When JD Spielman’s first collegiate touch was a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Nebraska’s season-opening victory against Arkansas State, at least one person wasn’t surprised at the redshirt freshman’s display.
See, Mike Grant was immediately reminded of a similar play from when he coached Spielman at Eden Prairie. Before a game against Maple Grove, Grant had asked coach Matt Lombardi if he planned to kick to Spielman, with the response being, “No way, we’re not that stupid.” But on the first punt, Maple Grove’s kick didn’t quite make it to the end zone, and Spielman went against the norm to back up from the 10-yard line and field it.
He took it about 95 yards up the sideline for a score.
“We were yelling, ‘No, no, no!’ And then he brought it all the way back,” Grant said. “And we were like, ‘OK, well, that’s JD.’ I mean, his rules are different than other people’s rules, I guess.”
The 19-year-old hasn’t looked back from that opening moment in what has been a breakout season with the Cornhuskers (4-5 overall, 3-3 Big Ten). And he’ll have the chance to put on a show for his home-state crowd again Saturday against the Gophers (4-5, 1-5) at TCF Bank Stadium.
Spielman leads Nebraska in all-purpose yards with 1,154 in nine games. His hallmark game, so far, came in an Oct. 14 loss to Ohio State, where he broke a nearly 20-year-old school record by 33 yards with 200 receiving yards. His 11 receptions also tied for third most in school history, and his 77-yard touchdown catch was the longest of his career. He also made a 40-yard run against Northwestern in Nebraska’s most recent game, the longest of the Huskers’ season.
But no one will hear Spielman boasting. Grant said he didn’t hear Spielman speak for his entire first year on varsity. And his dad, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, remembers taking his ninth-grade son on a lacrosse recruiting trip and watching practice for a good 30 minutes in silence until JD finally said something.
“ ‘Well, I know I’m better than those three guys. This guy is better than me right now,’ ” Rick Spielman recalled his son saying. “He’s always observing. Not very outgoing but very observant of what’s around him.”
JD attributes his ability to his football family. In addition to his dad, his uncle, Chris Spielman, is a former NFL linebacker and current analyst. His uncle tipped off Nebraska coach Mike Riley about his nephew, showing him Spielman’s highlight video when they were on an ESPN broadcast.
“It came from my dad and my uncle, just seeing the football side from a higher level,” JD Spielman said. “A lot of people don’t get to watch NFL players practice or watch them up close on the field during games … and be able to talk to them in the locker room after a practice or after a game. The way that my game developed and my field vision, all that, comes from being more in-depth with the game longer in my life than most people are able to get into.”
Time with Dad down in Mankato during Vikings camp, and being a ball boy on the sidelines of the stadium he’s going to play in Saturday, made an impact. That exposure also helped the 5-9, 180-pounder adjust to a new position. A runner and defensive back in high school, Spielman used a redshirt year at Nebraska to transition to slotback.
Riley’s vision for Spielman is part of the reason he turned down playing lacrosse for Ohio State and chose Nebraska instead of offers from schools such as Michigan and Minnesota. Because while it was “tough” to say no to the hometown team, Spielman said, having the opportunity to go on an adventure in an unfamiliar place was what his heart wanted.
Spielman said he has the Nebraska-Minnesota rivalry built up in his head, and rattled off a long list of players from the Gophers he calls friends. But the ever-pragmatic Spielman isn’t letting himself get caught up in the emotion of the game, if his No. 1 concern about playing in Minnesota again is any hint.
“It’s going to be cold,” Spielman said. “You’ve just got to get prepared for the weather, you know, playing outside in the frozen north. That’s all it really is.”