to do to make sure we put the guys on the field to be competitive.”

On May 12, Nebraska did just that. They went out and added Cal transfer Kanawai Noa. “After spring, we looked at the transfer portal and his name came up, and we did some research and background on him. He’s a kid that’s been productive when he’s healthy. We felt like we needed a little more production, a little more depth at the receiver position. We like our young guys but we needed more guys to kind of model and be mentors to those guys,” Walters explained.

Noa announced his intention to graduate transfer from Cal back in January. Offensive quality control coach Steve Cooper, who coached his brother Kalua Noa at Portland State, initially reached out to Kanawai. Afterwards, new defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, who had a relationship with Noa from their time at Berkeley, did the same.

A native of Hawaii, the 6-foot, 200-pound senior struggled with injuries during his Cal career. After playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, Noa suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game of his sophomore campaign and was granted a redshirt season. He came back strong the following year, though, posting career highs with 56 receptions, 788 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 2017. Unfortunately, the injury bug returned last season when injuries cost him five games. In total, Noa appeared in 34 games for Cal, making 18 starts. He caught 94 passes for 1,224 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Noa has come in and quickly learned the playbook. He reportedly knows all three of the Husker receiver positions, and despite playing primarily in the slot at Cal, with Spielman occupying that spot, Noa could get the starting nod at one of the outside positions. Noa has a reputation for navigating through coverage and finding holes in zones. He’s also fearless going over the middle. Noa has very good hands and was the go-to man on third down for Cal during his career. He is a member of the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Watch List for the third straight season, and was also on the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list in both 2017 and 2018. If he can stay healthy, he should be a great addition to the room.

After those two, there’s several players vying to be among the seven or eight guys that will see the bulk of the action this season. Redshirt sophomore walk-on Kade Warner started seven of the final nine games of the 2018 season, making his starting debut Sept. 29 against Purdue. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Warner worked initially in the slot but cracked the starting lineup at flanker when coaches took notice of his consistency in practice. Warner is a strong blocker – a requirement in this offense – and has good hands. He’s also reportedly stepped up as a vocal leader for the group this summer and was the one organizing workouts and getting guys together for 7-on-7 this offseason. Warner is second on the team in receptions among returning wideouts and is third in receiving yards. He got more involved in the offense as the season progressed. Of his 17 catches, 11 came in the last three games. The only concern with Warner is his lack of top-end speed and big-play potential. He didn’t have a reception longer than 14 yards and finished with just 95 yards.

The guy Warner replaced in the starting lineup is senior Mike Williams. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster impressed last spring and summer coming out of East Mississippi C.C. With Nebraska in search for a No. 3 receiver to pair with Morgan and Spielman, it was Williams who started against Colorado and Troy to open the season. He appeared in every game for the Huskers, but his role lessened throughout the year as he struggled with perimeter blocking. He had three catches for 40 yards in the opener and then wasn’t even targeted again until the Wisconsin game Oct. 6. But Williams’ playing time picked up more and more as the year went on, primarily because he improved his edge blocking. Williams finished the season with 122 yards on 12 catches and an 80 percent catch rate. His momentum carried over into the spring, and he has enjoyed a solid fall camp as well. He’ll attempt to take advantage of a wide-open receiving corps.

Another juco transfer from the 2018 class trying to leave his mark as a senior is Jaron Woodyard. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Woodyard was the No. 2-ranked junior college receiver and No. 11 junior college prospect in the country according to ESPN. A lot was expected out of Woodyard last year after being one of the more productive receivers in the juco ranks at Arizona Western. After signing with the Huskers in December of 2017, the plan was to enroll in January. However, a math class prevented him from getting on campus until late May. Woodyard admits he felt like he was behind the curve until the middle of last season. He finished with just one catch for 10 yards on seven targets, and had four kickoff returns for 50 yards after appearing in eight games. Woodyard played running back in high school and was moved to receiver when he arrived at Arizona Western. He’s still learning the nuances of the position, but the hope is that he’s ready to contribute. Woodyard ascended the depth chart this spring and worked mostly with the No. 1 unit by April’s Red-White Spring Game. He’s the fastest player on the team, running track for Nebraska in the spring. He posted a personal best of 6.88 seconds in the indoor 60 meters, and a 10.47 in the outdoor 100 and 21.42 in the 200, as well as running on the 4 x 100 team. The coaches are hoping that speed is ready to translate onto the football field.

