Enough of getting nostalgic going into the report card, but I do have a feeling that come the end of this season many will sit back and wonder what it might have been like to have Maurice Purify for one more year? Despite the loss of some of the top performing receivers to graduation, the receiver positions are talented still in Lincoln. Like the offensive line last year, this corps of receivers might be just some practical game experience away from being a very talented group.
Here is the post-spring report card for the wide receivers and the tight ends:
"X" or split end
1. Nate Swift - Quietly, Swift has had a solid career at Nebraska. With one year to go, Swift is third in receiving yards and fourth in receptions. Swift, of course, had a big freshman year where he put up almost half of his career receptions and yardage. Swift is arguably the most experienced player on the team having played in 38 games so far in his career.
It's that experience that Nebraska is going to need to draw from to lead a group of relatively young and very inexperienced receivers. Swift is a terrific route-runner, has better than average speed, but is still known to drop the occasional easy pass. On the other hand, Swift has been known to make some of the more difficult catches as well. From a consistency standpoint, Swift will need to get better and lead the receivers as a whole for this group and the team to enjoy a successful season. Swift has the career numbers, but isn't the receivers that defenses will look at and be scared of.
2. Niles Paul - Paul could play the X or the Z position, actually worked some at the Z position behind Purify, but I assume that the idea is to get Paul down the field to make plays. After a freshman season where it can be argued he was wasted or he wasn't utilized enough, Paul enters this fall as one of just a few receivers at either the X or Z that has a lot of game experience or just a catch.
Paul is athletically gifted. A track star at Omaha North, Paul was a hurdler and is known for his explosion. Physically, Paul is a division one player. However, the knock on Paul this spring has been his an inconsistency catching the ball. Paul should still be one of the players to keep an eye on to split time with Swift and push for time at the Z position. Paul could also get a look as a returner this fall. With Paul's size and speed, it will be difficult to keep him off of the field, but if well-thrown passes continue to be dropped then that will be enough to keep anyone off of the field.
3. Curenski Gilleylen - Like Paul, Gilleylen is another track star who is also a star on the football field. Paul and Gilleylen were two of the top recruits in the 2007 recruiting class and while Paul got on the field as a true freshman Gilleylen redshirted and grew up on the scout team last year. Gilleylen was actually a bit of a cherry on the top of the 2007 recruiting class being the last recruit to join the class and was widely considered to be the finishing touch on the class.
There are no doubts that Gilleylen can add speed to the offense. There are doubts though that even with that speed that he can emerge into a serious receiving threat with his tendency to drop passes thrown to him. In the spring game, Gilleylen caught a long touchdown pass from Joe Ganz, and then proceeded to have that long pass get overlooked by two passes that he dropped over the middle. Too many times last year, drives were stopped due to incomplete passes. More than that, the incomplete passes were catchable balls. Speed gets him a pretty high mark, but inconsistencies in the hands department keep his mark low.
4. Matt Donahue - I am throwing Donahue in here because I am intrigued by him. First of all, he gave up financial assistance to transfer back to the home-state school; a school that he initially told that he was planning on walking on at, but then got a late offer from Frank Solich at Ohio. What I like from Donahue and his days at Fremont is his yards per completion average (over 20). He will also have experience from playing as a true freshman at Ohio where he had a 100-yard performance in one game against Wyoming.
The bad news with Donahue is that he will have to sit out a year at Nebraska, after taking part in the spring practices, because of the NCAA transfer regulations. Donahue also need to work on his physique a little bit. A little light, Donahue has had the ability to run away from people before coming to Lincoln, but will need to learn to get off of the bump and run to play in the Big 12. Donahue still has great speed and dependable hands. In a year from now, it could be interesting to see where he is at and how he could push Paul and Gilleylen for playing time.
"Z" or flanker
1. Todd Peterson - Before last season, to me, Todd Peterson was Nebraska's version of "Ol' Faithful". Peterson seemed to be in the right place at the right time and always came up with big grabs. He was sure-handed, despite not being the fastest of receivers, Peterson made up for that by being physical and dependable.
