2022 Husker Breakdown: Receivers and tight ends aplenty, who will step up?
Welcome to the third position-by-position breakdown of Nebraska Cornhuskers football, where the wide receivers and tight ends complete our analysis of the skill positions. The Huskers are pretty stable, at least on paper, at the quarterback and running back positions, but relatively speaking, the receiving core has a little bit more to prove.
Just two of Nebraska’s 16 wide receivers on their roster donned the red and white last year. Former wideout Samori Toure is fighting for a roster spot with the Green Bay Packers currently after leading the Huskers with 898 yards and five touchdowns last year. Tight end Austin Allen, who set Nebraska single-season yardage records for a tight end, is doing the same with the New York Giants. No. 2 and 3 wideouts from 2021 Zavier Betts and Levi Falck are gone too.
Nevertheless, the Nebraska pass catchers aren’t all doom and gloom, thanks to three transfers who should see a heap of playing time. Travis Vokolek is a physical presence at tight end that will improve on his 2021 stat line of 11 catches and 127 yards by leaps and bounds as well.
But perhaps the biggest presence in the Husker’s group of pass catchers is someone that won’t be on the playing field: new wide receivers coach and former Nebraska QB Mickey Joseph, who arrives in Lincoln after coaching the likes of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson at LSU.
Perhaps a reason why Nebraska’s wideouts haven’t been as heralded as the QB’s and RB’s is because Joseph hasn’t taken it easy on Nebraska’s receivers.
“My thing is, I rule with an iron fist. They understand that. They accept that. I’m never going to cater to them. I’m never going to tell them what they want to hear. I’m always going to tell the truth. And I’m going to demand that they play with excellence. That’s how you win,” Joseph said.
However, there’s still a group of six wideouts that Joseph seems to think can make an impact, and the Huskers have a couple wild cards that could also break out too.
Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple loves his tight ends as Pitt’s top TE duo combined for 768 yards and 10 touchdowns on 65 catches last year. Vokolek is a good bet to lead the bunch this year but if last season is any indicator, there’ll be room for other Huskers tight ends such as Thomas Fidone to shine.
NOT GONNA CATCH HIM!!!
TREY PALMER TO THE 🏠 pic.twitter.com/LqfCVvPVjX
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) November 28, 2021
Palmer has perhaps generated the most buzz among Nebraska’s wide receivers after following Joseph from LSU. The junior is as skilled as they come; he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and along with pass catching, also added explosiveness in the kick return game. Palmer racked up 30 catches for 344 yards and three scores last year and keep in mind that he was playing behind a talented WR group that included Kayshawn Boutte, a future NFL receiver for all intents and purposes.
Trey Palmer weaves through the defense for the 61-yard TD! pic.twitter.com/vctLZZwIby
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 28, 2021
Expect to see Palmer line up primarily in the slot this year and bring potential game-breaking speed. He returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in his time at LSU and looks to be in line to at least be the primary punt returner for the Huskers this year.
Omar Manning makes tough catches. Need more volume. Keep him involved more. He should rack up a # of catches and have yards after the catch. He was not utilized up to his potential #Huskers pic.twitter.com/dyCDknRFnI
— What does the film say? (@Huskers_film) August 16, 2022
Another candidate to lead Nebraska in receiving yardage, Manning finally began to break out last year after being highly heralded following stints at TCU and the JUCO level. Manning is a big-bodied receiver at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and authored a 380-yard campaign in 2021, leading all of Nebraska’s returning pass catchers.
The expectation is for Manning to play on the outside, allowing Palmer more wiggle room in the middle of the field and with his size, Manning will be a legitimate red-zone threat. One of the two seniors among the Husker wideouts, Manning expected to play in the slot before Betts’ removal from the team but has adapted well to his role along the sidelines.
”Last year I felt like I got a foot in this offense, and now returning this year I’m just going to build off that,” Manning said. “I’m not even worried about the past. Everything right now is moving forward and it’s going great.”
Frost says of WR Marcus Washington, "He's even better than I was hoping for … He's going to be a big part of what we do."
— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) August 19, 2022
Washington came over to Nebraska from Texas, along with starting quarterback Casey Thompson, leading many to believe that he could be a favorite target. Both players will have to adapt to a new playbook but Washington has obviously had the most work with Thompson, which means at least something.
Washington’s stats last year weren’t too shabby: 18 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns, although 100 yards and both scores came in the Kansas game alone. He started each game last year for the Longhorns and has a decent shot to repeat that in 2022, but there’s a mix of hungry guys he’ll compete with for the #3 wide receiver spot.
Marcus Washington with the big catch. pic.twitter.com/2jA9SvZbcD
— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) September 13, 2020
Please sir, can we have some more? 👍
Oliver Martin hauls in the @HawkeyeFootball TD: pic.twitter.com/oxSWOrssDD
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) September 1, 2019
If there’s one thing certain about Martin, it’s that he likes playing Illinois. Last year, he caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in Champaign and secured two grabs for 30 yards against them in 2020. Aside from the Illinois game, Martin dealt with injuries and had just three catches for 44 yards the rest of the season after starting twice more.
Martin also started a handful of games in 2020 so he has potential to crack open a more consistent spot in the starting 11 if he can stay healthy. The senior is well traveled in the Big Ten as he played for Michigan and Iowa. He hangs his hat on superb route running to go with above-average hands and athleticism, allowing him the opportunity to give Husker fans more performances like they saw from him in Week 1 last year.
