- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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We’ve reached the fourth day in our pre-spring countdown of Nebraska’s position groups with most room to improve.
Up next, a group that went unnoticed at times -- all the evidence required for inclusion on this list. At No. 2, it’s the tight ends:
Major losses: Jake Long looked poised for a nice senior season after stepping into a starting role vacated last year by the departure of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Because of injuries, it didn’t materialize as planned, much like the senior season of Long’s twin brother, All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Jake caught just eight passes for 121 yards.
Top returnees: Cethan Carter showed flashes as a true freshman. He grabbed 10 passes for 127 yards. Sam Cotton, as a redshirt freshman, caught three passes for 22 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown against Minnesota, the only score by a tight end last season. Rising sophomore Trey Foster and junior David Sutton played minor roles in 2013.
Numbers to know: Tight ends at Nebraska caught 22 passes in 14 games, with no gain longer than 26 yards. That’s just not good enough for Barney Cotton’s group, even with all the inexperience and Long’s hobbled state. Here’s one number to watch: 39.2. It’s the Huskers’ third-down conversion rate last season, 72nd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. With a productive core of tight ends, that will improve.
Key question: Productive tight ends can make a huge difference in the play-action passing game for Nebraska, potentially a strength for Tommy Armstrong Jr. or Johnny Stanton at quarterback. Is that tight end on the roster?
The outlook: The lack of tight end production last year involved more than injuries and inexperience. Part of it fell on Armstrong, who started eight games and locked too often on top receiving options Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.
They were excellent choices, but so is a dangerous tight end, which adds a difficult-to-defend element to any offense.
Nebraska’s quarterbacks get an offseason to work with Carter, who should develop into a big-play threat, and Cotton. The overall comfort level should improve, and the addition of redshirt freshman Greg Hart adds another big target.
True freshman Freedom Akinmoladun rates as a dark horse in the 2014 recruiting class to make a quick impact. If he’s ready, the opportunity is there.
Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:
No. 5: Secondary
No. 4: Quarterbacks
No. 3: Linebackers