After a fantastic spring, redshirt freshman Andre Hunt has continued his strong offseason and has put himself in position to start. The 6-foot, 190-pound California native appeared in two games last season, seeing time against Troy and Bethune-Cookman, and was also a member of Nebraska’s travel roster for all five road games. The former USC commit flashed in preseason camp last August but wasn’t comfortable enough in the offense to crack the rotation as a true freshman. Troy Walters singled Hunt out as having made the biggest jump this offseason in his room. He has spent a lot of time with the No. 1 offense this summer and is primed for an extended role this fall.

The Duck-R position is one of the most important in Scott Frost’s offense. The staff has hit the recruiting trail hard since arriving in an attempt to add players who fit the profile. The position is important in this system and many times is the x-factor that keeps defenses off balance and unable to properly substitute to defend against. The Duck-R is essentially an offensive weapon; a wildcard player who is capable of running the ball out of the backfield or on fly sweeps, and is also capable of splitting out wide and working as a wide receiver. At UCF, Frost utilized Otis Anderson in that role. As a true freshman in 2017, Anderson had 69 rushing attempts for 494 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 30 receptions for 351 yards and three touchdowns. The position has been prominent for Frost offenses dating back to his time at Oregon. The Ducks were notorious for fielding some of the best offenses in the country then. There were talented players all over the field, but the straw that stirred the drink was Duck-R specialist De’Anthony Thomas. As a sophomore, Thomas had 92 rushes for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns along with 45 catches for 445 yards and five touchdowns. He’s the gold standard and the profile the staff will look for on the recruiting trail.

Luckily, the coaches think they’ve found their next Duck-R star in Wan’Dale Robinson, a consensus four-star recruit who is one of the best high school football players to ever come out of Kentucky. As a senior, he won the Paul Hornung Award in addition to being named Kentucky’s Mr. Football by the Associated Press and the Kentucky Football Coaches Association as well as its Gatorade Player of the Year. He was also named second-team All-American by MaxPreps and the Kentucky Offensive Player of the Year by USA Today. In his prep career, Robinson racked up 10,454 all-purpose yards including 6,795 rushing, 1,787 receiving, 1,198 on kick returns, 388 on punt returns and 286 on interceptions returns for an average of 237.6 per game. In 44 career games he scored 131 touchdowns, which ranks second all-time in Kentucky High School history. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Robinson has tremendous instincts as a runner and displays breakaway speed. His quickness, elusiveness and short-area burst is truly special. He has impressive balance, change of direction and his ability to cut and move laterally without losing top speed puts him in select company. Robinson explodes out of his breaks as a receiver and has nice hands. He’s also stronger than you’d expect, given his frame, and plays with some physicality. Robinson has impressed coaches and teammates and is often among the first players mentioned by both parties when asked who has impressed in spring and summer. Robinson has the look of a future star in this offense.

Also recruited with the Duck-R position in mind was Miles Jones. The staff was very high on Jones during his recruitment and expected the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Florida native to contend for immediate playing time last fall. Unfortunately, an injury slowed him out of the gates in fall camp and he played in just one game (Bethune-Cookman) before having shoulder surgery. Jones wasn’t cleared to return to practice until the second half of spring drills. He’s slowly worked his way back into the conversation for playing time this coming season. Wan’Dale Robinson has stolen a lot of the headlines this offseason, but let’s not forget the résumé Jones came to Lincoln with. Rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals, Jones was the offensive focal point and do-it-all player for powerhouse American Heritage High School. He is a dynamic athlete who shows excellent burst, short area quickness and outstanding top-end speed. His vision, change of direction and overall elusiveness make him dangerous with the ball in his hands. Coaches still feel he has a bright future.

Nebraska brought in an outstanding wide receiver class, and by all accounts each of them have shown flashes this summer. Along with Wan’Dale Robinson, the guy who has been seeing the most reps with the top two offenses has been 6-foot-1, 200-pound Darien Chase out of Union High School in Vancouver (WA). Chase played in a system at Union that was similar to what Frost runs, which has shortened his learning curve. One of the top prospects in the Pacific Northwest, Chase was ranked as a four-star recruit and the nation’s No. 200 overall player by 247 Sports. He’s a superb route runner coming out of the high school ranks and showed very good hands while helping to lead Union to a 14-0 record and a Class 4A state title. He seems the best bet to bypass a redshirt and get significant reps.

