I’m not sure there’s a position group that better illustrates what Nebraska as a program has struggled with recently than WR. Let’s start with the fact that this will be their 3rd coach in 5 years, also their 3rd offensive coordinator in 5 years. It’s the 4th WR coach in 6 years overall. Let that sink in a bit… it doesn’t really matter how smart or good a player/kid is if you are constantly changing what you want them to be doing. It’s nearly impossible to be successful in that environment. At some point you need some consistency for players to reach their full potential.
Another thing that you can point to for our struggles, 2021 marked the fourth straight year that our leading WR has left the team. Some of those were ok, such as Morgan and Toure, who graduated. But others like Robinson and Spielman were due to transfer, which we need to avoid. The other thing with that, is our leading WRs were Riley recruits, a freshman, and a transfer from FCS. It’s that time of year again where weight room pictures are circulating and Nebraska fans are injected with hope while we crush the weight room and the portal, but what does it say for our development if our best guys are developed from another staff (Morgan, Spielman, Toure) or are a first/second year player who is just that good (Robinson)? If our best guys are the transfers we get so excited about, that worries me on the development piece.
In steps Mickey Joseph to get the ship headed in the right direction. I will be really curious how things change with who he gravitates towards, what things he’s willing to “put up with”, etc. And that leads us to our first player returning, Omar Manning. Now, while Manning has had things that he’s had to deal with that are tough to get mad at him about, when a new position coach comes to town bringing in his guys, how long is he willing to put up with it? Manning is no doubt a great talent, but is a perfect example of other things at play. Spring football is hard, no opponent to prepare for and only a spring game against yourselves in front of a crowd once. It will be interesting to see where this one goes in May, but he’s our leading returning receiver, with 26 catches for 380 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s enough to trot him out with the 1s. But will he have staying power?
With Levi Falck gone, the next WR up is Oliver Martin. The former Michigan and Iowa transfer is our 3rd leading WR back and also our most trusted punt returner when we need the ball caught. Martin had 10 receptions for 170 yards and a touchdown, and I feel like this one will be the most interesting to watch this offseason. Martin had trouble getting on the field due to many reasons (one of which was injury), and with a new position coach bringing in a ton of his guys, things could get crowded in a hurry, especially when you look at if they want to go young or go with a senior that hasn’t played much to this point. Many remember me bringing this up, but Pete Carroll would gravitate towards the younger player if all things are equal because he would have more time with that player. Guys like Pelini would reward the older player. I can see both sides, I just bring it up to see which way Joseph decides to go, because that could dictate Martin seeing the field or not. Especially when there are hand picked older guys by the new position coach transferring in that we will talk about later.
Next up you have Alante Brown… while he struggled with injuries, he’s one that I can’t put a finger on. Everytime he gets on the field he’s electric and looks to have the explosiveness needed to make plays. But he only caught 3 passes for 30 yards in 2021 after reading these things about him in all the offseasons:
Where will he come out in the shuffle? And you could say the same about a guy like Will Nixon who has a father in the coaching industry (was at Baylor but is now with the Carolina Panthers). I have always been impressed watching guys like Brown and Nixon, but Nixon only had 1 catch for 5 yards. Again, where will things filter out for these two with a bevy of new players coming in selected by the new position coach.
Another intriguing player is a guy like Zavier Betts. Our 2nd leading WR back with 20 receptions for 286 yards, he made most of his plays on jet sweeps in 2021. I look for this guy to make a huge step forward with the guidance of Joseph for many reasons. First, he’s extremely talented and you saw with us doing the jet sweeps we knew we needed to get the ball to him. But secondly, if Joseph can get him going, it would go a long way to the work he’s done in Omaha on the recruiting trail. “See, we just needed someone to take him under their wing and look what we can do with him.” While that’s not a huge factor (recruiting), it does play some factor. There’s a reason Callahan was hesitant to play Jackson over Lucky, the prized recruit needed to have success in order to get more like him here. I look for Betts to be one of our leading guys next year if Joseph can get him right.
Next you have walk-on Wyatt Liewer and former walk-on Ty Hahn (remember he was told he would be put on scholarship this fall since he passed up scholarships from other FBS programs). What will happen with that promise, as the scholarship limits are quite full at this point? And Hahn has not played as much as Liewer, who had only 4 receptions for 24 yards. As we stated, a lot to sift out. Are you going to play the walk-ons over the guys coming up from the boot?
