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LINCOLN — Wan’Dale Robinson lifted his gloved right hand and started making the motion for a penalty flag.
On Nebraska’s final play against Northwestern, the Huskers’ No. 1 receiver saw quarterback Luke McCaffrey rolling to his left and worked back toward him. McCaffrey’s fourth-down throw was low and hot, hitting the turf 2 yards in front of Robinson’s outstretched hand.
The officials already flagged Northwestern twice for pass interference. Nebraska wasn’t getting a third call, which meant a frustrating end to a frustrating start to Robinson’s season.
The Huskers have several young receivers still learning the playbook. Robinson, though just a sophomore, isn’t one of them.
He’s effectively a veteran, one of the success stories of 2019, when he racked up 1,029 all-purpose yards and was the primary reason for Nebraska’s wins over Illinois and Northwestern. As Nebraska looked for others to emerge in 2020, Robinson was a no-doubter.
“His football intelligence blows me away,” offensive coordinator and receivers coach Matt Lubick said during the summer.
The mystery at quarterback will continue until game day for Nebraska. "Both guys have been competing for that and practicing to get there. We’ll make a decision," Scott Frost said Thursday.
That hasn’t helped Robinson get the ball much. He has 76 all-purpose yards in two games, which includes a 5-yard loss on a muffed punt. He has 10 catches for 81 yards, zero carries and two coaches — Lubick and Scott Frost — vowing to get Robinson more touches, pronto.
“We need Wan’Dale to be a bigger part of the game plan, so we’re going to do what we need to,” Frost said.
Lubick was adamant about that, too. When a reporter suggested the issue can’t simply be resolved through giving the ball to Robinson in the backfield, Lubick said it could.
“It’s a little more complicated than that, but what you said is stuff we can do,” Lubick said. “And we’ve got to do more, as far as giving him carries and different things. Giving him the ball on stuff he does well. His skill set, he does a lot of stuff well.”
Robinson arrived at Nebraska as the top recruit in the 2019 class based on his record-breaking Kentucky prep career as a running back. At Nebraska, he was supposed to switch to the slot “R” receiver that in Frost’s offense tends to get quite a bit of attention.
The dismissal of Maurice Washington, coupled with injuries, moved Robinson to running back for the middle of the season. He may still be the team’s second-best running back behind Dedrick Mills, but his future is at slot receiver.
“He’s playing a spot at slot where pretty much everybody I’ve had in my offense that I’ve coached has good numbers to big numbers,” Frost said. “It just hasn’t happened the first two weeks. In that spot that’s kind of the focus of our offense, that slot position, a lot.
“I think it’s just a matter of time that the ball finds him in our normal offense and we’ll design whatever we need to make sure he’s a part of what we’re doing.”
Most of Robinson’s targets — except a fourth-quarter grab at Ohio State — have been short screen passes designed to give Robinson space to run. The screen pass has not been a particular strength of Nebraska’s offense dating to last season, when quarterback Adrian Martinez struggled at Purdue to accurately make the timing throw needed so receivers and backs can keep square to the line of scrimmage and read blocks.
Scott Frost made a brief appearance with reporters Thursday to give his final thoughts before Nebraska hosts Penn State this weekend.
Robinson got several of those kinds of passes in the first half at Northwestern. He caught two for 9 yards on the opening drive. He didn’t have another catch until the Huskers’ final drive.
In the second half, nine Huskers — including two tight ends and two walk-on receivers — got targets before Robinson. Quarterback Luke McCaffrey looked for him three times on the final drive, completing two for 23 yards.
Lubick said Nebraska is exploring “very simple ways” to get Robinson involved, including jet sweeps. The whole spectrum of NU’s playmakers have to get the ball in situations where they shine, Lubick said.
“Both of our quarterbacks are pretty good playmakers,” Lubick said. “How do we get them in situations where they have the ball in their hands? Same thing with the receiver situation. If we have a specific receiver who needs to get the ball in his hands, we think about that in the game plan and try to design plays to make that happen.”
The Husker quarterbacks are getting those touches. Martinez and McCaffrey have combined for 43 carries, 63 pass attempts and McCaffrey’s one reception. The Ohio State game was spent maximizing McCaffrey’s skills to the point he played running back a few times. This season, the quarterback draw is Nebraska’s most productive and seemingly most-called play.
NU has also spread the ball to 14 receivers in two games. Several more, like Wyatt Liewer and Omar Manning, have had at least one pass thrown their way.
Frost suggested that Robinson is enough of a threat that defenses can try to take him away and let other players beat them. Lubick said Nebraska continues to look for ways to put Robinson “in the right spot at the right time.
“We’re working on that, and we can do a better job getting him the ball,” Lubick said.
Ryan Field at times Saturday sounded like an active construction zone, which is fitting considering limiting offensive flags remains a work in progress for Nebraska.