The question posed to Troy Walters on Wednesday morning after practice was actually about running back Maurice Washington, but the way he answered it — why is the gifted freshman such a difficult matchup? — he could easily have been talking about sophomore receiver JD Spielman.
“Those are the type of athletes and type of guys we want, are versatile players,” said Walters, Nebraska's offensive coordinator. “Running backs that can line up outside, receivers that can line up as a running back. We want guys that have flexibility, versatility. That way, when he’s on the field, defensive coordinators don’t know where he’s going to be. Is he going to be a running back? Is he going to be a receiver?
“That way if they play man as Wisconsin did, we lined him up outside and took advantage of him against a linebacker.”
Consider sequences for both players against the Badgers.
Washington returned a kickoff 25 yards in the third quarter, then made talented Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon whiff on a cut to the backside of a first-down run for 11 yards. On the very next snap, Washington beat linebacker Ryan Connelly up the right sideline on a wheel route for a 24-yard completion.
The freshman running back finished with five carries for 27 yards and also four catches for 53. He’s currently fourth on the team in rushing yards — and will move past transferred back Greg Bell this week — and third in receiving yards.
Spielman, meanwhile, only has three rushing attempts on the season but is doing damage in just about every other way. He caught a third-down pass for a first down by motioning across the formation and then jetting back from whence he came into the flat for a 10-yard gain, easily losing Dixon’s coverage. He caught a 30-yard route lined up as an H-back in the backfield. He roasted safety Scott Nelson for a 75-yard touchdown on a double move from the slot. He caught bubble and tunnel screens. He lines up next to quarterback Adrian Martinez from time to time.
“You know, there are some guys who are just burners,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, who has watched Spielman work against his defense for months in practice. “To me, I would rather cover a burner than a guy like JD who has all that wiggle. He can sit it down in a zone. He can feel space around him. He’s really hard to cover, and I think what coach (Scott) Frost does offensively really lends itself to JD’s game.”
That last part rings particularly true. Let’s not say that the season is over after five games. Everybody at Memorial Stadium will say there’s a lot left to play for this fall, and there is. But realistically, not last on the list of reasons to push the envelope this fall is that improvement now carries over to the future.
And make no mistake about it: This is the future of Nebraska’s offense. Spielman and Washington and Martinez and whomever like them Frost and company can find. Dynamic, multitalented athletes at as many positions as the Husker staff can stuff on the field.
“When this offense works the best is when we have five skill guys on the field anytime that can make a big play,” Frost said recently, counting the number of eligible ball-handlers on the field in addition to the quarterback on any given play.
In Frost’s postgame news conference after the loss to Wisconsin, he referenced the aforementioned trio along with sophomore tight end Jack Stoll and NU’s two sophomore tackles Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok as sort of the pillars of the future.
Of course, seniors such as receiver Stanley Morgan and running back Devine Ozigbo, and linemen Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster will all play sizable roles in whether the Huskers can make strides and win some games this fall. But it’s also clear that Nebraska already leans heavily on Martinez — a testament to his abilities considering he’s played in all of four collegiate games — and continues to find more and more ways to get the ball to Spielman and Washington.
That will be the going rate around here for multiple years.
“Obviously (Washington)’s a guy that will get bigger in our program through nutrition and weightlifting through the years,” running backs coach Ryan Held said this week, noting that Washington’s workload nearly doubled from the Purdue game to Wisconsin. “He is where he is right now, but he’s obviously very talented. We’re building him in on some special teams stuff as well. We’ve got a lot of games left, and we expect a lot of big things from him moving forward.”
The same could be said for Spielman and Martinez. That's kind of the point.