LINCOLN — Sam Cotton was so excited that he almost didn't make the catch.
Before the Nebraska tight end could secure a throw from Tommy Armstrong and turn it into a 17-yard gain against Illinois, he struggled with getting a handle on the short pass and — as friends let him know later Saturday on Twitter — looked a little unathletic doing so.
Blame it on both the open field that Cotton saw in front of him and maybe the long wait for that moment.
After sitting out last year, the redshirt freshman missed all or most of the Huskers' first three games in September. Cotton will now be counted on to help the Huskers at a position of need, especially with Jake Long out this week with a hamstring injury.
“I would have loved to catch it clean,” said Cotton, the son of NU assistant coach Barney Cotton. “The biggest thing for me was I knew I was wide open and there was nobody near me, so I was pulling my eyes away from the ball too soon and trying to turn up field.”
The eagerness to do something has been oozing all along from Cotton and true freshman Cethan Carter, who was there to push the pile Saturday as Cotton bulldogged his way down the Illini sideline for yards after the catch.
Nebraska lost Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed at tight end, and doubts surrounded the position with Long as the only returning upperclassman.
Cotton and Carter have known about those doubts from the start, especially when NU was pretty much set everywhere else on offense.
“We're not supposed to read anything, but you would still hear people talking,” Cotton said. “And that's what really motivated us going in.”
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Carter stepped up in August when Long was hurt, seeing 40 snaps in the season-opening game with Wyoming. He's gotten more work each week since.
The 6-foot-4 230-pounder from Metairie, La., has three receptions for 55 yards in five games, including two starts. The growing confidence and trust in Carter also has been apparent.
“It's a lot more than I expected to play as a freshman,” said Carter, who didn't turn 18 until Sept. 5.
“I feel like we're both growing. The first day of fall practice I didn't really know much. Now it just comes a little easier to me.”
Carter said practice, repetitions and game experience have started to speed up his development. It hasn't hurt that his philosophy is to be anything but tentative going through it.
“Even if I mess up, mess up going 100 miles per hour,” he said. “Then fix it on film and come back the next day at practice and get it right.”
Carter's window of opportunity was wide open with Long's injury and the loss of walk-on Jared Blum. Cotton was looking at the same chance until his own health setback.
“It was certainly disappointing because, I mean, the whole offseason I was trying to work to put on 20 pounds, then payoff time came and I got hurt,” said Cotton, a 6-4, 235-pounder from Lincoln Southeast. “Cethan really kicked it into high gear and took advantage. He's really come through in the clutch for us.”
Along with the progress made by David Sutton and Trey Foster, NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said last week that the tight ends were the “area on the team from game one to game four that probably improved the most.”
Now with Long shelved, at least temporarily, it will throw more responsibility onto the shoulders of Carter and Cotton, neither of whom has played in a college road game as NU heads to Purdue.
The tight ends only have nine receptions through five games — Long is the leader with five — after that position accounted for 48 a year ago. The non-believers will keep watching, but Cotton said he and Carter understood it might be that way until they started turning potential into results.
“With only one senior, you can't expect people to say anything different,” Cotton said. “You've just got to go out and prove them wrong.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini addresses the media Thursday after practice