The Nebraska football team returns just 554 yards of production from last season’s wide receiving corps.
That, compounded with the departure of perennial 800-yard receiver JD Spielman, leads the common observer to believe that Nebraska could struggle with its outside production yet again.
However, what appears to be one of Nebraska’s biggest weaknesses could actually be one of its biggest strengths in 2020, at least according to offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. Behind junior wide receiver Kade Warner (101 receiving yards in 2019) and sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (453 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns in 2019), the two returning wideouts that contributed in 2019, Nebraska has a bevy of experience and youth that is ready to contribute.
Zavier Betts, a four-star freshman wide receiver, is a prime example of a young newcomer that could make an impact. According to Lubick, Betts has been turning heads with his play over the last few weeks and has a chance to contribute in his first collegiate season.
“Zavier in the last few weeks has made some big steps, he’s been getting some snaps with the 2’s over the last few weeks,” Lubick said in a press conference on Thursday afternoon. “I do think he’ll help us this year at some point.”
Robinson also sung Betts’ praises, and he said that he’s taken the responsibility of being a mentor to Betts and fellow freshman wide receiver Marcus Fleming. Being thrust into a leadership role as a true sophomore can be a daunting task, but it appears to be one that Robinson is willing to embrace.
“[Betts and Fleming] are coming along,” Robinson said in the press conference. “It’s taken a little bit of work to get them where they need to be but they’ve come along really well. I’ve taken them under my wing to help them understand the offense and what it takes to be a football player at Nebraska.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a wide receiver on the roster that Lubick, Robinson or Warner didn’t mention when the position group was discussed on Thursday. Lubick said that he’s “seen improvements” from redshirt freshman wide receivers Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston, and that redshirt freshman wide receiver Chris Hickman and sophomore Brody Belt have looked sharp backing up Robinson in camp.
Robinson mentioned the successes of senior graduate-transfer Levi Falck and sophomore walk-on Wyatt Liewer, who head coach Scott Frost and junior quarterback Adrian Martinez mentioned previously as a player that has impressed in fall camp.
As for Robinson, both he and freshman wide receiver Alante Brown have been banged up during camp but are now “full go,” according to Lubick. Managing a wide receiver room with so many different pieces can present its challenges, but Lubick is confident that a lot of players will have the opportunity to contribute on the outside.
“We have a lot of guys that can play the different wide receiver positions, we cross-train all our skill guys so if we have a depth issue we can move players in different spots,” Lubick said. “In terms of the rotation, we’ll play as many guys that can help us win.”
A talented wide receiver room will be led by Robinson and Warner, the former of which Lubick said he was “a big fan of” last season. He also said that Robinson and Warner’s experience and work ethic make them valuable role models in the wide receiver unit.
“Him and Kade Warner are the leaders of the wide receiver room and they lead by example,” Lubick said. “They’re the first out in every drill, and that’s why they’re good players. They’re talented but they have a great work ethic and play really hard.”
Warner agreed, noting a “cultural reset” of the wide receiver corps — a collective effort between himself, Lubick and Robinson. As one of the more senior members of the wide receiver room, Warner has been thrust into a leadership role but he has embraced it, as evident by him inviting the wide receivers over to watch NFL games and break down defenses.
“It all started with me just asking the guys. There’s only so much time we have during the week to go over film, I hit up all the receivers and told them to come over and we can watch the game and explain plays,” a mustached Warner said in the press conference. “It’s just me going over what I see on the field and where to attack defenses. There’s different ways to run routes and I like to explain that to them.”
In addition to being a leader in the wide receiver room, Warner is trying to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2019 campaign. He featured in four games in his sophomore season, down from eight his freshman year in 2018. Now fully healthy, Warner hopes he can produce in an increased offensive role.
“Going back to last season, it was really tough because you have expectations that you need to meet. I wanted to increase my production and help my teams win football games, and to not do that was tough,” Warner said. “I’ve worked hard to recover from injuries over the offseason, my hamstrings feel great and I’m ready to help us win.”
However, the quarterback who will be throwing this group of wide receivers the ball nine days from now when Nebraska takes the field against Ohio State is still up in the air.
The competition between Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey is still raging on. Lubick said that both have played “at a high level” in fall camp, and that he will consult Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, but it will come down to which quarterback gives Nebraska the best chance to win.
Robinson was high on McCaffrey’s development from last year to this year, noting that he’s improving as a passer. According to Robinson, McCaffrey has worked hard for this moment and has played well enough in camp to warrant a competition in the first place.
“It’s a testament to how much work Luke has put in. I’m sure he was working with his brothers in the offseason and also watching a bunch of film,” Robinson said. “He’s taken probably ten steps forward in the passing game, which was something he felt he needed to work on in the offseason.”
Warner, who like McCaffrey, grew up in an NFL family, said that McCaffrey’s competitive edge has allowed him to elevate his play in fall camp. However, Warner praised both Martinez and McCaffrey, saying that there are things that both have improved on in the offseason.
“What they’ve both done well this year is that they’re both getting better at staying in the pocket and making throws,” Warner said. “Adrian has done better with his deep-ball accuracy as well as getting better at all three levels of the passing game. Luke has done a good job pushing Adrian and forcing him to keep working hard.”
No matter which direction Nebraska moves in, Ohio State looms. And as of today, Nebraska will be more than a three-touchdown underdog when it steps into the Horseshoe on Oct. 24. However, Robinson and his teammates aren’t letting the prospect of an opening-week matchup with one of the best teams in college football faze them.
“Alright, they can have it. There aren’t 21 points on the board already,” Robinson said. “We don’t really care about the favorites, we just have to come out and play football.”