#Huskers glad to have Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda out there from the get-go this camp to see what he can do. pic.twitter.com/RvM4FnuTVs
— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) August 1, 2022
Garcia-Castaneda was a transfer portal addition for the Huskers in the offseason following a productive season for New Mexico State in 2021. Those types of years are nothing new for the junior since he’s excelled at every level so far: high school, junior college at Saddleback College, and a smaller Division I program.
Football is much different in Lincoln than it is in Las Cruces, New Mexico so there’s a little bit of a learning curve that Garcia-Castaneda will have to take some time to adapt to, something that his coaches have admitted that he is experiencing. However, he’s proved that he’s versatile and that teams can count on him, giving the Huskers another mouth that deserves feeding.
Mickey Joseph said he wants to have nine guys in his WR room who he'd feel comfortable playing.
So, the search is on.
Could Alante Brown be one of those names? The Chicago native has the tools.
More inside, including my nine guesses. #Huskers
Link: https://t.co/LtCagXFEQs pic.twitter.com/EErdvwuhnz
— Steve Marik (@Steve_Marik) March 12, 2022
A former quarterback in high school, Brown caught three passes for 30 yards last year and has seen his stock rise dramatically in the offseason. “He’s a kid that comes to work every day to get it done. He’s probably the most improved guy since the start of this process when I came in,” Joseph said of the sophomore.
Brown was Nebraska’s leading kick returner in 2020 and returned five kicks for 77 yards last year. As he’s developed as a receiver, he’s only gotten better and he still has plenty of time to improve. He’s a trendy pick to steal targets from his counterparts.
The other guys
"Brody (Belt) is probably the best football player on this team."
Brody Belt: 5'9" | 185 lbs | WR | Omaha, NE | Millard West HS@brodybelt #Huskers pic.twitter.com/pB29C5vwwx
— Kevin Sjuts (@kevinsjuts) March 22, 2022
The only other wide receivers on the roster that have caught a pass for the Huskers are Brody Belt and Wyatt Liewer.
Belt has been described as one of the best all-around football players on the Huskers thanks to his versatility as a running back and wide receiver, along with his play on special teams and instincts. He’s not a guy that will appear on the top of the scouting report but the Huskers will be glad they have him.
Liewer played in every game for Nebraska last year, catching four passes for 24 yards but most of his value comes on special teams. The former walk-on earned a scholarship last year.
Nebraska OC Matt Lubick says on Sports Nightly that Levi Falck and Wyatt Liewer are both on scholarship.
— Sam McKewon (@swmckewonOWH) July 28, 2021
The Huskers have three true freshman receivers: De’Coldest Crawford, Janiron Bonner and Victor Jones Jr. Crawford, whose internet popularity rose even further with his recent NIL commercial, sustained a significant knee injury and will be out for at least the first few weeks of the season. Bonner is a former Georgia Tech commit and Jones Jr. was a top-75 receiver according to Rivals. Both likely aren’t on tap for huge campaigns, but have showed enough flashes to get their feet wet this year.
#Huskers QB Casey Thompson (@LilThurm) & TE Travis Vokolek (@tvokolek2) make quite the duo 👀 pic.twitter.com/ArqjAdOvbF
— Lauren Michelson (@LaurenMichelson) August 10, 2022
Filling Austin Allen’s shoes will be difficult, but not impossible for Vokolek, who clocks in at a hulking 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. He’ll be tough to bring down in the open field, plays physically, and will be one of the few certain starters among Nebraska’s offensive skill position players, as long as he is fully recovered from an injury suffered in the spring.
Vokolek caught 11 passes for 127 yards last year after missing the first three games of the season with an injury. He’ll also factor in the run game too as a solid blocker and hopes to seal the edge for explosive Husker running backs, such as Rahmir Johnson. He’s shown small, but steady, improvement over his college career, which started at Rutgers. His senior year very well could be the one where he breaks out of the cage.
Travis Vokolek called Austin Allen after being named a captain. Said Allen helped him understand the importance of the title. “It means everything.” pic.twitter.com/45CPKuoRCY
— Jimmy Watkins (@JimmyWatkins95) August 21, 2022
Thomas Fidone: Pretty good. pic.twitter.com/nFYcSbLiJy
— Parker Gabriel (@ParkerJGabriel) July 25, 2020
Fidone is a redshirt freshman after an ACL injury derailed his freshman season, where he only saw little action in one game against Iowa. The buzz around Fidone was immaculate; he was the No. 1-ranked tight end in the country coming out of high school and was the Huskers’ highest-rated recruit in 14 years.
“Any person probably in the state of Nebraska will get to know he’s one of the hardest working individuals I’ve been around as a coach, tight ends coach Sean Beckton raved. Another injury bit Fidone in the spring and he is still yet to make a catch in a Husker uniform but Vokolek’s successor brings a lot of buzz.
Chancellor Brewington (@ChancellorBrew1) with his 1st Touchdown catch as a Husker to put Nebraska up 31-7 pic.twitter.com/zcPS7Ketuj
— Huskers Top Plays (@HuskersTopPlays) September 6, 2021
Brewington caught 3 balls for 20 yards and a touchdown last year and brought great blocking skills in short-yardage and goal to go situations to the table as well. Brewington is listed at 220 pounds after being listed at 185 pounds in 2021. Did he actually gain 35 pounds in the offseason? It would be quite the feat if he in fact did, but he could be counted on to catch the ball more if the injury bug bites either Vokolek or Fidone.
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