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For quiet Husker star Spielman, ‘behind-the-scenes’ leadership style works just fine

May 17, 2019

The way JD Spielman explains it, Nebraska football has been on something of a growth spurt for the past year-plus.

Growing pains — the literal ones — can be particularly frustrating, because the discomfort is immediate and obvious, but the payoff isn’t so noticeable.

“I know we’ve come far because everyone’s playing better, everybody’s got more confident,” Spielman told the Journal Star on Thursday. “At the same time, I don’t really notice it day-to-day because it’s kind of like when you’re growing up, you know? You can’t tell that you’re getting taller.”

It can take weeks or a month or even longer to have your height measured again on the door frame and realize that, yeah, you actually have made progress. For Nebraska in 2018, it took plenty of struggle and plenty of wondering — growth without a tangible marker — before wins finally followed.

In a similar way, the offseason features more growing pains and they are reinforced by the program’s 4-2 finish and a productive spring, but the measuring stick doesn’t come back out — not really — until the regular season begins again.

“In the long run, when you look at it, you really see all the changes you went through,” Spielman said. “Every day, you’re not going to look in the mirror and look any different, but fast forward a month or so after workouts and you look in the mirror again, you’re like, ‘Ok, now I notice it and I can see that it’s working.’”

Spielman is quite possibly Nebraska’s single-most accomplished returning player. In his first two seasons, the dynamic wide receiver has 121 catches for 1,648 yards and 10 touchdowns to go along with two return touchdowns — a kickoff on his first collegiate touch in 2017 and a punt return score last year — and joins quarterback Adrian Martinez as the cornerstones of the Huskers’ 2019 offense.

What looms ahead, though, is a new kind of challenge for the 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. His record-setting partner in crime, Stanley Morgan, is off to the NFL. Defenses have seen for two years what Spielman is capable of and now he is alone at the top of the scouting report when teams set out to slow down NU’s receiving corps.

Does that come with added pressure?

“I just tell myself to go out there and play,” Spielman said. “There’s things I can control and there’s things I can’t control. Stan leaving? Can’t control that. The only thing I can control is how I play and also try to do my best to make sure everybody else in my room feels like they’re ready to play. If they have questions, I help them out.

“I don’t really put too much pressure on myself, I just tell myself, treat it like any other game, go out there and play the best I can play.”

Much the way that Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters have asked Martinez to be the face of the program, coaches have asked Spielman to be a leader on offense.

“He more wants to show you on the field, but I told him there’s going to be times when he has to step up vocally and call guys out and encourage and cheer and he’s got to be more vocal, and he’s adapting to that role this spring,” Walters said in March. “He’ll continue to grow in that role and come the season, he’ll be exactly where we need.”

Spielman agreed he’s more comfortable being a behind-the-scenes leader, but don’t mistake subtlety for inaction.

“If someone messes up, I’m not the type to correct them or yell at them on the spot. I’ll maybe meet them up in the locker room after practice and talk through it and try to figure out why it got messed up,” Spielman said. “Maybe it’s because they were thinking about something else other than football at that time and I’ll try to help them with that. Maybe they just didn’t know the play and then I’ll try to help them learn the plays, help them figure that out.

“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. I know when someone messes up, they already feel bad enough and the last thing they need is someone harping on them on top of that. I kind of let them get a chance to cool themselves down, get that play out of their head and I’ll come up to them later when no one’s paying attention, just on the side, and we’ll talk about it.”

Spielman already has accolades and expectations from within and without. Walters said this spring he reminds Spielman regularly that he should be trying to be the best receiver not in Nebraska’s position group but in the country. He clearly has respect from his coaches and teammates and opposing Big Ten teams.

As he and the Huskers continue to grow, just don’t expect him to boast much about it.

“I feel like, as long as I know what I accomplish and I know what my guys that I work with — all the guys that I wake up in the morning for all the workouts and all the grinding that we do the whole summer, the whole offseason — as long as they know and as long as I know and as long as the coaches know, everyone that’s in the immediate family, that’s all I really care about.”