LINCOLN — One Husker aching to play Saturday is receiver Jamal Turner, who is returning from a hamstring injury after missing nearly every snap at Purdue.
The junior said the bye week was “perfect timing,” allowing him to get some rest and spend time in the training room.
“I'm so excited and so ready,” Turner said. “I get to play full speed now. And how they play defensively, this could be a big week for me.”
Turner is fourth on the team with 11 receptions, but 10 came in the first three games. He pulled the hamstring in preseason practice, struggled with it through nonconference play and then popped it again in the first half against Illinois on Oct. 5.
He tried to start practices the last few weeks, but said they'd usually end the same way.
“I'd do a few runs and kind of see how I feel, and they'd be like, 'You're done,' ” he said.
“I'm high spirits in practice,” he said. “I'm laughing, running around, playing. I'm just happy to be back out there. You forget how much you love the game when you're not playing, when an injury takes you from the game.”
Jordan Westerkamp replaced Turner as the slot receiver against the Boilermakers and caught a career-high three passes for 53 yards. Turner said he likes watching the redshirt freshman play.
“We want that competition in the room,” Turner said. “It's just going to make me play harder.”
Ends only beginning
Though Randy Gregory has attracted most of the attention at defensive end, redshirt freshmen Avery Moss (19 tackles, six tackles for loss) and Greg McMullen (11 tackles, three tackles for loss) have played well when given a chance.
“They both have a wealth of potential,” Bo Pelini said during his weekly appearance on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “Untapped potential right now. But I see them getting better. Both have an excellent work ethic. They're both very talented. They both can play the run on early downs and rush the passer. They have versatility and can be good, all-around football players.”
Moss and McMullen are members of the 2012 recruiting class — a group that Pelini has called his best class of defensive linemen, more game-ready and successful than previous classes. Of Pelini-era defensive end recruits who committed after he arrived and before Moss and McMullen signed, only Jason Ankrah and Josh Williams played significant snaps. And Williams left the program before his senior year. The best end in Pelini's six years might have been Eric Martin, a converted linebacker recruit.
Pelini would prefer to redshirt freshman ends. He's doing that with 2013 signee A.J. Natter. Gregory, a transfer from Arizona Western College, played right away and was tabbed The World-Herald's midseason defensive MVP. Two other 2013 signees — Dimarya Mixon and Ernest Suttles — never made it to training camp with the Huskers.
“It's always an advantage to redshirt some guys,” Pelini said, “because as good as football players are, very rarely — especially up front — are they ready to come in and do everything you'd like them to be able to do as a true freshman. But sometimes you don't have that luxury. It's not easy to make that jump from high school to college football. Avery and Greg — they're guys who are in their second year.”
Catching other receivers
Nebraska's top two receivers, always seeking ways to feed their competitive spirits, have been keeping an eye on the conference's stars at their position. Just to make sure they measure up.
Kenny Bell was watching Saturday as Michigan's Jeremy Gallon totaled 369 receiving yards. Indiana's entire receiving corps had a big day, too.
Once a week, Bell and Quincy Enunwa find themselves checking out the most recent game tape of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who Bell said is the league's best pass-catcher. “That guy's a stud,” he said.
Then there's Penn State's Allen Robinson, who leads the conference in receptions per game at 7.2.
The Big Ten's receivers are better than you'd think, Bell said. Other leagues known for their pass-happy offenses tend to get more credit for producing better receivers. But this conference has talent, Bell said.
“There are some phenomenal Big Ten receivers out there, so we're always looking for ways to get better,” Bell said. “And we plan on doing that.”
Gopher coach upstairs
Though Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has taken a leave of absence to deal with health problems stemming from epilepsy, he sat in the coaches' box for the Gophers' 20-17 win at Northwestern and stopped into his office Sunday and Monday for a few hours, defensive coordinator and interim coach Tracy Claeys said at his Tuesday press conference.
Kill is expected to be in the coaches' box for Saturday's game vs. Nebraska, though Claeys said he is unsure how involved Kill will be.
Minnesota also has quarterback questions. The Gophers have used Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner this season, with Nelson starting earlier this year and Leidner starting in recent games. Nelson directed Minnesota's most successful drives in the win against Northwestern. Leidner is ill this week, Claeys said, and in need of antibiotics to see if he can practice.
The Gophers have a rule, Claeys said, that if players don't practice during the week, they don't play Saturday.
“We'll see how Mitch handles this medication,” Claeys said. “If you start to feel bad, that can go either way. Sometimes you get better, sometimes you get worse. We're going to wait until a little bit later in the week and see how much practice Mitch can go through.”
Nelson started in Minnesota's 38-14 loss at Nebraska last year, completing 8 of 23 passes for 59 yards and two interceptions. He was eventually replaced.
Regardless of which quarterback starts for the Gophers, Nebraska's defense will prepare the same, Pelini said on the Big Ten call. Though Leidner is more of the zone-read operator and Nelson is more of the passer, both run the same offense.
“Whoever they put in at quarterback, they put in,” Pelini said. “That's going to be up to them and we have to react. I don't see a big, huge change in what they're doing offensively with either guy. They have two guys they like and obviously in their mind deserve snaps.”
Three and out
Nebraska's improved third-down defense has made a considerable difference lately, Pelini said.
The Huskers have held opponents to a 28.95 conversion percentage on third downs this year, which ranks seventh nationally.
During the last three games, Nebraska has allowed offenses to move the chains on third down 20 percent of the time. The opponents' average yards needed on third down in those contests: 7.3.
“That's going to be big as the year goes on: having the ability to get off the field on third down,” Pelini said. “That's always a big area and something we want to keep working on, and something we spend a lot of time on.”
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