LINCOLN — On Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee’s final two passes of Saturday’s 43-36 win over Arkansas State — both third-down throws — his target wasn’t Stanley Morgan or De’Mornay Pierson-El, the two receivers fans might expect to get the first look.
It was freshman slot receiver JD Spielman. Both passes fell incomplete — Lee threw low on the first and Spielman was well covered on the second — but the two plays speak to Spielman’s importance to the offense. He was the target on four of Lee’s last eight passes, and his seven targets were second to Morgan’s nine targets on the night.
Coach Mike Riley just wants Spielman, who had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, to get more good chances to catch the ball. Spielman caught two passes, and only one of the seven targets could be termed a drop.
“My only disappointment in the game is that we really didn’t get him going much as a receiver,” Riley said Monday. “We just have to get more of that.”
Against Oregon’s 3-4 defense — coordinated by Jim Leavitt — Spielman may again get a lot of work. Leavitt’s defensive plan, Riley said, tends to rely on two coverage schemes — Cover 3 and “Quarters” coverage, which is what former Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker often used. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf also call quarters coverage “Cover 8.”
Cover 3 tends to deploy both corners and one safety to protect the deep pass. In quarters, four defensive backs tend to be responsible for downfield coverage in their quarter of the field. The latter coverage can be susceptible to deep passes, as those who watched Nebraska’s 2015 defense may recall.
Both coverages, too, can be exploited by a solid, shifty slot receiver. In Nebraska’s case, that’ll be the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Spielman.
“He’s critical for the kind of coverages they play,” Langsdorf said. “They do a nice job of changing things up, disguising different looks, but that inside receiver is big.
“A lot of times, he’s critical in finding a hole in the zone, whether it’s Cover 8 or Cover 3. Like any receiver, getting him into it early and getting him a few touches — especially a young guy playing on the road for the first time — you want to get him in a groove fast.”
Spielman’s first career touch in Saturday’s game — the kickoff return — went for a touchdown. He started pointing to the student section at the Arkansas State 40-yard line, which might have triggered a penalty if the official’s back hadn’t been turned.
Spielman’s dad, NFL Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, joked with his son afterward that, if JD was going to make that kind of play, he shouldn’t point. Now, JD knows.
“It still hasn’t really hit me yet that that was my first ever college play, was a kick return for a touchdown,” Spielman said.
Saturday was Spielman’s first game as a receiver, too. He was a prolific running back at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School who averaged more than 12 yards per carry as a senior, but only 151 yards receiving that season. Spielman may surpass that figure before he reaches conference play.
Nebraska recruited Spielman to play receiver — he turned down hometown Minnesota because he wanted to “experience what it was like to live on your own without your parents 15 minutes away” — and he redshirted last season as he learned the position. NU nearly played Spielman as a true freshman but held off, in part because Jordan Westerkamp was a stalwart as the Huskers’ slot receiver.
“He had to make that jump and show that he’s developed into being a wideout, which he has done,” receivers coach Keith Williams said. “He studies hard, he works hard, it means something to him.”
Spielman also has a secret weapon that should be a poster for kids playing multiple sports in high school. Spielman was a prep lacrosse star.
In that sport, he said, he had to learn to have open-field vision and good lateral footwork that has translated to receiver.
“A lot of my (receiver) footwork didn’t come from football, because in high school I played running back, and so I never really had to know much footwork,” Spielman said. “It was mostly ‘run north or south’ type stuff. Lacrosse is where I gained it. I needed more footwork there, and lacrosse helped with my hand-eye coordination.”
Spielman flashed those talents when he caught a second-down fade pass from Lee that gained 35 yards and set up the Huskers’ final touchdown of the opener. Spielman bolted past the corner and ran down Lee’s pass near the sideline with an over-the-shoulder catch.
It’s the kind of play that makes him happy he chose football over lacrosse at Ohio State.
Does he miss the sport? Occasionally. When OSU played Maryland for the national championship, he did, because he saw several of his friends playing in the game.
“I don’t miss it right now — it’s football season — but come spring, when I see all the guys I grew up with playing in their college uniforms, I will a little bit,” Spielman said. “But I’m glad to be a Husker.”
Nebraska at Oregon
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene
Radio: 103.1 FM (Nebraska City)