Countdown to Spring: Tight End

The question has been asked for over a year now: When is Matt Herian coming back? If you averaged over 40 yards a reception your freshman year, I guess it figures why people would be chomping at the bit to see you come back. Well, this spring he should be back, which is going to put a buzz in the air and shake up a seemingly mundane position. We'll tell you how we think this position shakes out this spring and just what to look for going into the fall.

It seems like it's been forever since Matt Herian's name was uttered in a sentence that didn't have the question about his eventual return attached. It's been over a year since he went down with both a broken leg and a broken wrist. If one surgery wasn't bad enough to have to endure on that leg, Herian had to undergo two, setting his rehab back perhaps an entire season.

The way is apparently over, though, so people can once again look forward to seeing his face and number on the field turf of Memorial Stadium once again.

What's that mean to the tight end position?

Since there isn't a ton of members at this position, we won't break it down into categories, rather we will rank them top to bottom on just where we think they will come out of spring seated on the depth chart. This is a position that is so vital to the "West Coast" offense and it hasn't been the same since Herian went down. This spring they will start revamping that group for the future.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is exactly what does this offense need out of their tight end?

If you look at the offense that is most closely related to the one Nebraska runs, you simply have to go where head coach Bill Callahan's old boss resides. No, not Al Davis, but the man whose offense he used in his first year at the helm of the Oakland Raiders, taking the silver and black to the Super Bowl to meat you-know-who.

In Callahan's first year he basically took John Gruden's offense verbatim and kept it as-is. Why change something that works, right?

Callahan did change it the following year, though, and that manifestation is basically what you see Nebraska running today, but it's still not a terribly long way from what Gruden still runs with the Bucs.

So, what does the tight end mean to their team?

Starting tight end Alex Smith caught 41 balls last season, out of a total of 303 completions the Buccaneers had on the year. That makes his role approximately 14% of Tampa Bay's passing attack. Out of Nebraska's 239 completions in 2005, their top tight end in regard to receptions (J.B. Phillips) accounted for just six percent. In Callahan's last year with the Raiders his starting tight end (Doug Jolley) accounted for 13% of the team's passing offense.

While neither Smith or Jolley turned out to be very prolific receivers in regard to touchdowns, both served their purpose in being able to become a significant threat in this offense, something the tight end currently isn't at Nebraska. This is where you can bet Callahan and company want to go with the position and this is how we see this spring shaping up.

Matt Herian – Common sense would tell you that even with all the time Herian has had to get back into shape and ready to go this year, he's still going to be very rusty going into this spring. Yeah, that's true, but you can bet any amount of money you want that this staff is going to push him like he's never been pushed before, because he's potentially that big of a weapon for the Huskers.

The common misconception here is that Herian is going to need to be a good run blocker in order to establish that he's the full package this staff needs at the position. While that would be great, it's mostly not true, because Herian is simply a big receiver and he'll have about the same obligations at blocking that most receivers do, except his duties will be predominately at the line of scrimmage.

Other than that, this is the "hot route", the go-to-guy, the one you need when you need someone to throw to and Herian has already proven that he's got the size and athleticism to be that. What he may have to prove this spring, though, other than that he's ready for the physical pounding, is that he's ready to go out and get balls when they aren't placed right in his hands or between the numbers.

Herian is known for many things when it comes to the position, but aggressiveness isn't one of them. If there is one drawback to his game, it's that he doesn't have this do-or-die mentality when it comes to going after the ball. He's bigger now, stronger and tougher, so that could be a non-issue. If that's the case, that basically cements his spot at the top.

Justin Tomerlin – He wanted to play tight end and while it took a year, he's back at the position and physically he's going to be a welcome addition to the group.

Tomerlin doesn't have the sheer athleticism Herian had prior to his injury, but he's definitely got the size, standing right around 6-5. Weighing around 265 pounds, he's also got the perfect body, not too big to be cumbersome in running routes or too light in trying to block and physically fend off linebackers in coverage.

The big thing for Tomerlin, though, is his attitude and you can call him a tight end with a defensive end's mentality: He'll go after the ball.

