LINCOLN — Nebraska wants to open up its passing playbook this season, and NU coaches believe Tanner Lee is the quarterback who can do it.
But NU is running low on healthy scholarship receivers who can catch Lee’s passes.
The Huskers’ receiving corps — already young and inexperienced — looked even thinner during Thursday’s practice. Coach Mike Riley made an unplanned media stop to announce freshman Jaevon McQuitty will miss the season with a knee injury and NU’s two top slot receivers — JD Spielman and Keyan Williams — missed practice with hamstring pulls. Riley listed Spielman as “day to day” while Williams is out for at least two weeks. McQuitty got hurt in a blocking drill, Riley said.
Soft-tissue muscle pulls — suffered by Spielman and Williams — are common in training camp, especially for receivers. Already, NU lost freshman walk-on Kade Warner to a broken hand. Two freak injuries and two pulled muscles.
“It puts you in a little bit of a bind,” Riley said.
Husker receivers have battled injuries each of the last two camps. But this corps can’t afford many more setbacks. NU had just four scholarship receivers — Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El, Tyjon Lindsey and Zack Darlington — practicing Thursday, and Darlington, a holder and emergency quarterback, is low on the depth chart. At least one junior walk-on receiver, Lincoln East graduate Bryan Reimers, is expected to be a scholarship guy for his last two seasons, and he practiced Thursday.
How do the Huskers cope?
“We’re gonna make some acquisitions off of the waiver wire,” Riley joked.
In reality, Nebraska called up some new players to the 105-man roster, including Omaha Skutt walk-on Christian Banker, who had planned to just attend school at NU until he received a late-spring offer to join the Huskers. Now, Banker is in training camp.
Names to watch, though, will be two walk-on seniors from Big Ten country: Gabe Rahn and Brett Classen. Receivers coach Keith Williams likes both. Rahn, from Le Mars, Iowa, has one career catch — a 35-yard touchdown last season against Wyoming — while Classen, a Winona (Minn.) State transfer, doesn’t have any.
Williams has a nickname for nearly every receiver. Rahn is “Professor Gabe.” Classen is “Hummer.”
“He’s very, very smart,” Williams said of Rahn. “He carries himself like a professor. ‘Professor Gabe.’ ‘Hummer’ is a Hum-Vee. Classen. He just runs right through stuff. Supreme unleaded. Those guys, I’m very pleased with how they’ve stepped up. They’re eager and they work hard.”
Reimers — who had five catches for 75 yards last season — and Cozad redshirt freshman Conor Young also worked with the upper units.
Depth issues put even more of a spotlight on Lindsey, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound freshman who is Nebraska’s highest-rated recruit in six years. He has worked primarily at outside receiver in camp, and Williams coached Lindsey rigorously on Thursday. Lindsey lost most of last season to a knee injury but appears 100 percent in camp.
“You keep pushing envelope and make him know how important it is to learn it and be as fast as he can,” Williams said of Lindsey. “And he understands that. He tries hard. He takes notes in the meetings. He’s focused. He doesn’t goof around. He’s engaged. He’s pushing himself.”
Nebraska’s two top receivers — Pierson-El and Morgan — are clear. Both made plays during NU’s two-minute drill, which kicked off practice on Thursday. Morgan had a sweet catch of a fade pass — thrown by freshman Tristan Gebbia — during a red zone drill, while Pierson-El bolted past defenders on a crossing route out of the Huskers’ end zone.
Lee, who talked with media Thursday, said he likes having Morgan and Pierson-El as lead targets.
“I know they’re going to get open,” Lee said. “I know they’re going to know their routes or any adjustments. Being confident in them is really important to me and it’s a good thing.”
Another top receiver option is emerging — senior tight end Tyler Hoppes. The Lincoln Southwest walk-on and Wayne State transfer had the best catch of the day with a leaping, twisting, two-handed grab during the two-minute drill.
“It’s great to have an athletic tight end like that — especially on third down,” Lee said.
Hoppes has emerged as the top tight end in part because NU’s scholarship tight ends consist of one sophomore (Matt Snyder) and four freshmen. At wide receiver, injuries have played a factor, but the Huskers also haven’t had much luck with their recent recruiting classes.
>> Of the five receivers who committed to the 2014 recruiting class, only one — Pierson-El — remains. Two were kicked off the team in 2015, one didn’t academically qualify and another is playing pro baseball.
>> NU landed two receivers in the 2015 class. Morgan remains. Lavan Alston, buried on the depth chart, left the program just before the Music City Bowl.
>> The 2016 class also consisted of two receivers. Spielman remains. Derrion Grim enrolled early, left just before the start of the season, and has resurfaced at Fresno State.
>> In the 2017 class, Lindsey, McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson, Jr. signed. Johnson is on a leave of absence that was mutually agreed-upon by Riley and Johnson’s father. McQuitty is out for the season.
Keith Williams’ room hasn’t caught many breaks, but the coach is pushing forward.
“You can’t predict injuries and you don’t know when guys are going to get nicked up or whatever so you just move on,” Williams said. “That’s why everybody’s responsible for knowing the plays and their job.”
Husker freshmen Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia ‘very close’ in battle for No. 2 QB
Nebraska knows Tanner Lee is its starting quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf hedged Thursday on which backup — between Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia — is No. 2.
“Not totally clear,” Langsdorf said. “Those guys, being as young as they are, they make rookie mistakes. They’ve really gotten a lot of similar reps. It’s very close that way. It’s not clear-cut. They’ve both had their days. They’ve had their good days and they’ve had some freshman blunders. We just gotta keep giving them work. I like where they’re at, but they have to be more consistent day-to-day.”
O’Brien was the clear No. 2 in spring, and was battling Lee for the starting job. As a redshirt freshman, O’Brien is expected to be Lee’s backup this season, as Gebbia is a true freshman. O’Brien didn’t look like the better of the two on Thursday.
During a two-minute drill, O’Brien’s unit was stopped after four plays. Playing against a similar set of defenders, if not exactly the same, Gebbia led his bunch quickly into field-goal range before coach Mike Riley opted for some running plays. Gebbia’s third unit settled for a field goal.
In a red-zone drill, Gebbia found Gabe Rahn on a tricky back-of-the-end zone pattern for a touchdown. He later threw a perfect fade pass to Stanley Morgan, who caught the ball but wasn’t quite in bounds. One mistake Gebbia made, Langsdorf said, was more on the receiver than it was Gebbia.
“He got snakebit a little bit on a route that was too deep,” Langsdorf said. “It was not timed, and it’s a timed play, so it looked bad, but that was on the depth of the receiver. I thought he did some good things in the red zone. They both have had their moments. He and Patrick have been really good at times and they’ve made some freshman errors at times.”