Peterson's numbers are actually up from his freshman year to his junior year. However, with dropped balls not being tracked it's difficult to gauge what type of season could have been for Peterson. Without a doubt, Peterson along with Swift need to be leaders on this team this year, but more than that, they need to lead by example. That example needs to start with being reliable on the field to make plays. You don't need to make big plays on every catch, but you need to catch the ball when it's thrown your way. Peterson has huge shoes to fill at the "Z" position this fall (Maurice Purify).
2. Menolik Holt - Holt is a name that Husker fans recognize from when he was recruited to Lincoln, but has done little since getting on campus in terms of on the field production. Holt, now a junior, has four catches in his career for a little less than 100 yards with all of the grabs coming last year. Again, it can be discussed if burning his redshirt in 2006 was a good idea (see Niles Paul).
Holt has the size that you look for in a Z receiver. He's prototypical, but has yet to make a big impact. Some of that could be due to having guys like Purify and Peterson in front of you. One positive note here could be the chemistry and Holt and Joe Ganz might have. All four of Holt's catches came after Joe Ganz was tabbed with becoming the starter after an injury cut short the season of Sam Keller. Holt has some experience, playing in eight games as a freshman and all 12 last year, and he can take another step forward this year. Consistency catching the ball plagued Holt as well this spring.
3a/b. Chris Brooks/Will Henry - People have been waiting for these two to emerge. Brooks is 6-foot-2 and stolen away from Missouri. Henry, 6-foot-5, and has surprising speed for a guy with his height. The other thing that you saw with Henry in his short time in Lincoln was that he took a body that was playing three sports in El Paso, football, basketball and track, and gave it a chance to really train for football. He is as close to Maurice Purify size as they come on the team now.
The problem here is that both have needed time to develop. Brooks, a more polished receiver than Henry, was thrown to the wolves a bit as a true freshman, but still got his redshirt the year after in 2006 with a chance to still play two years in Lincoln. Henry got his redshirt year in 2006 and saw limited time last year. Brooks is probably a little bit ahead of Henry at this point, and missing the spring didn't help Henry, but the inconsistencies are there for both when it comes to catching the ball.
I have heard that you will get Jekyll and Hyde performances out of either of these players depending on the quarterback, the route, the defender, inside or outside, the angle of the sun and whether it was a full moon or not. There is no rhyme or reason for any of the inconsistencies except that it is a pretty well known fact that last year that between Sam Keller, Joe Ganz and Patrick Witt that all three of them throw a very, very different ball in terms of angle, rotations and speed. All of these receivers need to know what to expect though when they are in the huddle with the quarterback. That needs to become second nature. Room for improvement out of both of these players, but still a lot of potential and some time left in Lincoln for each player.
"Y" or tight end
1. Mike McNeill - As early has McNeil's freshman year, good word traveled around about his ability. Had it not been for a nagging turf toe injury, McNeil might have seen the field as a shadow of his current self in terms of weight (maybe in the 215 pounds range) because of his ability to run nice routes, catch the ball and get up field. Instead, we are still waiting for that Mike McNeil to show up.
McNeil has battled injuries throughout his career in Lincoln from his toe, to a shoulder to a hand. McNeill finally seems ready to emerge into the player that he was thought to be since coming from Kirkwood HS in Missouri. Expect McNeil to do a lot of the things that Matt Herian used to do, before his injury, when it comes to finding holes in the defense for first downs or stretching the field vertically for big gainers. I would look for McNeil to be moved around a lot from the "Y" to the "U" which is usually the little motion man from one side of the line to the other and then immediately into a pattern. This could be a breakout year for McNeill if he can stay healthy. More bad news: no catches and not a factor in the spring game.
2. Hunter Teafatiller - Teafatiller saw a lot of playing time last year, played in 11 games, but only grabbed four passes for 34 yards with three of those receptions coming on the road against Wake Forest. Teafatiller isn't known for his receiving prowess and I don't expect that to change this year.
However, Teafatiller is a very talented and gifted blocker when it comes to the tight end position and you need those too. One of the unsung heroes of the national championship years from the 90's was Tim Carpenter who only caught a pass or two in his entire career in Lincoln, but was one of the biggest reasons the option attack worked so well for Nebraska. Teafatiller will be integral to the success of the team this year when it comes to running the ball well and the occasional pass or two.
