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Tight ends looking to thrive in new offense

Sophomore Jack Stoll leads a tight end position that could be a major piece to Nebraska's passing game this season. (Tyler Krecklow)

One of the least discussed position groups on Nebraska’s roster this offseason ended up being a highlight of the team’s first major fall camp scrimmage last Sunday.

While the scrimmage was closed to the public and media, the Husker football Twitter account posted a short highlight video that featured the tight ends scoring at least two touchdowns on the day - one by sophomore Jack Stoll and another by redshirt freshman Kurt Rafdal.

That glimpse was backed up by the NU offensive coaches earlier this week.

"The tight ends probably played the best of anyone in the scrimmage," offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. "They made some plays down the field in the pass game, which is awesome. I think we've got tight ends that are good run blockers, so I'm excited about that group."

Walters said he thinks Nebraska has “three or four” tight ends capable of doing all the things the staff requires of the position. Some of those responsibilities include being dependable receiving options both on the perimeter and as traditional end-line targets, as well as setting the edge for the offense’s outside run game.

In recent years the Huskers’ tight ends have almost been reduced to glorified offensive linemen. The position accounted for just 13.4 percent of the team’s total receptions, and 14.7 percent of its total touchdown catches over the past three seasons.

In 2017, NU’s tight ends combined for 42 catches and five touchdowns. In 2016 they had 28 receptions and two scores.

To put those numbers in perspective, Iowa tight end Noah Fant had 30 catches and 11 touchdowns by himself last season. Nebraska’s tight ends caught 10 total touchdowns during the Mike Riley era.

That all figures to change in new head coach Scott Frost’s offense, though, as tight ends coach Sean Beckton said his group would be counted on as a key piece in the passing game.

"The biggest thing we're trying to get these guys to understand: 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."

Stoll figures to be the top tight end on the depth chart for NU’s season opener vs. Akron after putting together an impressive offseason, but others like Rafdal and redshirt freshman Austin Allen have also emerged as formidable options.

Fans got a taste of how the tight ends’ role could change going forward in the Spring Game back in April when the unit ended up with a combined nine catches for 107 yards and a touchdown between the Red and White teams.

With even more evidence of what the position could be this fall, highlighted by last week’s scrimmage, excitement is brewing within the tight end room.

“I think that’s going to give us confidence because we’re really young and don’t have as much (experience) as like last year,” Allen said. “So going against Akron, that’s going to give us some really good background to just make a confident play without no fear of failure, as Coach Frost says.”