Barney Cotton would like to replace the biggest question mark on Nebraska’s offense with an exclamation point.
Or, more preferably, with four exclamation points.
While most are wondering who will start at tight end come Aug. 31, Cotton is more concerned about finding solid backups.
“It’d sure be nice to have a four-man complement going into fall,” said Cotton, the Nebraska assistant coach who oversees tight ends. “I don’t know if we’re there yet.”
Last season, Ben Cotton played 40 to 50 snaps a game, Kyler Reed played about 30, Jake Long had 15 to 20, and Conor McDermott entered on short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Only Long returns to an offense that boasts a wealth of starting experience most everywhere else.
“The biggest thing in that room is, we’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulder, because with an experienced offense like we have, fingers are pointed squarely at that group,” Barney Cotton said of the tight ends.
“We want to make sure that it’s not a weakness of our offense. We want those guys to think their goal is to become the strength of this offense.”
Counting spring practice — which concludes with Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game — and fall camp, the tight ends have 44 practices “to get rid of their rookie status,” Cotton said.
“We’re young,” said Long, a senior from Elkhorn, “but with that comes some … a lot of those guys are eager to learn. They’re taking their extra time and learning their assignments to figure out what they need to do.
“It’s gone from knowing your assignment and knowing the offense to knowing the play in itself, and what you’re supposed to do. It’s the little things that help you in your routes and your blocking that you pick up on that makes the game easier, makes it slow down.”
Long, who caught six passes last season, has “really good speed” and has been doing well this spring, Cotton said.
Long played in all 14 games last season and is the veteran of a group that features sophomores and redshirt freshmen, with two true freshmen, Cethan Carter and Greg Hart, to join the fray come fall.
David Sutton, a sophomore from Lincoln Southeast, is first in line behind Long, but has been hampered by a hamstring injury throughout the spring. He returned to practice after a week-long spring break, but has been limited to mostly blocking.
“Now we’ve kind of graduated to run blocks and short, three-step passes — nothing intermediate or deep yet,” Cotton said. “So his evaluation has been limited.”
Other tight ends in the mix this spring include a couple of other Southeast grads, redshirt freshmen Sam Cotton (the coach’s son) and Trey Foster, along with Gretna walk-on Jared Blum, also a redshirt freshman.
“Those guys have had a real good, competitive spring,” Barney Cotton said. “We’re probably a little bit further along, maybe, as receivers than blockers, but that’s sometimes because of age. You’ve got a bunch of guys who are 18 years old and need to become more physical.
“They’ve gotten better at that. They do a lot of blocking of linebackers and the perimeter, and they’ve gotten better.”
Of utmost importance, though, is the mental aspect of the game. Tight ends must know everything a receiver knows, as well as anything an offensive lineman knows.
“They’re like a third tackle, and yet they’re also like a Kenny Bell or a Quincy Enunwa,” the coach said. “They’ve got to know all of those things.”
Limiting versatility because of youth isn’t an option, either.
“The more things we can do,” Long said, “the better.”