Rounding out the class were a pair of Oklahoma standouts who were not only the fastest football players in the state, but among the fastest in the Southwest Region. Jamie Nance graduated early from Blanchard High School and enrolled in January, giving him the opportunity to participate in spring ball and take advantage of time spent with Zach Duval. Nance gained 7-10 pounds between January and the start of fall camp and is now listed at 6-foot and 170-pounds. Clearly he has work to do to build up his body for the Big Ten, but the Rivals four-star recruit is a guy to keep an eye on moving forward. Nance’s skillset is a nice fit for several concepts of Frost’s offense. He has the versatility to play out wide and also operate between the hashes from the slot. His speed and explosion are on an elite level. Nance was one of the nation’s top high school sprinters as a junior. According to the Chickasaw Express-Star, Nance was clocked at a 10.49 wind-aided 100 meter dash last April (2018) and recorded a top electronic time of 10.66, while hitting 21.62 in the 200. His time in the 100 was just outside the nation’s top ten for last year.

With Nance already in Lincoln, Demariyon Houston spent the spring winning the 100-meter (10.72) and the 200-meter (21.67) dash at the Oklahoma Class 3A state track meet. His times would have won the 100 in Classes 1A, 2A, 4A and 5A, as well. His time in the 200 was .01 off the winning 5A time (21.66), nevertheless, he would have also won in Classes 1A, 2A and 4A in that event as well. Those marks were actually slower than the ones he put up as a sophomore when he also won state in both the 100-meters (10.71) and 200-meters (21.42). That speed has definitely translated onto the football field. His career yards per reception of 25.8 and touchdown per reception ratio of 1:2.8 speak to that. A one-time Texas commit, the 6-foot, 180-pound Houston was a four-year starter for Millwood High School, consistently one of the best high school teams in the state, winning the 2A state championship in 2016 and 2017. Regarded as a four-star prospect by 247Sports and ESPN, Houston is a great fit for this offense. He displays tremendous balance, body control and change of direction. Houston has good vision and instincts after the catch which helps him to turn shorter routes into big plays with his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He’s a natural pass catcher who excels at finding the soft spot in zones. Like Nance, he’ll need to add bulk and strength, but has a frame that should allow him to do so. Houston has enjoyed a strong camp and should at least utilize his four games with a chance at more.

Jaevon McQuitty is a guy basically in the same situation as running back Jaylin Bradley. A former four-star recruit out of Columbia, Missouri, the 6-foot, 200-pound McQuitty is a third-year sophomore with six games of experience and 0 career targets. McQuitty was plagued by injuries to start his Husker career. He had shoulder surgery in December, 2016, that kept him out of contact during his first spring on campus. He came back and was reportedly looking good in fall camp before suffering a season-ending ACL injury August 10 in a blocking drill. Prior to his knee injury, he was “definitely in the conversation” for playing time, according to former Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Coming back from the injury, Troy Walters has said the key for McQuitty has been getting his confidence back, which appears to have happened. Walters called McQuitty a pleasant surprise in camp, saying he was making “splash” plays the past month. With the vacuum created by Stanley Morgan’s departure, there’s never been a better opportunity to make his move up the depth chart.

Overview:

The most significant difference this year is JD Spielman needing to be a true No. 1 receiver, and that’s a role he’s never had to take on before. Stanley Morgan has always been ‘the Man’ and now it’s up to Spielman to take over that mantle. Can he do that from the slot, or will he need to move outside? Spielman is deadly at working into soft spots in zone coverage and beating man coverage with his quickness. Both Mike Riley and Scott Frost used quick-hitting routes from the slot to get him into space. Can he afford to stay there? Are guys like Kanawai Noa, Andre Hunt, Kade Warner, Mike Williams, Jaron Woodyard and others ready to step up on the outside and allow Spielman to play where he’s been so effective? I think we’ll see Frost put guys like Spielman and Noa all over the field, while getting guys like Wan’Dale Robinson onto the field as well.

You really have to be encouraged by the skill position talent the staff has been adding at both running back and receiver. Several versatile, homerun hitting play-makers making their way to Lincoln. Those rooms are really starting to take shape and resemble the Oregon teams Frost was part of. Give them another class or two and the kind of talent they will be able to put in this system and throw at teams will be scary. Position Grade: B

 

Previous position previews: RBs | QBs

 

Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. 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 jgpernell@comcast.net.