LINCOLN — It was December 2012, and the man Greg Hart figured would be coaching him at Nebraska — Vince Marrow — had just called to say he'd been offered a job at Kentucky.
Marrow told the tight end recruit that NU still was the best fit. And Hart agreed. But he did wonder who would fill the void.
Barney Cotton answered the question in January. The longtime Husker offensive line coach would be shifting some of his focus from that part of the offense toward the tight ends. Once a week for a month, Hart talked extensively with Cotton. Felt assured. He might have a different coach, but the message — and, more important, the role — wasn't changing.
“I knew I was going to stay with Nebraska,” Hart said in a telephone interview earlier this summer. “It's too good of a setup.”
The setup that awaits both Hart and freshman tight end Cethan Carter is an offense that consistently relies on two tight ends. Running downs. Passing downs. Midfield. Goal line. Last year, Ben Cotton caught the game-winning touchdown at Northwestern, and Kyler Reed caught the dramatic fourth-down pass to set up NU's comeback at Michigan State. Tight ends line up in the slot, in the backfield and, of course, at their traditional spot at the end of the line.
“We're going to spread teams out,” said the 6-foot-4, 236-pound Carter, who also spoke before arriving on campus this summer. “They're going to use us all over the field. They won't just keep us on the end of the line.”
Which is just fine with Carter, a late-blooming recruit from New Orleans. Before his senior season at Rummel High School, Carter played more fullback, blowing open holes with lead blocks. Carter had the ability to peel off and catch passes out of the backfield, too.
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As Rummel featured more of Carter's versatility last season — he caught 23 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns — his prospects of playing major college football grew. Nebraska wedged itself into the recruiting process, won out over LSU's grayshirt offer, and will give Carter a chance, he said, at playing immediately. Senior walk-on Jake Long is likely to start, with sophomore David Sutton and redshirt freshmen Sam Cotton and Trey Foster battling for time, as well.
How do the Huskers envision using Carter?
“They see me as being a lot like Kyler Reed,” Carter said. Reed, at 6-3 and 230 pounds, caught 39 passes for 614 yards and three touchdowns in his last two seasons at NU, both in coordinator Tim Beck's power spread offense. Nebraska practiced plays that had Reed lining up more in the backfield, but rarely used them in games.
The 6-5, 234-pound Hart, meanwhile, frequently served as a slot receiver at Dayton (Ohio) Alter High School, catching passes from Notre Dame quarterback recruit Malik Zaire, who enrolled early to play for the Irish, but still found time this summer to throw with Hart for three weeks when he was on break from ND.
Hart said the Huskers will use him as an “A,” or adjuster, tight end who can split out from the line of scrimmage and match up against a smaller slot corner. The adjuster was a role Nebraska introduced with former Husker Mike McNeill in 2010. Beck gave Hart a playbook and plays to study where he might be used most.
Like several other incoming NU players, Hart and Carter had Hudl accounts they could access for video. Carter said NU's offense mirrored some of what Rummel liked to do, and Beck tailored the offense to make it easy enough to learn.
“It's complicated,” Carter said, “but I can relate to it.”
Said Hart: “I'm ready for it. I'm going to compete for as much playing time as I can.”