LINCOLN, Neb. — It appears the roles have flipped a bit.
Last season, with Tommy Armstrong at the helm, the Nebraska offense had a plethora of talented receivers and a quarterback who couldn’t get the ball to them consistently.
In 2017, Nebraska’s passing game problems could come instead from a lack of receivers, despite a gunslinging quarterback in Tanner Lee.
Forget the questions on the offensive line for a moment. Nebraska’s current roster is solid at quarterback and tight end, and probably OK at tailback. That leaves the main question mark surrounding how redshirt junior Lee’s debut season will go on the shoulders of the wide receivers.
Lee can lean on two solid options. Stanley Morgan Jr. will be a junior and the No. 1 receiver. Next to him will be senior De’Mornay Pierson-El. Both excelled in the spring and will surely catch most throws during the season.
But beyond those two, it’s really up in the air.
With the graduation of Jordan Westerkamp, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, Cethan Carter and Terrell Newby, Nebraska will lose 62 percent of its receptions from 2016.
Excluding Morgan and Pierson-El, Nebraska only has 24 total receptions returning from last year.
In 2015 and 2016, at least five receivers had 20 or more receptions, so Nebraska will need at least three other receivers to match that production in 2017. Who those three will be is the main predicament.
Returning players who could provide those receptions are junior and former walk-on Bryan Reimers, redshirt freshman JD Spielman, junior Keyan Williams and sophomore Conor Young.
Of those, Spielman probably has the best shot at making some noise. He was scout team co-MVP with Lee in 2016 and looked comfortable in the slot during the spring.
But Spielman is still learning the position. So there could be some kinks to work out.
Reimers is a big enough body and he’ll likely be Morgan’s backup on the outside. Williams isn’t as quick as Spielman, though he has reliable hands. And Young is a guy who consistently is talked up by coaches but hasn’t impressed as much as others during open practices.
So Nebraska isn’t guaranteed to get consistent production from any of those players.
The next few viable options are the incoming freshman, who include Tyjon Lindsey, Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr.
Nebraska has not been led in receptions by a freshman since 2005, when then-redshirt freshman Nate Swift had 45 receptions and 641 yards. Swift also still holds the freshman record for most catches in a game as a freshman with 9 receptions, which he did twice.
Lindsey probably has the best chance of playing immediately. That’s part of the reason why the dynamic receiver chose Nebraska over Ohio State, USC and Oregon. He’ll have to pick things up pretty quickly, though, since he wasn’t an early enrollee. He’ll likely split time returning kicks (or punts) and at receiver, so his productivity at wideout could come later in the season.
McQuitty was an early enrollee but battled an injured shoulder during spring practice. He was recently cleared to play, so he has the summer to work out. But his skills haven’t really been tested yet.
Johnson Jr. didn’t play for most of the spring because of an illness. And with where he’s at physically, not playing full-time football in close to a year, he could be the receiver most likely to redshirt in 2017.
Nebraska says it wants a healthy run-pass balance. But part of that is also to help the passing game. A decent running game will help Lee get time in the pocket. Most of the offense will be predicated on Lee making throws and receivers making plays.
With three months until fall camp kicks off, one question will loom over the offense this summer: Who exactly will be those receivers?