You then have 3 players coming off redshirts in Kamonte Grimes, Shawn Hardy II, and Latrell Neville. All of them will be wanting their chance at a spot in the rotation and all have their skillsets that deserve some attention. Grimes broke his collarbone in the fall this past year so it was tough for him to get on the field and probably lost some of the development he would have had anyway. But I’m not sure what to expect from these guys.
Nebraska signed 2 players in its 2022 recruiting class… the first is Victor Jones Jr. He had 53 receptions for 847 yards in his senior campaign with 7 touchdowns. While I think it will be tough for him to crack into the lineup as a true freshman, he seems like an explosive player with something to prove when he gets here. The other signee was Decoldest Crawford who Joseph plucked from Louisiana. This is what I talk about when I say some of the guys that committed to Lubick or Walters may be in a bit of trouble. Crawford flipped from LSU to Nebraska to follow Joseph, and while i’m not saying he was promised anything, what I will tell you is when things like that happen sometimes it’s tough for guys on the outside looking in to break that bond. There’s a subconscious affinity for a player you brought in as a coach compared to guys that were already here. You have a bond with that recruit already.
We also received some transfer news, grabbing former 5 star Trey Palmer from LSU. Like Crawford, he has a known bond with a position coach already, so Joseph knows what he’s getting with him. Palmer caught 30 balls for LSU and had over 300 yards receiving. Further, he is an elite punt and kick returner which is where you will see him on the field for sure with Nebraska. Again, some of the guys mentioned earlier in this article will have a tough time asserting themselves with the history already there between Palmer and Joseph. Our new position coach wouldn’t have a guy transfer away from LSU if he didn’t see him being able to replicate the same stats up here.
Last transfer we have to talk about is Isaiah Garcia-Castenada, a transfer from New Mexico State via Saddleback JUCO. He had 37 catches for 578 yards and 4 touchdowns this past season, and proves to be in the mix for playing time as well. But we will see how Power 5 football treats him. Sometimes the jump is easy like it was for Toure who came from FCS, sometimes it’s a bit tougher even for guys that come from other FBS programs.
There was no shortage of offseason transactions in the WR room, and it’s exactly what I wrote about in my coaching moves article that when you get an elite recruiter with a pipeline and proven track record, sometimes where he is or the record of the school doesn’t matter. Many of you may not remember this, but Stanley Morgan Jr almost picked Tulane over Nebraska because Keith Williams was there, but it ended up working in our favor when we hired KW anyway. That’s what we are getting with Joseph. We will always be in the mix for elite WR talent (reminds me of DB room) because of who we have recruiting.
But as you could tell with how long this post is… this room is not just full, it’s overflowing. Joseph is going to need to sift out who can help him moving forward, and who he has to have a tough conversation with that it’s time for them to find somewhere else to play. There just isn’t enough room for all of them, especially if we are going to keep our promise to Hahn.
We are going to have no shortage of talent, but we have had that the last 4 years anyway. Robinson, Spielman, Toure, Morgan, they were all good. Was it the QB? Was it lack of development at WR? I mean in 2019 we were having Kade Warner as our go to guy, and while I mean no offense to that, we aren’t winning division titles with that. You had Spielman AND Robinson that year, on top of recruits that we were excited about like Darien Chase, Woodard, Williams, etc. Whatever it is, it needs to get remedied in a hurry to get us where we want to be. I expect 2 in the transfer portal from this room after spring, there just isn’t room. There will be some guys that see the writing on the wall, and that’s probably a good thing. Until I see what our offense is going to be, I have no idea who that may be.
The other thing that is interesting, is remember how we were saying that taller WRs were what was needed in the B1G? Well, go ahead and chalk that up as another “I’m not sure why we are losing but maybe this is why” excuse that wasn’t accurate. The two transfers that Joseph hand picked are 6’1″ and 6’0″ roster height, and the two signees are 6’2″. Let me rephrase, if size/height was the issue our new coach doesn’t think that’s the case. So we are back to grasping at straws again.
The long and short of it is we are pretty lucky Joseph was on the unemployment line looking to come back home and help, because I think he is a great get for us. He is going to bring a presence that we haven’t had in that room for a long time. Watching how this room evolves is going to be fun, not only with numbers but with hopefully development. Having a coach with a national championship ring talking recruits into playing for him is pretty special. And let’s be honest, the development here can’t get any worse. Hopefully we can keep our leading WR after 2022 with a guy like Joseph around.
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