3. Dreu Young - A walk-on from Cozad, Young has been making a name for himself in Lincoln as a receiver. A big-bodied tight end, Young has surprising speed for a man with his size and has gained some good weight since his time in Lincoln. With Nebraska losing three tight ends to graduation, expect Young to see some time in two, tight end sets in obvious passing situations.
Young has some experience on the field, hauling in one catch last year against Nevada, however he is going to be able to take monstrous steps forward as a player in his development in game situations this fall. Expect to hear Young's name called more often this year than last year. Still raw, developing, but has a lot of potential with limited game reps.
4. Tyson Hetzer -Hetzer reported to Lincoln in the spring as a junior college transfer with two years to play two years. The thought with Hetzer was getting bigger and more athletic at the tight end position was a necessity for the Huskers. Hetzer is athletic, but his size was always in debate. Self proclaimed in recruiting stories last year, Hetzer said that he was near the 265 pound range and was actually around 230.
All weight issues aside, Hetzer still upgrades the athleticism side of the tight end group until a knee injury cut his spring short. I haven't heard any word on whether or not Hetzer is expected to be ready for the fall, but with 2/2 on the eligibility, the Huskers are either going to need to find a way to get him on the field this fall, even if it's for a game, or seek a medical redshirt at the end of the 2009 season.
"H" or H-back
1. Ryan Hill - I can only assume that this is where Ryan Hill is going to earn a living while playing at Nebraska. Not as tall as McNeill or as physical as Teafatiller on the line, Hill is going to need to be moved around to find and create mismatches for himself and the other players on offense.
Surprisingly, Hill was the only member of the tight ends that got a catch in the spring game in 2008. Hill was a wide receiver in high school, so he has good speed, but at 245 pounds now I doubt that he still has the speed that the had in Arvada, Colo. and that the hybrid role now passes him by more for than just his lack of height. Potential here, but not sure how he is going to fit in, ever.
Overall, I like what Todd Peterson and Nate Swift bring to the table. They are experienced. They are known for making big catches. They are also known for missing some easy ones and that is what separates them right now from being good receivers to either very good or great. Nebraska lacks the receiver that opposing defensive coordinators will tell their team to be sure and keep track of this guy when he is on the field; hence my comments about wanting Maurice Purify for another year. Behind the seniors, Nebraska is young. I mean, you have Menolik Holt and Chris Brooks that who are juniors and the rest are either sophomores or younger. There is potential. What you don't get with the receivers beyond Peterson and Swift is a lot of experience. That is unfortunate because you need to have Holt and Brooks to emerge this year as opposed to develop. At tight end, I think that Mike McNeil is one healthy season away from having a break out year. He has the size that you want and he is only a sophomore right now. I think that Dreu Young can be a complimentary tight end as a receiver because he still needs work in the blocking game. Hunter Teafatiller will bring a physical presence to the tight end position and will allow Nebraska the opportunity to run wide to his side if they want to do that. If there is a tragedy here it might be the knee injury to Tyson Hetzer. He is a 2/2 JUCO transfer and missed the entire spring for the most part. He could have been that X-Factor there and could use the development. One guy that I didn't mention in this report card, but did in the running backs report card, is Kyler Reed. Expect Nebraska to get Reed involved and position him all over the field to create mismatches not only for him, but for others. Another true freshman that I think will have an impact is Khiry Cooper. I don't think that Cooper is going to be that receiver that will put fear into an opposing team, but I think that he has good hands, runs nice routes and needs to push some of the juniors, sophomores and freshman for playing time so they continue to push themselves. Outside of Cooper, I think that Antonio Bell could bring something to the table in the form of a possession receiver because of his lack of true, straight line speed. Besides Peterson and Swift, the receivers for Nebraska bring ability, speed, not a lot of experience and a lot of inconsistency to the table for the Huskers. This corps will have to improve during the summer otherwise expect to see a lot of long, game management drives that keep the clock going while Nebraska is on offense and the Nebraska defense off of the field in the fall. There are just too many question marks here to feel good about this receiver corps right now.
Up next, we change sides of the football and talk defensive line!