He's one of those guys, who will get in there and be physical and scrap a little if he has to in order to either get open or come down with the reception. Between himself and Herian, this could be a very potent one-two combination at the position.

J.B. Phillips – The problem with the lack of effectiveness by the tight ends in their paltry number of receptions wasn't so much to do with the lack of ability by each, rather it was more to do with the fact that blocking tight ends aren't serious threats to catch the ball.

With more athletic tight ends in the fold like Herian and Tomerlin, Phillips could be one of the chief benefactors in that as he is playing the role of blocker and possession-receiver, he should have more opportunities this year. His goal this spring will be to fend off those that will try and take some or all of his time.

David Harvey – Ask a coach what stands out about Harvey other than the athleticism he exhibited in one of Nebraska's summer camps last year, which earned him his written offer. They would tell you that when it comes to work ethic, this young man has no peer. If a coach says it, he does it, and if they want effort, Harvey gives you everything he's got and then asks you what else you want him to do.

That's a great start and Harvey has used his redshirt year to perfection in picking up the offense, figuring out what his role is going to be and knowing who his competition is and what he'll have to do to end up on top or at least getting some time. This spring is his debut and with as ready as he appears to be mentally, combined with his impressive physical attributes, it's a safe bet that he'll get some time. How much will ultimately be decided by Harvey himself.

Clayton Sievers – Going back to Doug Jolley, the tight end that played for Oakland during Callahan's brief tenure as a head coach there, Sievers and Jolley are almost identical in size. That doesn't mean much, certainly, but it tells you that at least physically Sievers' only drawback is perhaps a little athleticism and strength, but more having to do with age and time on the field.

With only six receptions last year, we didn't get to see much of what Sievers could do, but he's got the physical upside, that if he's anything like his older brother, former Husker Chad Sievers in the work-ethic department, he'll have a nice future with the big red.

At this point you could call him a tweener of sorts, struggling between the role of blocking tight end, to that of a tight end whose role is as much that of receiving threat as he is of protection at the line. This spring he could go a long ways into making himself that much more valuable with the team.

Josh Mueller – You can't question Josh's size or athleticism. He's got that and then some. What he has had problems with over the last couple of years is being consistent in catching the ball and his discipline at the line of scrimmage.

That's compounded by the fact that in an offense, which has been struggling in the passing game, the tight ends have been blockers more than they have been threats to catch the ball and Mueller has issues in those areas as well.

You have to feel that with just his sheer athleticism and height, he's going to have his opportunities this spring to prove he belongs with the guys at the top of the heap. But the competition is going to be as stiff as it has ever been for him and it's going to be a chore to break into the mix.

Sean Hill – You want to ask anyone what Sean Hill's strength is, why don't you ask junior defensive end Jay Moore. In the one-on-one blocking drills, Moore found out what everyone else found out when they had face this ferocious junior. Moore was just one of many that Hill faced and promptly knocked flat on their back, to finish undefeated last fall in this particular drill.

So, how is his ability as a receiver? We don't know as he hasn't caught a ball for the Huskers. Is he a one-dimensional tight end only good in short yardage or goal-line situations? It's impossible to tell, but based on reps, one would have to assume that right now.

Hill is always going to have a place, because he is such a ferocious blocker. That cements him as an important part of the offense. But in the truest sense of the position, it's not certain whether he'll get to realize everything he can do. Or maybe he has. During this spring, we'll be able to find out a little more.

The tight end position is key to the west coast offense. It offers you an additional blocker at the line, but more than anything, it gives you a big receiver that poses match up problems for the defense. Ideally they are too big for cornerbacks and safeties and too athletic for linebackers, which is just what this staff is looking for.

Coming in for the fall will be someone just like that, Michael McNeil, bringing similar measurables and athleticism that Herian brought to the mix when he was a freshman with the big red. It's the hope, of course, that Michael can have even close to as significant an impact as Herian did.

Except for the injury, of course.

Well, the offense wouldn't be complete without taking a look at the running backs and with Cory Ross gone, someone is going to have to step up. We'll tell you who we think will do just that in the spring .

Stay tuned.

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