Countdown to Spring: Wide Receiver

In our continuing countdown to spring, we look at the wide receiver position. It was a good year overall for the group as people actually got to see what a passing attack looked like at various points of the year and players like Nathan Swift made a name for themselves, setting records and proving themselves dependable under fire.

To say you set a record in receiving at Nebraska is like saying you are the best looking person at an ugly-person jamboree. It's only been this year that we have seen the vaunted west coast offense realize some of its awesome potential. Much of that has to do with Zac Taylor, but he's got to have guys open and as we learned this last year, they still have to bring the ball in.

Much like the offensive line, we are going to break this down into two categories, the first being "It's step-up time", indicating those players, who might have been good last year, but could be a lot better or those that hardly showed up at all. And like our last comparison, we will put these in order, top to bottom on who we think will indeed be stepping up.

Terrence Nunn – You are probably wondering why in the heck this talented wideout would be here. After all, he was equal to Nathan Swift in touchdown receptions (7), only two behind in receptions (43 to Swift's 45) and when the bowl game arrived, it was Nunn that came up the biggest, posting two touchdowns on the day, including a 53 yard jaunt that opened up the game for the Huskers.

Well, that's exactly why I think Nunn is the top candidate to step up, because while he was certainly stellar in some games, in others he was all but invisible and in one, a mistake of his swung the momentum of the game.

And let's not forget that out of all the receivers on this team right now, Nunn is by far the most potent when it comes to combining the versatility to go deep and take the short pass for a big gain. This offense is in sore need of someone that can consistently do that this year, something Nunn didn't do last year. I'm betting with the increased competition Nunn finds his complete game.

Tyrell Spain – It took longer to get onto the campus of Nebraska than he thought, but Spain has finally arrived and stemming from his exploits during the summer last year, the expectations are high.

The theme for the group of receivers coming in for the fall was that they were big, athletic and had the versatility to be midfield and down-the-field threats. While Nebraska has some solid possession guys right now, there's no presence that has been a consistent performer in both short and deep patterns.

Spain physically is the ideal receiver and there's little doubt that his brief time with the team over the summer is going to help him out going into this spring. What's most important is that he find the kind of chemistry with Zac Taylor that various receivers have found and he should be on his way to a solid career.

Isaiah Fluellen – Here's a guy whose name we should have been calling far more than we have over the last couple of years. Hampered by injuries that seem to plague the senior, we have only seen glimpses of Fluellen's impressive speed and overall athleticism. Against Baylor last year, Fluellen only caught two balls, but he took both of those in for scores, one from 45 yards out and the other from 27.

It's that kind of potency that was expected by the speedster, but it's only come in spurts. If Fluellen wants to become anything more than an also-played, this spring has to be where he steps up.

Frantz Hardy – After his first game with Nebraska, where he notched 7 catches and totaled 152 yards against Maine, people probably drooled at all the points he was going to score and records he was going to break that year.

Unfortunately, teams learned that if you played Hardy close to the line, he had problems getting off the initial jam and that's when Hardy's numbers plummeted. After the first game of the year, Hardy would add just 18 more catches for the entire rest of the season and he would score just a single touchdown.

It's going to be up to Nebraska to try and find a way to work Hardy in, because he does have the speed and against Michigan, he proved with one vital catch, he also has the hands. He just needs to be able to get off the line. If other receivers step up, it could help Hardy have a more positive year this season.

Grant Mulkey – Who goes over the middle without fear? Yes, Grant Mulkey. Who will be that one guy that you know will do his damndest to bring down the ball even if he knows he's about to get lit up like a pinball machine? Yes, Grant Mulkey. That's his M.O. as it were, the guy that will take a licking and keep on ticking.

This spring he has to do more

While Mulkey made some tough catches this last season, he also had some tough drops. While Mulkey is and will always be the guy to make the tough catch, you are going to be finding that this team will soon be physically much bigger, sporting players who have just as much tenacity as Mulkey, but with the added size, they have a better shot at taking the hit and still doing something afterward.

Size really does matter in this offense as we have seen illustrated simply by how this staff recruits and for a guy that's not even 6 foot tall, he either better be a complete burner, which Mulkey isn't, or he has to be one of the if not THE most dependable guy on the field.

You think of guys that size in the NFL, who have had to do that on a yearly basis, one of the first names that comes to mind is Wayne Chrebet of the New York Jets. Here's a guy that from day one has been disrespected by the opposition and even at times by his own team. But he's still the most dependable receiver they have.

He makes the catch when it has to be made. He uses his smallish size to his advantage and when the word "fear" comes up, it's being applied to someone else or the fact that despite his stature, you genuinely fear what that guy can do.

