By Tommy Rezac
Nebraska has seven tight ends on its roster that are eligible to play. Four of them, Sr. Tyler Hoppes, Sr. Connor Ketter, So. Matt Snyder and RFr. Jack Stoll, have seen the field this season.
Only two of those four have made a catch.
Hoppes has 14 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. He’s caught at least one pass in every game this season.
Stoll has one catch for 12 yards. It came in the final 75 seconds of the Huskers’ 56-14 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 14.
Ketter has started six games and played in all seven, but has yet to make a catch.
The last time Ketter saw a pass come his way, he watched the ball slip through his fingers in the endzone late in the 3rd quarter of Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois on Sept. 16.
Had Ketter caught that pass, the game would have been tied. Instead, a 36-yard field goal by Drew Brown made the score 14-10 NIU with :20 left in the 3rd.
Ketter hasn’t been close to a TD catch, or really any catch, since that game. Stoll and Snyder, outside of special teams, have only seen the field in mop-up duty late against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
“We haven’t been able to use the tight ends like I anticipated,” head coach Mike Riley said. “It’s kind of part of the overall picture of where we’ve been productivity-wise offensively.”
Nebraska’s passing game, statistically, has been its strongest threat offensively. The Huskers’ 252 passing yards per game ranks 4th in the Big Ten and 49th in the FBS.
Out of 1,764 yards gained through the air by the Huskers this season, the tight ends have accounted for 163 of those. Nine percent. Hoppes alone makes up 8.5 percent.
The six other TEs on Nebraska’s roster who are eligible to play make up 0.5 percent of the offensive production through the air.
Coach Riley said in fall camp on Aug. 12 that the TE position “could have a little depth to it,” mentioning guys like So. Matt Snyder and RFr. Brendan Hohenstein as “guys with a ton of ability who look like they could be players.”
All of the players mentioned so far hadn’t played a single down at TE before this season. Hohenstein, RFr. David Engelhaupt, and Jr. Bo Kitrell still haven’t.
“There hasn’t been a lot of production lately (from the tight ends),” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We’re trying to really work toward featuring those guys more and taking some pressure off of the receivers.”
Receivers like Stanley Morgan, who’s been targeted 58 times this season, J.D. Spielman (52), and De’Mornay Pierson-El (37).
Hoppes has been targeted 27 times. Ketter 2. Stoll 1.
In a pro-style offense with a pro-style quarterback like Tanner Lee, tight ends can be helpful in short-yardage situations, third and fourth down, and in the red zone, where Nebraska has struggled mightily this season.
Nebraska’s .760 red zone efficiency ranks 13th in the conference and 105th nationally.
The Huskers’ tight ends weren’t expected to be amongst the best in the Big Ten this season. Hoppes and Ketter were only just put on scholarship in August.
There’s still three other TEs (Stoll, Engelhaupt, Snyder) on scholarship who’ve barely been given a look. It could be the lack of in-game experience. Guys might not be getting open, but with only one TE producing significant receiving numbers, rotating some new bodies in on passing downs might give Lee more options and take some pressure off of the WRs.
“(Jack) Stoll being in there in a rotation, I think, is a good thing to help keep those guys fresh and ready to win on some one-on-one match ups,” Langsdorf said.
Snyder and Engelhaupt are still young and probably aren’t ready for live action yet, but could still provide a different look on 3rd down, or in the red zone, if given the opportunity.
Kitrell, a walk-on, is still new to the TE position, switching over from the fullback spot this past spring.
Hohenstein, also a walk-on, redshirted last year, and will have his chance to climb up the depth chart down the road.
Two others that will be looking to work their way up are true freshmen Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen. Their redshirts won’t be pulled with only five games left, but their potential and skill set are providing optimism this year, and could provide depth next year.
“Austin Allen is really athletic,” Riley said. “He’s got a great kind of confidence to him as an athlete that I really like. He could use an offseason of a redshirt year to get ready for spring ball and make a move. I’m excited about him and Kurt Rafdal.”
“Big target areas on both of them,” Langsdorf said. “They run well. I think they’re physical. They’re really working hard on blocking. I’m just encouraged by how they’ve looked in the short time I’ve gotten to work with them. They are going to be exciting players.”
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.