Replacing Reed and Cotton as Receivers
In the NFL, the tight end position has become one that can be a real difference-maker. The New England Patriots hope of returning to the Super Bowl took a crushing blow when Rob Gronkowski became injured. Even then, Aaron Hernandez (their other tight end) led the team in receptions in their final game as did San Francisco's Vernon Davis in the Super Bowl. Even Baltimore's Dennis Pitta provided a needed touchdown to deliver a championship in the big game. Last season, Nebraska similarly looked to the tight end to catch passes often at critical times. Now they return only a player with six catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in Jake Long. So how will Nebraska replace nearly 600 receiving yards in 2013?
Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton created matchup problems and had a knack for getting open at critical times. Reed provided NU's final touchdown in the win over Wisconsin. Cotton delivered the winning score over Northwestern. Reed's 38-yard reception on 4th and 10 at Michigan State set up the game-winning score. A 56-yard completion to Reed in the 4th quarter on 3rd and 5 against Penn State put NU in front for good. Cotton caught passes for first downs on scoring drives that produced 10 points in the Huskers' 13-7 victory over Iowa.
What was so devastating about the tandem (and Cotton, in particular) is that they could so credibly block linebackers. Linebackers were constantly seeking to avoid the tight end and yet would then need to change that mindset and blanket them in coverage. It's a seemingly impossible task.
Any offense can sneak out even a lumbering tight end to catch passes now and again. That might be what to expect from Jake Long. Sam Cotton will likely carry some of the load. He's similar in size to Reed and might be sneaky-strong (he threw shot put and discus in high school).
Some of that production though may go to the wide receivers. Jamal Turner seems poised to feast on the single coverage he'll see with Kenny Bell drawing so much attention. Wideout Quincy Enunwa's physicality allows him to play the same kind of head games with a defender that a tight end does. In more dire circumstances, you might have expected coaches to ask Enunwa to bulk up and play the tight end spot like the Washington Redskins did in moving Niles Paul.
Some drop-off from the position seems inevitable. The Huskers don't appear to have another Kyler Reed at the ready. With 17 of 22 members of the offensive two-deep returning, you'd hope the gains at other positions can more than offset the loss of such an outstanding tandem. The tight end position will definitely be one to watch this Spring.