LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Mike Riley said last week he’s felt “plagued” by preseason injuries to wide receivers.
Unless the Huskers get major contributions from still-unproven players — including a dynamic true freshman — the news that Riley announced Wednesday could put a major crimp on two phases.
Sophomore De’Mornay Pierson-El, one of the nation’s top punt returners and arguably Nebraska’s top returning offensive weapon, will be out six to eight weeks after injuring a foot at Tuesday’s practice, according to Riley’s spokesman. NU also lost wideout Lavan Alston for the season during the same practice. Alston, a freshman from Oxnard, California, injured a knee.
“Conquering new challenges!” Pierson-El posted on Twitter after Riley’s announcement.
“We’ll hold it down for a few weeks,” wideout Brandon Reilly tweeted in response.
Pierson-El returned three punts for touchdowns last season and led the nation with 596 punt return yards. He added 23 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns, saving his best receiving game for the Holiday Bowl, where he grabbed eight passes for 102 yards and a score. Pierson-El’s role was set to expand this season as a starting outside receiver who also logged carries in Riley’s “fly sweep” package, in which a wideout sprints toward the quarterback before the snap and takes a handoff around the end.
His absence makes work for Riley’s staff — including special teams coordinator Bruce Read — as the formal part of training camp nears its close. Nebraska will first have to select a new punt returner.
“Through the course of time, you’ll find a good special teams coach picks good specialists,” Riley said of Read before spring practice. “And not everybody can do that. I don’t trust myself to do that. I trust Bruce.”
Though the Huskers have several candidates in theory, the two with relevant experience are Jordan Westerkamp — who struggled through most of 2013 and fumbled in back-to-back games against Michigan and Michigan State — and Jamal Turner, who has returned eight punts in two seasons. In their stints, both struggled with tracking and catching punts, though former coach Bo Pelini conceded NU’s punt block and return schemes were poor before last season, when Pelini personally coached the unit and Pierson-El handled return duties.
Westerkamp shagged some balls in recent pooch punt drills. Other players who have practiced in the role for NU have been running backs Terrell Newby and Jordan Nelson. Another back with punt return capabilities, Jordan Stevenson, has missed recent practices with an ankle injury. The Huskers also have several defensive backs with punt return experience in high school.
At Oregon State, Read’s last three punt return units ranked 103rd, 93rd and 91st nationally in total return yards. Nebraska, meanwhile, ranked 30th, 110th and first.
Pierson-El’s loss may be better absorbed at wideout, provided there are enough healthy players to practice. The position has gone from what Riley termed a strength to a question mark because of injuries.
Besides Pierson-El, who was in and out of practice, Westerkamp, Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Taariq Allen, Sam Burtch, Lane Hovey and now Alston have been out, usually with some sort of leg ailment. Burtch has a knee injury that will force him to miss the rest of camp and the BYU game. Allen has an undisclosed injury that, when Riley spoke of it Saturday, was of undetermined severity. Coupled with the dismissal-departure of three scholarship wideouts during the summer — Jariah Tolbert, Glenn Irons and Kevin Gladney — Riley has turned to unheralded, largely unknown walk-ons for help.
On Tuesday, Riley pointed to the silver lining: the emergence of Stanley Morgan, who caught three touchdowns during Saturday’s scrimmage. Afterward, Riley said Morgan was mature “beyond his years” and “unfazed” by the rigors of camp.
“He’s a physical guy — and a playmaker,” Riley said. A true freshman, Morgan is not scheduled to talk until after the first game.
Morgan, from New Orleans, was a four-star recruit who picked the Huskers over Tulane. His previous position coach, Keith Williams, is now NU’s wideouts coach. Williams lauded Morgan’s progress earlier in camp. Morgan’s initial prowess caught Nebraska’s top corner, Daniel Davie, by surprise.
“He’s really talented,” said Davie, who has spent the last week of camp covering Morgan. “I know the first couple days, I kind of underestimated him a little bit — (thinking) oh, he’s just a freshman — but he made a couple nice catches on me. I definitely have to be on top of my game when he lines up. I think he can help us this year for sure.”
Davie said Morgan runs “pretty natural” and “really smooth” routes. That was clear on Morgan’s final touchdown Saturday, when he bolted by Trai Mosley and caught a fade pass from Ryker Fyfe in the end zone.
Williams, Davie said, has helped Nebraska’s wideouts improve their route running in camp. Davie mentioned Turner, also the victim of many injuries, especially in the last two seasons.
“As a whole, the receivers have become really tough,” Davie said.
Options to replace Pierson-El include Reilly, Moore and Allen — when they return.
It presents a balancing act of wanting to get more reps with wideouts but not overwork them.
Nebraska still uses GPS technology to track players’ physical progress in camp. A device is embedded into a shirt underneath the player’s shoulder pads.
Wideout injuries, Riley said last week, have been “an every-year camp occurrence for me.”
“We did everything we could about the conditioning of players and thoughts about how we practice to try to prevent it,” he said. “The fact of the matter is camp is tough on the receivers and the defensive backs with the amount of running they do. You lose a couple, and then more work goes to a few more, and then they get overworked.”
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