LINCOLN — Wait a minute. Nebraska, historical home of I-backs and option football, has the Big Ten’s most accomplished set of wide receivers?
Sure, Johnny Rodgers won the 1972 Heisman Trophy and Irving Fryar was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NFL draft. And sure, NU has had three receivers drafted by NFL teams since 2011. True, the most productive of the 2016 Husker wideouts, Jordan Westerkamp, has spent most of his life running routes, catching footballs and chasing records.
But the rest of these guys? A youth hockey star, two high school quarterbacks, a high school fullback and a guy who picked Nebraska over Tulane?
This is the crew? Yep. It is. And they’re good.
Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Cethan Carter, De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan. Four seniors, a junior and a sophomore. Coached by Keith Williams — who has his own line of “Wideouts” T-shirts — those six caught 202 passes for 2,811 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015.
“I wouldn’t say they’re ‘maybe’ one of the most talented groups we’ve had — they’re the most talented group we’ve had,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong said.
When considering all aspects, coach Mike Riley, who had two Biletnikoff Award winners at Oregon State, said this NU group “is as good as I’ve been around.”
The NU wideouts push each other. They stress opposing defenses together. They like each other, and their coach — a lot.
“We’re not doing it for the fame, we’re not doing it for if we’re ranked No. 1,” Moore said. “... We’re just doing it because we’re brothers and we’re always going to stick together and fight for each other.”
Said Reilly: “It peaked last year, but I think we’re going to head to a new peak this year. Climbin’ on up.”
Added Westerkamp: “It’s going to be a showcase.”
A showcase that started when Westerkamp rebuffed a late offer from Notre Dame to stick with his commitment to Nebraska in 2012. The Chicago-area talent also turned down his dad’s alma mater, Illinois. Nebraska’s coaching staff at the time put a lot of sweat equity into recruiting Westerkamp, and for good reason — he broke Illinois high school records for catches, yards and touchdowns. He was a USA Today first-team All-American.
Moore and Reilly, also part of the 2012 class, had much lower profiles. Moore was from Winnfield, Louisiana, where he won the Class 2A state title and was the class’s Offensive Player of the Year — as a quarterback. He arrived as an athlete who could have played receiver or cornerback. Reilly, meanwhile, was a multi-sport athlete at Lincoln Southwest. He’d been a youth hockey star before shifting his focus to football. He caught 18 passes for 339 yards his senior season at Southwest, and chose to walk on at NU.
“I was kind of shaking,” Reilly said of his signing day. “I was glad a table was blocking me so people couldn’t see it.”
All three redshirted, in part because NU’s 2012 receiving corps included Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell — now both in the NFL — and two senior tight ends, Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Reilly remembered those blue jerseys he wore on the scout team.
Carter (2013 class), Pierson-El (2014 class) and Morgan (2015 class) never went to the scout team. They played immediately as true freshmen. Carter, a fullback at power Metairie (Louisiana) Rummel High School, became NU’s top tight end within a handful of games his freshman year. Pierson-El, forced to play quarterback during his senior year of high school, became a freshman All-America punt returner and one of NU’s top receiving options by the end of the season. Morgan was highly touted out of high school — he played at another New Orleans-area power, St. Augustine — but he didn’t get an offer from LSU. His finalists were ultimately Nebraska and Tulane, which had a receivers coach Morgan liked — Keith Williams.
Nebraska hired Williams on Jan. 21, 2015. He was not on the radar of the media or fans. He’d spent his entire coaching career just below the Power Five level, but he’d shown a penchant for developing receivers and helping put them in the NFL.
When Williams arrived at Nebraska, Westerkamp was NU’s primary proven receiving commodity. Reilly had battled injuries. Moore had, too, plus he struggled with consistently catching the ball. Pierson-El’s star, at least as a receiver, was still rising.
Players warmed to Williams immediately. He treated the receivers room like a blank slate. Everybody had their shot to play.
“Prove to me what you’ve got,” Reilly said. “That meant a lot to me.”
Williams was also relentless on and off the field. Relentless with his humor, which featured a comedian’s timing. Relentless with texts and pointers and encouragements. Pierson-El said Williams leaves no room for excuses. A drop is a drop. A bad route is a bad route. At practice, he chases players halfway down the field for great plays and mistakes. He posts videos to Twitter. He invites former pupils — who have graduated to the NFL — to come to Lincoln and hone their craft in drills.
Reilly and Moore developed considerably under Williams, becoming reliable deep threats, but also skilled on bubble screens and jet sweeps.
“It’s cool when I see ’Zo going up and catching a ball, and knowing, man, freshman year he would have dropped that for sure,” Reilly joked of Moore.
Because Pierson-El missed more than half of 2015 with injuries, Moore and Reilly got more chances to prove themselves.
That duo, plus an emerging Morgan, burned opposing defenses that chose to focus on Westerkamp.
“I saw it often early last year, where teams would play zone defense but they’d have a linebacker play man against me down the whole field, or the cornerback midpointing between the slot and the safety,” Westerkamp said. “But it was good — it opened it up for everyone else. We threw the ball around. And I think that’s going to be huge this year, because now teams won’t be able to focus on me. We’ve got so many weapons coming back. They’ll have to play straight-up defense.”
Westerkamp said Carter’s ability to tear up the middle of a defense will make it even more challenging for defenses.
When a corps is this experienced and good, it ultimately spreads the wealth around to multiple targets. It could be hard for any Husker wideout to break that elusive 1,000-yard barrier — no NU receiver ever has — because Armstrong has so many options. That might create some friction on some teams, but Moore said it won’t happen at Nebraska.
“I think we accepted it because we know we got a lot of great guys,” Moore said. “We all accepted the role that we all are great receivers, and we can throw it here and there. For a defensive coordinator, studying our game plan would be kind of difficult, because you don’t know who might get the ball.”
Though the room will lose some experience after this season, the senior wideouts are bullish on the future. Williams’ own son, Keyan, transferred from Fresno State. Keith Williams also has commitments from two four-star prospects — Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty — for the 2017 class, and two more prospects, J.D. Spielman and Derrion Grim, signed in the 2016 class.
Spielman was Mr. Football in Minnesota. Grim caught 96 passes for 1,928 yards and 34 touchdowns in just 10 games last season as a high school senior. He enrolled at NU early, dyed the top of his hair red and impressed onlookers in spring camp.
Grim’s teammates call him Cherry. Once Nebraska’s older receivers are done maximizing the present, he’ll be a big part of the future.
“He’s a weird little kid, but damn, he’s going to be good!” Reilly said.
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