Last season was one of the best years in Husker history for wide receivers. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. broke the Nebraska record for most receiving yards in a season and JD Spielman was right there with him until he got injured and missed the last two games of the season.
This year, Morgan Jr. graduated, leaving Spielman and a whole lot of question marks. At first, it didn’t seem all bad, as Spielman has been one of the most productive underclassmen receivers in school history. On top of that, highly touted recruit Wan’Dale Robinson was coming in and expected to contribute right away.
So far, both have had relative success. Spielman has 19 receptions for 391 yards and one touchdown while Robinson has 18 receptions for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
Those numbers aren’t terrible but they could be better, especially when considering at this point last season Spielman had 461 receiving yards and five touchdowns, all while being the No. 2 target.
So why has Spielman perceivably regressed along with the receiving corps as a whole?
It comes down to the style of receiver the Huskers have. Spielman is a receiver who likes to work the middle of the field for big gains. Robinson is a receiver that likes to get the ball in space and do his damage.
What the Huskers lack is a true boundary threat. Last season, Morgan Jr. filled that role and was extremely effective. Having a boundary threat pulls the safeties away from the middle of the field. This opens up the middle of the field for someone like Spielman to go to work. That is partially why Morgan Jr. and Spielman were such good complements to each other last season.
This year, without a strong threat on the outside, opposing defenses can clog the middle of the field to stop Spielman. If nothing drags them to the outside, then they can play their safeties narrower in the middle of the field.
The Huskers’ options to fix this issue aren’t the best either. Robinson and Spielman are both too short to fulfill that role, which requires someone else to step up.
So far that job has fallen upon senior wide receiver Kanawai Noa. Noa had a year at Cal where he brought in 788 receiving yards, but he has been far from that with the Huskers. So far he only has five receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Other than Noa, the only other receivers who could fill that role are sophomores Kade Warner and Jaevon McQuitty and freshman Darien Chase. McQuitty and Chase have both seen the field at points throughout the season but the consensus is they aren’t quite ready for that role.
Warner has dealt with an injury he picked up in training camp and appears to have re-aggravated that injury last week against Ohio State. Last season, Warner was the No. 3 receiver for the Huskers by the end of the year with 17 receptions for 95 yards. He was expected to make a jump this season, but injuries have haunted him.
Another option for the Huskers is to use tight ends on the boundary. Head coach Scott Frost has tried that at times this season with moderate success, but at the end of the day, it is hard to have a tight end play on the boundary when they consistently start closer to the center of the field.
With all this information, it is clear there are some problems facing the Huskers’ receiving corps. During the game against Ohio State on Sept. 28, no wide receiver caught a pass in the first half and they only had three receptions for 20 yards in the second half.
Part of the blame also goes on the lackluster performance from both the offensive line and sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez. Although, not having that boundary threat could also be a reason Martinez has struggled, as he has to fit the ball into tighter windows, as well as not having a receiver he can trust to just go get a ball.
This year shows why having boundary receivers is important. There doesn’t appear to be an immediate answer this season as long as Warner is injured and Noa underperforms, but it should be a focus in the offseason to bring in more of those types of receivers and develop those that they already have. Until then, it will continue to be a struggle for Martinez and the passing game.