LINCOLN, Neb. — Only two Nebraska tight ends caught passes in 2017. One was Tyler Hoppes — who departed at the end of last season — and the other was Jack Stoll.
Aside from Stoll, the rest of Nebraska’s tight end group essentially is new. It’s an interesting position to be in for tight ends coach Sean Beckton, especially as he determines who should start this fall.
Beckton has six scholarship tight ends on the Huskers roster — junior Matt Synder, sophomores Stoll and David Engelhaupt, and freshmen Kurt Rafdal, Austin Allen and Justin McGriff. Between those six, there’s little experience aside from Stoll’s limited play last season.
Beckton has enjoyed the competition through spring practice, though. He wants each player to feel involved and part of the group, but he also wants those on the roster putting in work.
“I like competition,” Beckton said after practice Thursday. “If a guy’s not doing well one day, I’m going to sit him down and put somebody else in there. That’s been my motto as a coach. Make sure everybody [is] competing on a daily basis.”
As the competition heats up this spring, Stoll has made it clear he thinks he’s the guy to beat. As a redshirt freshman, Stoll caught 8 passes for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2017. While Beckton appreciates Stoll’s tenacity and leadership, he wants to see more from the sophomore.
“The biggest thing with him is that he’s always been a tenacious blocker and attitude. He brings that to our offense,” Beckton said. “The biggest thing for him is adjust to being more of a receiver. He’s doing extremely well there and we’re really excited where he is. He’s understanding how to maneuver underneath coverage and catch the ball downfield. He’s going to be a big threat for us this year.”
As for Rafdal and Allen, both players bring good size to the position. Rafdal is 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, while Allen is 6-8 and 210 pounds. The key for tight ends of their size is to truly utilize their size to their advantage.
Beckton has been addressing that in practice. He’s been teaching Rafdal and Austin how to get good releases from linebackers so the quarterback can throw over defenders and hit the tall targets.
“The length that they bring, we’re trying refine those guys to really maneuver versus underneath coverage,” Beckton said. “Once they really learn — and they’re about 80 percent where I want them right now — to really maneuver off of a flat defender or a linebacker underneath, their big bodies [will force] the quarterback to throw over them. They’re working hard and I’m really, really impressed where they are now.”
With only a little more than a week of spring practice remaining, Beckton is doing all he can to create competition as the depth chart starts to sort itself out. He may not know exactly what it looks like until fall, but it’s a step in the right direction.
In the meantime, Beckton is fine with keeping everyone on their toes. The end result will be worth it.
“The biggest thing for us is that I’m putting these guys in stressful situations at practice,” Beckton said. “These guys don’t know who is going to be up per series. I’m rotating guys because I’m still trying to figure out as a staff who can help us and start the season off. Right now, Jack Stoll might be a 1 and the next series he may be at the 3 spot and Kurt Rafdal might move up to the 1.
“I’m keeping those guys’ heads in it because right now we’re trying to find guys. I want those guys competing against each other and performing at a high level, and right now those guys are doing well with that.”