As Nebraska prepared for its final offensive play Saturday against Northwestern, it did so with plenty of time to consider its options.
Coach Scott Frost used his final timeout ahead of a fourth-and-4 from the Wildcats’ 20-yard line, meaning his offense could theoretically get a first down and attempt another play, but with only seven seconds remaining, the ball most likely had to go to the end zone.
With a quick stoppage to get the personnel and play-call set, the Huskers took the field with their normal offensive line, Luke McCaffrey at quarterback and Austin Allen at tight end. Freshman Marvin Scott was next to McCaffrey in the backfield. Alongside Wan’Dale Robinson at receiver? Freshmen Zavier Betts and Marcus Fleming.
Oftentimes much can be gleaned from a small moment and, while it’s important not to draw too sweeping of conclusions, the fact that two freshman receivers were on the field for a game-deciding play certainly catches your attention.
Frost indicated before the game that he thought a couple of the young receivers on the roster were ready for increased roles, and Fleming and Betts saw the field the most out of the newcomers. Fleming tied for the team-high with eight targets and caught five passes for a team-best 75 yards in regular but certainly not full-time duty.
Betts played fewer snaps and caught both of his targets for 17 yards, while Alante Brown and Omar Manning both also saw the field on and off from early in the game.
“That was the plan all along,” Frost said Monday. “The issue was that kind of hurt our tempo a little bit. I don’t think they were probably ready to run every play in our game plan. So then it came down to running certain plays with certain guys on the field and certain plays with certain other guys on the field. We are going to be a really good team when all of our guys are capable of running the whole thing. Then we don’t have to substitute and we can have the best guys on the field all the time, whoever that is.
“But again, because of some factors, those guys aren’t quite ready to digest and handle the whole game plan yet, and we’re working to get there.”
This is the fine line Nebraska is currently walking. Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick said Tuesday he thought Fleming and Betts, in particular, turned in promising performances.
“Coaches, we worry about the basic fundamentals — are we going to line up right, are we going to run the right route? Are we going to block the right guy? And for the most part, they did that,” he said. “Secondly, are they going to play with great effort? They did that, too. They did everything we asked of them, and as a matter of fact, they probably superseded our expectations. So they’re going to continue to get more plays and more opportunities. They’re doing a good job in practice as well.”
The obvious skill sets help, too.
Fleming showed the speed and acceleration that led him to be a nationally recruited prospect in a couple of instances, bursting up the sideline in catch-and-run situations.
“He's explosive,” junior receiver and captain Kade Warner said. “All those guys are, but the speed they have and that acceleration? It's really cool to see. I'm obviously a little envious of all those guys and the physical tools they have, but they've been great.
“It's been a long time coming for them. As I said this summer, seeing them progress has been great and I'm excited for all of them moving forward. I think they're going to help us.”
Nebraska’s had the same three starters at receiver each of the past two games in Warner, sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson and senior walk-on Levi Falck, and have also received regular playing time from sophomore walk-on Wyatt Liewer and some duty from redshirt freshman Chris Hickman and sophomore walk-on Brody Belt. Whether that list undergoes wholesale change or the distribution of snaps and opportunities shifts gradually, it certainly seems like the group of newcomers will continue to see more time on the field.
“They know that they have all the physical attributes to play, but at the end of the day, you’ve go to be able to block and you’ve got to know your assignment,” Warner said. “So now the fact that they all know their assignments and they're all willing to block and willing to put their bodies on the line for the rest of this team, I think it's a great steppingstone and I think they all know they still have to work on it.
“But where they're at right now is a great spot.”
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