LINCOLN — As soon as Jamal Turner identified Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's audible, he turned toward the sideline and locked eyes with his position coach.
The third-down call midway through the first quarter was originally a run, but Southern Mississippi stacked the box and exposed a vulnerability downfield. Martinez saw it, and signaled toward Kenny Bell to go long.
Trouble was, the initial design had Turner aligned between Bell and Taariq Allen in a way that he couldn't cross the line of scrimmage before the pass was released. Against the rules. He knew it. So when the ball was snapped, he was statue-still. Allen did the same, too, just in case.
Bell, meanwhile, sprinted past a couple of confused defenders, and hauled in a well-thrown pass for a 26-yard touchdown, giving NU a 14-0 cushion about eight minutes into the game. A big moment, receivers coach Rich Fisher said.
“That wasn't the initial play that we called — but instead of getting out of the formation, we were just yelling for those guys to freeze,” Fisher said. “We didn't want an illegal receiver downfield.”
It was the type of heads-up play that — more than anything during a productive and efficient 49-20 win Saturday — showcased the progress of Turner and his teammates at receiver.
A year ago, Turner doesn't recognize that. Shoot, a year ago, he was on the sideline. So were senior Steven Osborne, sophomore Tyler Wullenwaber and sophomore Tyler Evans.
Suddenly, Nebraska appears to have developed a deep receiving unit, full of potential with guys who've learned how to supplement their game-changing physical gifts with on-the-fly awareness. The result, at least on one afternoon, will likely worry any opposing secondary tasked with slowing them down.
“We've got a lot of work still ahead, but it was a good first start,” Fisher said. “For the first game of the year, I'm super pleased.”
Junior Quincy Enunwa led the way with six receptions. He would have had more than 70 receiving yards if not for the sideline or an occasional feet tangling. Bell just had that one TD catch, but was targeted on several audibles by Martinez, clearly emerging as one of the quarterback's go-to targets.
Osborne, who had a breakthrough offseason, delivered the catch of the day — a 29-yard jump ball that he snatched while managing to tap a foot inside the end zone, putting Nebraska up 28-17 with 1:03 left before halftime.
Tim Marlowe broke his collar bone, but Evans stepped right in for the senior and caught a 26-yard pass on his first snap of the game. Turner showed off his elusiveness, piling up 45 yards after the catch on his two receptions.
Wullenwaber, who had an 8-yard catch, gave Bell several breathers. The speedster from Utica, Neb., appeared to have a step against a safety on a go-route during the first quarter, but Martinez played it safe and threw elsewhere.
By design, the contributions came from everyone.
“To see each other succeed is an exciting thing,” Bell said. “But at the same time, you're like, ‘Dang. Now I want to do that much better.' … We're great buddies and we care a lot about each other and we have nothing but faith in one another — but at the same time, we want to be the best.”
That's the kind of attitude Fisher's trying to create. He'll play anyone who's proven himself in practice. Saturday, there were eight (seven after Marlowe went down).
And Fisher didn't waste time rotating the reserves into the game, either.
On Nebraska's second drive, it used seven receivers. There was a substitution seemingly every play, partly because fatigue factored in on a hot day but also because NU wants its receivers fresher than the opposing defensive backs.
“It's a lot of mental gymnastics,” Fisher said. “That's probably the hardest part of what we do, is the tempo which we go, and rotating, and the formations, and shifts, and motions.”
But the players are used to it now that they've had an offseason to fully grasp all of their responsibilities. Similarly, they've gained a comfort level with the specifics of an offensive system that allows for pre-snap and mid-play alterations to routes.
There were mistakes Saturday, particularly in terms of reading coverages and adjusting accordingly. Fisher will undoubtedly have a long list when he reviews game tape with the group Monday.
All day Saturday, though, those receivers were overflowing with confidence, smiling and grinning and hopping around as if they were convinced that Southern Miss had little chance at stopping them.
“Every time we would come off the field (Saturday), we would all look at each other and say, ‘We have the best receiving corps in the nation,'” Turner said. “Even if it's not true, we don't care. We feel that we have the best receiving corps in the nation.”
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