Before Nebraska’s preseason camp started, offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Troy Walters in a radio interview casually suggested that he expected at least three freshmen to play in the Huskers’ rotation at wide receiver.
That could still happen — versatile threat Wan’Dale Robinson is a virtual lock to have a big role and NU is high on fellow rookies Demariyon Houston, Darien Chase and Jamie Nance — but the challenge has only grown for the youngsters.
Well, first there’s “New Mike Williams.” Then there’s Jaevon McQuitty after more than a year of injury-riddled fits and starts. Don’t forget Andre Hunt, one of the talks of spring ball and a redshirt freshman who’s done nothing but continue to improve his stock.
Williams’ fellow senior Jaron Woodyard falls in that group, too.
They are the in-betweens, the guys who are not mortal locks for playing time like junior JD Spielman and not shiny new additions like the freshmen and senior graduate transfer Kanawai Noa.
And they are a big part of the reason Walters feels so good about where his group is 10 days before Nebraska’s season opener against South Alabama, even if he isn’t quite sure yet who will round out his regular rotation.
“What I’m pleased and excited with are some of the other guys that have stepped up. So they’ve made it harder for those freshmen,” Walters said Wednesday. “McQuitty, Mike Williams, Andre Hunt, they’ve stepped up their game and they’re doing well, so the freshmen have a battle on their hands.”
A look at the room’s makeup tells a considerable amount.
Spielman is the top option, hands down. Robinson is expected to play a big role, perhaps split between receiver and running back. Noa has developed into a consistent threat that the quarterbacks trust since arriving on campus earlier this summer. Sophomore walk-on Kade Warner is nursing an injury currently, but will likely have a role upon his return.
Among the options after that, returners Williams, McQuitty, Woodyard and Hunt combined for a grand total of 13 catches and 132 yards, all but one and 10, respectively, from Williams.
“Mike, last year, played small. He’s a small guy, but small guys need to play big,” Walters said. "This year has been a whole new Mike Williams. I kind of kid with him, ‘Hey, we need the new Mike Williams.’ And he’s had a great camp.”
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McQuitty is coming into year three on campus and is healthy for the first time since a freshman year knee injury.
“I just had to constantly have battles with myself,” McQuitty said. “That’s what it really was was my mindset. I had to change my mindset and get myself right and stop feeling sorry for myself. I was tired of my situation and I just wanted to change where I was at.”
In addition to family, friends and Walters, McQuitty sought advice from tight ends coach Sean Beckton, who serves as a mentor to many players on the roster.
“Jaevon is a guy that really, really has some tools but a lot of times, mentally, his head’s not where it needs to be,” Beckton said. “I’ve tried to really work on really keeping him focused and locked in more. When he’s not in (the game), seeing the signal. Seeing what’s going on in front of him with coverage and taking that mental rep. I think it’s helped him. His game has really picked up."
Beckton said he overheard head coach Scott Frost five or six days into camp approach Walters and compliment McQuitty’s performance.
“He’s going to really help this football team this year,” Beckton said.
Hunt finished spring on the No.1 line for Walters, earning top-unit time with Woodyard while Spielman and Robinson were limited. The 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt freshman said he feels like he’s only continued his upward trajectory through the summer and camp.
“It’s a big competition to get to the top, but at the same time we’re working together,” Hunt said. “We’re not really focusing on, like, who’s the No. 1 receiver or who’s going to take Stanley (Morgan)’s spot. We’re just worried about going out there and playing.
“We’ve got big goals for ourselves, but we know we have to be a team to get those goals.”
Don’t count out the youth movement just yet, of course. Houston and Nance, in particular, have the kind of speed that can be hard to keep off the field, while Chase has impressed with his overall game.
The middle is standing its ground in Walters’ room, though, and that makes for interesting depth chart conversations ahead.
“They’re doing a good job, and we’d like them to play this season and get some experience under their belt,” Walters said of the freshmen. “How much really depends on the season and how things kind of shake out.”