LINCOLN — For much of his Nebraska football career, Jamal Turner has kept his hands full with challenges such as transitioning from quarterback to receiver and playing as a true freshman.
Turner is ready for more to fall into those hands, specifically in the form of punts and kickoffs.
The shifty and dangerous Turner heretofore has mostly been held out of such duty, but NU might see an opportunity to squeeze more out of the junior-to-be while also lightening the load on Ameer Abdullah because of its lack of depth at I-back.
“It’s time,” Turner said. “It’s something that I want to actually take control of and be that guy.”
Turner has been working as the No. 1 punt returner as Nebraska heads into its final week of spring practice. With Abdullah out because of a knee injury, Turner and receiver Kenny Bell have been the top unit back on kickoff returns.
That surely can change at any time, Turner said, but the 6-foot-1 185-pounder would like to try to help the Huskers improve on return numbers that tailed off badly in the second half of last season.
“Everybody knew before that I could do it, and everybody knew that I had the ability to be a punt returner and a kick returner,” he said. “It was just me running the stuff and actually going out there and doing it — and wanting to, having the desire to do it. It has to be important to me. Before, it really wasn’t.”
Turner averaged 5.7 yards on six punt returns last season, with a long of 22. His best kickoff return was a 35-yarder, and he picked up 22.1 on seven attempts.
He learned in that limited work that it was harder than he might have imagined — and that he couldn’t get by simply on his natural talent.
“I’m thinking I’m just about to catch this thing and just go score every time,” Turner said. “No. That’s not the case, at all. But it’s important to me now, and I’m going to really work at it and get better.”
Turner has been studying YouTube clips of some past and recent return specialists. He also has been working on simply making the catch, one of the problems that contributed to NU’s lack of success on punt returns a year ago.
“I’m excited about it,” Turner said. “I played it toward the end of the year, and I’m just trying to build off that momentum that I had coming out of the bowl game and just go from there.”
Turner was so valuable to his Sam Houston High School team in Arlington, Texas, that it didn’t dare risk an injury to the prolific quarterback on returns. Learning college football and a new position were enough to keep him almost entirely away from it in 2011.
Turner understood — and kept his mind on what he was doing.
“Because as a freshman, you got so much stuff going through your mind at once, and you’re not really comfortable with everything,” he said. “You’re hesitant, and you’re not playing your game.
“With maturity, they understand and I understand that, ‘Hey, I know what I’ve got to do, and I’m going to do it.’”
Nebraska finished last season third in the Big Ten in punt returns (9.3 yards) and sixth in kickoff returns (21.6). Over the Huskers’ final eight games, however, they picked up just 1.7 yards per punt return and 19.8 per kick return.
“We got to get better at that,” Turner said, “and every aspect of special teams.”
Turner has selfish reasons to get involved, too, because he knows that becoming an effective return man could help his chances of playing at the next level.
But right now, the intent is just to add another element to his game. It started to blossom during his sophomore season when he caught 32 passes, including the go-ahead scores in consecutive weeks against Michigan State and Penn State.
“I’m excited that the coaches are comfortable with putting me back there or calling my number on a third down,” Turner said. “That makes me more happy than anything, to know that what I’ve come from to where I’m at now is night and day.”
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