The impromptu film sessions at Kade Warner’s apartment started, more than anything, as a pushback against the boredom and monotony that came along with a summer of social distancing.
The junior Nebraska wide receiver figured if he wasn’t doing anything productive, he might as well see if anybody wanted to watch football.
“I hit up the receivers and I said, ‘Hey, I am free any day. I’m bored. I just play video games all day. Use my free time, please,’” Warner said Thursday.
Lo and behold, a few young guys trickled in. Warner set up the meetings for a couple of weeks, then backed off to see if the newcomers would take initiative. Sure enough, they kept reaching out, wanting to come back for more.
Once football started up, they didn’t just limit the viewing to film.
“He’s having guys over every 'Monday Night Football,' 'Thursday Night Football' and he’ll say, ‘Let’s just watch "Monday Night Football" and we’ll have a whiteboard in the living room,’” roommate and junior tight end Austin Allen said. “And he’ll say, ‘Let me talk you through this defense, let me talk you through this offense.’ Kade Warner’s leadership has been unmatched in the receiving corps and that’s helped all these new receivers that are new to the program as a whole, get a lot better.”
The Huskers’ receiving corps is going to look much different this year. Several players left NU after last season. The program signed what recruiting services considered to be among the country’s best classes for 2020, and that’s before walk-on transfers Levi Falck and Oliver Martin. They have a new position coach in first-year offensive coordinator Matt Lubick.
As such, leadership in the room comes from Warner — he of 196 career receiving yards and until this summer a walk-on — and sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson.
“I always tell those guys, ‘Hey, they’re going to respond more to you than they are to me,’” Lubick said Thursday. “They’re the first out in every drill and they practice hard. When a young guy like Zavier Betts sees Kade Warner go 100 miles per hour or Wan’Dale, that’s contagious. They’ve done a great job of that and that’s why they’re good players.
“They’re good players, they have talent, but they also have work ethic and heart and they play really hard.”
Both ascended to leadership naturally. Robinson excelled on the field as a freshman and found his voice as a cornerstone player as his rookie season progressed. By the time the year ended, his teammates were comfortable with him speaking for the offense.
Warner said he looked around after the season and realized he was the most experienced guy in the room.
“I think I was kind of thrust into that role, but I think it’s more of a natural role, because with a leader, you also have to be a teacher,” Warner said. “With me knowing the offense and being able to teach these guys, they look to me as a leader already.”
The old “coach on the field” cliché is a worn trope in sports, but Warner does literally sound like a coach when he talks about blocking technique and being proud of NU’s younger, inexperienced receivers. He wants to be a coach when his playing days are done. He’s not afraid to say he thinks he’ll be a good one.
Right now, though, the Huskers need Warner to be a player, too. Not a game-breaker, necessarily — not that they’d argue with big plays — but a steady hand who makes the plays he’s supposed to make, blocks the guys he’s supposed to block and continues doing what he’s been complimented for this fall: being available.
“The best thing he’s done is he’s been out there the entire time,” head coach Scott Frost said Tuesday. “I don’t think he’s missed any time. If you’re going to play, you’ve got to be on the field and he’s been out there the entire time.”
Warner wasn’t able to pull that off in 2019. He developed a stress fracture in his leg during camp and missed the first three games of the season before appearing late in a blowout loss to Ohio State. Then he suffered a hamstring injury — Warner said this week it was a muscle tear — and missed more time.
In all, he finished with eight catches for 101 yards over seven games. Those included the three longest catches of his career at 26, 20 and 18 yards. Through two seasons, he has 25 catches for 196 total yards and hasn’t shown to this point that he’s a big-play threat.
He and Robinson are clearly different kinds of players and different kinds of leaders. But they find themselves together atop the depth chart and leading a group that is otherwise still mostly full of question marks. Question marks, by the way, that will go a long way toward determining whether the Huskers can regain the explosive offensive form they showed in stretches in 2018 and for which Frost was known before he arrived in Lincoln.
Warner, for his part, is confident.
“I’m really excited to show you all this season what the wide receivers have in store,” he said.
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Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.
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