Mulkey has to become that if he's going to be able to stay on the field this year. He can't drop a ball, he can't mess up his routes and he can't make any of the mistakes that the bigger, faster and more talented receivers can make, because they have ways to make up for it. Starting this spring, Mulkey has to be near perfect if he's going to continue to be a weapon for this team.

Chris Brooks – Oh where, oh where have you gone Mr. Brooks? All the pre-season hype and pre-season hope basically dashed before it really had a chance to gain any steam. Whether it was the injury that kept him out of the first two games and seemed to linger in slowing him down or the alleged lack of a real work ethic in practice, Brooks' considerable luster has worn down to barely a glimmer on the depth chart.

You can't question his potential as Brooks' size and speed still make him one of the deadliest weapons could have in their arsenal, and in the times we were able to watch him before the season started, he looked very smooth in his routes, exhibiting wonderful hands.

But that's all woulda, coulda and might be, until he hits the field with a purpose, something he hasn't done for even a single down as of yet. With so many potentially promising players coming in during the fall, Brooks is going to have to find a good groove and stay in it, if he wants to stay in it at all.

Our next category is "The Next Step", indicating players that did well last year and this will be the year they can either cement their status as an integral part of the offense or stay where they are at and possibly get passed up by players already on the team or those coming in.

Nathan Swift – Yeah, sure he's a possession guy, but the kid is fearless in space, knows how to use his body in coverage and he runs very good routes. Combine that with being one of the more sure-handed players on the team, possession guy or not, this kid is a valuable part of the team.

He's not going to wow you with his breakaway speed or enthrall you with his cat-like quickness after the catch, but what is that they say about big time players? Yeah, they make those plays when the plays need to be made.

The thing I love about him the most is that his humble disposition reflects in how he plays on the field, knowing full well he's one play away from riding the bench the rest of the game. That is also true of when he's in practice. I like players with confidence, but I also like that attitude that they know every new day, it's another day that they have to step up their game or someone is going to take their spot on the field.

Nebraska will need those true playmakers, but you can't count all the guys in the NFL, who have made a living being the staple of a team's offense, because they do all the simple things well. Defenses can't ignore them and Swift still has the ability to beat them even if they don't.

Todd Peteson – Perhaps we are making a little more out of this young man than we should, but let's face the obvious belief that nobody figured this walk-on would do much of anything last year, other than offer up another body in the game, to take at least some attention away from the guys you really wanted to have the ball.

All Peterson did was gain the trust of the quarterback Zac Taylor.

I'm going to tell you something, ability or not, speed or not, if your quarterback doesn't trust you or doesn't really believe that you are one of the key guys, when he checks down, when he gets to you, it's going to be a subtle glance and not a real look as he tries to find someone to get the ball. While it was later in the season when Peterson started catching fire and he only caught nine balls on the year, I bet if you ask Zac Taylor if he trusts Peterson to be the guy when it counts, he would say yes ten times over.

Like Swift, he isn't going to give you a lot of Y.A.C. or yards after the catch, but he'll give you the wherewithal to go after the ball and the hands to haul it in. When it's third and five and you are deep in your territory, you wouldn't mind a big play, but more than anything, you want someone that is going to make the catch when you need it. Peterson is that kind of kid.

Ok, there's the two big categories and we'll once again wrap this up with a potential spring depth chart and we will then follow that up with one in the fall. There's far too many unknowns about this incoming group of wideouts. With some, Maurice Purify most specifically, whether he makes it at all is going to be up in the air for awhile. So, for now, let's see where I think this group shakes out after the spring game is done.

WR (X)
- Nathan Swift
- Tyrell Spain
- Chris Brooks
WR (Z)
- Terrence Nunn
- Isaiah Fluellen
- Frantz Hardy

As we head into fall, if everyone shows up, Will Henry, Menelik Holt and Maurice Purify will add automatic size, but especially with Purify, amazing potential as not just an early-season contributor, but star.
All of them showing up would be good, because Nebraska still finds itself reeling a bit from the class that was but wasn't, when the Huskers got commits from Brodrick Hunter, Wallace Franklin, Tyrell Spain, Frantz Hardy and Chris Brooks, and only one saw any meaningful reps, one (Spain) had to finish his schooling at a Lincoln community college, Brooks was hampered by injury early on and both Wallace and Franklin had to attend junior college in Kansas.

That put a major emphasis on recruiting wideouts for 2006, but even if all of them do show up, there still has to be a decent emphasis on this position for 2007. Nebraska will potentially lose just Fluellen and Mulkey to graduation, but with Purify coming in as a junior, that could mean Nebraska loses six receivers after next year and you can't recruit for next year this year. You have to think at least two years ahead.

That's a wrap on the receivers and in the next segment we'll concentrate on tight end. With Justin Tomerlin moving back and Matt Herian supposedly ready to go, this could be the most interesting spring at the position since Herian first arrived. And just how they get used over the spring will also be equally interesting.

Stay tuned.

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