The last time Nebraska football fans saw JD Spielman on the field, he limped off after a third-quarter punt return against Illinois on Nov. 10.
The Husker wide receiver saw a prolific second collegiate season end there due to a high ankle sprain. Even in nine-plus games, Spielman put up eye-popping numbers, finishing with 66 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns to go along with a 77-yard punt return score (and a 16.4 average on six returns).
The next time he steps on the field for Nebraska, he will do so as the Huskers’ clear go-to option, the first time he’s been tasked with such a role, because of the graduations of record-setting receiver Stanley Morgan and standout running back Devine Ozigbo.
Through two seasons, Spielman has 121 catches for 1,648 yards, putting him on track to threaten Morgan’s school records (187 and 2,747, respectively) as soon as this fall. Whereas Morgan was a clear frontman for a position group that traditionally is not short on talk, Spielman is a much different kind of personality.
The coaching staff prodded him to be more vocal, but it isn’t his style. The room as a whole, offensive coordinator and receivers coach Troy Walters said in a recent radio interview, is significantly quieter than it was a year ago.
That, according to head coach Scott Frost, is just fine.
“We just need JD to be JD. We don’t need JD to be anything else,” he said last week in Chicago. “He was a huge part of what we did last year, and we’re looking forward to him being the same thing. … We’ve tried to urge JD on from a leadership standpoint. The further you are from the middle of the field in baseball or the center in football, the less your influence during a game exists. The quarterback is able to run the show, the center is able to make the calls for the offense. When you’re out standing by the sideline, you can’t affect the tackle on the other side very much.
“JD’s one of the guys that’s going to have to set a good example for everybody and help lead the way from that standpoint.”
That’s where Spielman’s influence will be felt most. The group behind him features relatively little in terms of actual game production. No returning receiver besides Spielman caught a touchdown in 2018. Six returners — Mike Williams, Jaron Woodyard, Kade Warner, Andre Hunt, Jaevon McQuitty and Miles Jones — combined for 248 receiving yards. Spielman averaged 8.8 yards per target and hauled in 71% of the balls thrown his way. The other six combined for 4.6 and 57.4%, respectively.
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Spielman doesn’t have to be a rah-rah guy, but helping to elevate the overall performance of the room is high on the to-do list.
“He’s the example. He has to set the tone for the younger guys,” Walters said. “They’re going to be looking for him. If he can do that, he’ll make our team better.”
Spielman himself told the Journal Star in May some about how he views his leadership style, saying, “I don’t really talk to the media or I’m not really like a vocal guy or anything, I just try to do things behind the scenes as more of a private or one-on-one thing.”
That seems to work just fine for the group that’s most important: His teammates. Take sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, himself a budding leader and program cornerstone. Martinez and Spielman developed a significant connection on the field and a tight friendship off of it last year, and the quarterback sees his top receiver having a consistent influence behind closed doors.
“The guys definitely gravitate toward him, all the guys in the locker room,” Martinez said. “He’s the vet in there now, which I don’t think he’s used to necessarily. He just goes in and puts work in consistently. He doesn’t always know how to be the vocal leader, but when he has to, he does. He just goes out there and runs great routes and does his job, and I think he sets a great example and sets the standard for all the receivers.”
In turn, it will be up to some of the other receivers in the room to take some of the pressure off of Spielman by making enough plays that opposing defenses can’t tilt their attention too far toward No. 10.
Start adding up the list: Stay healthy, lead the offense in his own way, continue record-setting production, so on and so forth, and there’s still plenty of work to be done for arguably Nebraska’s most accomplished player.
“He can’t get satisfied, and he’s not,” Walters said. “After spring I called him in and asked him really what his goals were, and he wants to be the best.”