The latest and most notable name to enter the NCAA transfer portal is a big one. Nebraska wide receiver JD Spielman, who was only 19 catches and 201 yards off of the career marks for Cornhusker receiving set by Stanley Morgan Jr., is now a free agent in college football.
Spielman hadn’t reported to any of the spring football events in Nebraska, and in early March, head coach Scott Frost announced that Spielman had taken a leave of absence from the team to deal with a “personal health issue.” Spielman’s transfer was announced as a mutually parting of ways, which is a nice way of smoothing over the fact that the Cornhuskers have now lost 14 players over the last offseason.
But Spielman, arguably the best prospect coming off the Cornhuskers this year, is the top bird to take flight. Spielman will have to apply for a waiver to play in 2020, as he didn’t graduate from Nebraska at the end of the 2020 academic year—there’s a chance that he’ll be forced to sit, and won’t play until 2021.
Here’s a quick scouting report on Spielman’s game, and the three spots I think he’s likely to target on a transfer.
There isn’t a team in the country who couldn’t use a player like Spielman. A fearless go-getter in the middle of the field, Spielman’s ability to attack seam and sit routes in the gaps between zones while acknowledging that he’s going to get plastered is extremely exciting. There’s a ton of veteran savvy to Spielman’s game that allows him to quickly separate against zone coverage and be available for such targets, but it’s the hand strength and quick adjustment that really shines here.
Spielman isn’t the best athlete on the field, and at his size, that’s a little concerning. He’s tasked with return duties for Nebraska because of his quickness and contact balance, but he doesn’t necessarily have the home-run speed to run away from coverage. Most of his deep plays come as the result of route concepts and spacing, not separation against man.
As such, Spielman’s best projection for the league is that of an underneath separator and slot machine, who can be used for third-down targets, schemed touches, and as a possession receiver in the intermediate middle of the field. But at the college level, there’s still enough to Spielman’s game to work him as a three-level threat, especially in a spread offense that will get him matched up against safeties that he can outrun.
This is the easiest and cleanest fit, and accordingly the most likely. As I said above, Spielman spent most of his time and saw most of his success come from the slot in Nebraska, and Minnesota just lost one of the most productive slot receivers in college football last season in Tyler Johnson.
Now, Minnesota is well-equipped to handle that loss, with rising juniors in Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell returning as one of the better WR duos in the Big Ten. But there’s plenty of targets for Spielman left by Johnson. If Spielman isn’t eligible for 2020 play, there will be even more targets available, as Bateman is almost undoubtedly on his way to the NFL.
Minnesota is Spielman’s home state. He’s the son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and was recruited by the Golden Gophers when Jerry Kill was still the head coach there. P.J. Fleck is a much better recruiter, and particularly does work with wide receivers. The Golden Gophers should be considered the running favorite accordingly.
This is a bit of a wild one, and is essentially only viable if Spielman is granted a waiver and is eligible to play for 2020. In the event that he is, Spielman fills the biggest void on a national championship-caliber program.
With the injury to rising star receiver Justyn Ross keeping him out of the 2020 season, Clemson is thirsting for dependable WR talent. Amari Rodgers is the best incumbent receiver on the roster, and sophomores Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson will be asked to step up to fill the void beside him. If Spielman is looking for a place to show off his talent in a better system or with better passers, there isn’t an option more attractive than Clemson.
Spielman doesn’t exactly fit the prototypical Clemson WR mold, however. Most Clemson receivers have elite height and weight, and win with catch radius and adjustment. Spielman’s most similar match on Clemson’s recent rosters is actually Hunter Renfrow, and he would fit in a similar role as an underneath separator and quick-game specialist.
This is the more interesting option for Spielman if he’s looking at sitting in 2020 and playing in 2021, which is the most likely situation. Ohio State currently has Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson as their top receivers for 2020, and are likely to lose Olave to the league after next season. Even for all of their tremendous recruiting, it’s tough to lose five receivers over two drafts and keep the ship afloat.
Interestingly enough, Spielman was once committed to Ohio State—not to play football, but to play lacrosse. His uncle, Chris Spielman, was a linebacker for the Buckeyes in the ‘80s. When it comes to entering the football program, Spielman will play in 2021 as the No. 2 option behind Wilson, even as Ohio State’s top recruits emerge at the position.
The fear here surrounds the uncertainty at quarterback, as Ohio State would almost undoubtedly be starting a new QB in 2021 after Justin Fields leaves for the NFL following the 2020 season.