A year ago, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he knew that his team would have to rely on some newcomers at the wide receiver position in order to be successful on offense.
The Huskers saw some flashes over the course of 2020, but by and large, that position group did not produce the way NU hoped in a 3-5 campaign.
Needless to say, the broken offseason and pandemic-shortened regular season played a role in that. On top of that, the Huskers had a new position coach and offensive coordinator in Matt Lubick, who arrived on campus not long before spring ball was shut down in mid-March.
Moreover, Will Nixon suffered a season-ending knee injury before camp ever started, Omar Manning appeared in just one game and Marcus Fleming transferred in the middle of the season.
Looking back, consider how rough it might have been for the NU receivers had the group not been buoyed by the more unheralded offseason additions of walk-on transfers Levi Falck (South Dakota) and Oliver Martin (Iowa). And, as a capper, remember none of those five even arrived in Lincoln until the summer, meaning none of them went through winter conditioning or joined the program until the pandemic offseason was in full swing.
All of that makes for a good cautionary tale, that winter and spring optimism can quickly turn sour in the fall if the chips don’t fall in the correct direction.
However, if we fast forward to the present day, it’s also fair to say that the group looks more stable as the Huskers wrap up their second week of spring ball and, as such, there is again confidence that this could be the year the NU receiving corps breaks through.
The only newcomer this spring is Montana graduate transfer Samori Toure, a 2019 FCS first-team All-American who reeled in 87 passes for 1,295 yards in his final year in Missoula. He has earned rave reviews from teammates so far this spring.
“He’s really good,” Falck said with a smile on Monday. “He’s really fast, can play the ball in the air. I played against him at South Dakota when he was at Montana and I think he put up like 200 yards on us. I’m glad he’s on our team now.”
It was 142 yards and a touchdown on nine catches back on Aug. 31, 2019, but who’s counting?
Toure, 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, is, "real level-headed. He’s an experienced cat and he knows what he’s doing on the football field," quarterback Adrian Martinez said. NU coaches added last week that they plan to deploy Toure from the slot regularly, where it’s easier to keep press coverage away from him and give him options in the middle of the field.
“The challenge is just the new lingo,” Falck said. “I know he kind of ran a similar offense at Montana, but they call everything different. Some of the same words are going to mean different things, so it’s just deciphering quick. He knows the offense really well, it’s just about moving fast, and he’s even doing a good job of that now.”
More than just Toure’s addition, though, is the fact that most of the other projected contributors have now been in the program for a year. That’s true of Falck and Martin. It’s true of Nixon and Zavier Betts. It’s true of Alante Brown and Manning, too. Not least, it’s true of Lubick.
“It’s huge. Last year was so bizarre and I know we weren’t unique in that. Every school had that difficulty. But I think it’s a big difference,” Martinez said. “(Lubick) gets to spend more time with our younger receivers and develop them in the way we would like to and get them more reps, whether that’s film, on the field, weight room stuff. I mean, I think it’s a big deal, especially since some of those guys are not as experienced as some others.”
None of the receivers on the roster have more catches than Falck’s 13 or more receiving yards than Betts’ 131. The only pass-catchers on the roster whose time at NU predates 2020 are walk-on Wyatt Liewer and hybrid tight end/receiver Chris Hickman.
Yet Falck says the group has leadership — he mentioned himself, Toure and Martin plus the freshman Nixon — and an approach that he likes. Nixon, as an aside, is a player to keep tabs on. The son of Carolina Panthers assistant coach Jeff Nixon, he is a guy the Nebraska staff likes and might have contributed last fall but for a July knee injury.
“Everyone is super eager to learn. The meetings are really good — they’ve always been good in the wide receiver room — and everyone is asking questions,” Falck said. “I’d say everyone knows the offense in our receiver room pretty well.”
Nebraska, too, has a trio of players joining the room this summer in freshmen Latrell Neville, Shawn Hardy and Kamonte Grimes. Perhaps one or more of them picks things up quickly and forces his way into the conversation.
The difference between this year and last in the Husker receiver room, however, is that such a move might be considered more of a bonus than a necessity.