Despite inexperience, young tight ends flash plenty of skill for staff
LINCOLN — In Nebraska’s first fall scrimmage, sophomore Jack Stoll caught an out route and walked into the the end zone while freshman Kurt Rafdal snagged a long pass for a score.
And now, suddenly, tight ends are king in Lincoln.
“The tight ends probably played the best of anyone in the scrimmage,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Wednesday. “They made some plays down the field in the pass game, which is awesome.”
No starting tight ends returned, just eight catches and 77 yards from a year ago. All four tight ends impressing coaches most — Stoll, Rafdal, redshirt freshman Austin Allen and true freshman Cam Jurgens — aren’t old enough to buy beer.
“We’re young,” Allen said this week. “But we’re going to be confident.”
And the way coach Scott Frost utilizes tight ends could make former Huskers Cethan Carter or Tyler Hoppes blush.
In 2017, UCF tight ends caught 54 passes for 858 yards and six touchdowns. Three tight ends had more than 100 yards receiving on the season, including Jordan Akins, who caught 32 passes for 515 yards and four touchdowns. After setting a school record for receptions in a season by a tight end, Hoppes graduated, leaving Nebraska with a young position group that, on paper, didn’t look to have the next Akins.
But tight ends coach Sean Beckton seems optimistic his guys, despite being recruited for a vastly different scheme, can be a threat in the air attack.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to get these guys to understand (is) they are a part of this passing game,” Beckton said. “We’re going to block first but they gotta be a major contributor to this passing game, and I think they’re working hard trying to understand how to work people off the line and really how to get open.”
In the spring, Stoll caught the eye of Beckton. And it isn’t just Stoll contributing early in camp. Include Allen and Rafdal, the 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8 “trees” who — like other players recruited by Mike Riley — might fit better in the 2018 offense than the 2017 attack.
“Last staff, it was kind of slowed down a little bit,” Allen said. “That’s not really my style.”
At Aurora, an hour west of Lincoln, Allen was part of an up-tempo spread offense. The basketball star enjoyed that, especially since he could use his skills as a power forward to make plays.
Allen was the top-rated recruit in the state in 2017, and committed to a Riley offense that planned to mold him into a blocking machine, catching passes occasionally. But with Frost, there’s a new game plan.
“I like this staff,” Allen said. “They’ll widen you out and they’ll put you in the dirt, and that’s a lot of what I did in high school.”
On some plays, Allen doesn’t really have a route to run. And he gets to improvise in the middle of the field.
“There’s times when they say, ‘On this route, go be an athlete.’ In basketball, there’s a lot of times you have to just go be an athlete, go make a play,” Allen said. “Last year it was more set. You run this line, like you run that route, you run that line. This one you need to read the defense, and what not. Basketball you need to read the zone and make a play.”
Rafdal proved his athleticism in the spring game, twisting his torso and tapping one foot in the corner of the end zone to give Andrew Bunch a touchdown pass. Out of Carmel, Indiana, Rafdal garnered interest from Auburn, Iowa, Purdue and Louisville. After a year of redshirting, and about eight months of learning this new offense, he says things are really starting to click.
“I think we’re finally getting the hang of it and I think we’re playing fast,” Rafdal said. “I think all around in the tight end room, we’re starting to get it and play good.”
There’s an intriguing mix inside the room.
Rafdal and Allen are dynamic receivers and blockers in progress. Stoll and Jurgens are the opposite. Allen called true freshman Jurgens an “incredible” blocker, adding he can push even senior linemen off the ball. But he could use some work on the receiving end.
The guy who mixes those two potions best is the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Stoll. He is a prototypical, pro-style tight end. Not necessarily 6-3, 250-pound Akins, who ran a 4.8 second 40 and posted a 35-inch vertical at the NFL combine.
But Stoll grasped the offense quickly. He made the Mackey Award watch list and has impressed Beckton with his receiving skills.
And it’s becoming clear that should Nebraska need more weapons, particularly in the middle of the field, some lanky young freshmen are ready.
“I think that Jack’s really got it dialed in that he can go out and make a play,” Allen said. “And if anything happens to Jack, God forbid it, Kurt or I or anyone could step in there and fill the roles and we’re going to go in there with confidence.”