We already knew that Mike Riley was going to face a struggle—possibly a multi-year struggle—bringing in the right talent to run his pro-style offense at Nebraska.
We already knew that, this season, the Cornhuskers’ offense would be hurting for playmakers due to the departures of players like Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell.
We already knew that quarterback Tommy Armstrong—talented, if sometimes erratic—was going to be counted on to make a lot of plays by himself, if only because of the limited big-time talent around him.
Well, now we know the Huskers’ problems are even worse than we previously thought.
On Tuesday, Riley announced that promising sophomore wideout and special teams ace De’Mornay Pierson-El would be out of action for six-to-eight weeks after suffering a foot injury in practice. Additionally, the coach said that freshman wideout Lavan Alston would miss the entire season with a knee injury.
We cannot gauge the overall impact of the Alston injury—he’s only a true freshman, after all, and his role with the team was still to be determined—but I think it’s safe to say that the loss of Pierson-El is a crushing blow to a team, and a program, that is desperate for playmakers.
And yes, Pierson-El has certainly proved himself to be a playmaker.
During his impressive freshman campaign, the Alexandria, Va. native played in all 13 games for Nebraska, catching 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns. At wideout, he showed flashes of real game-breaking potential, and seemed to improve with each game he played; against USC in the Holiday Bowl, he had eight catches (a bowl record for Nebraska) for 102 yards and a touchdown. In other words, you can be certain Riley was counting on him to give Armstrong some much-needed support in 2015. Without him, the receiving core—already a bit thin on big-play ability—looks even less dangerous.
As big a loss as he’ll be for the Husker offense, though, Pierson-El’s injury may be felt even more dramatically on special teams. After taking over punt-returning duties in Week 2 last season, Pierson-El quickly established himself as one of the best return men in the nation. By season’s end, he had racked up 596 return yards (tops in the nation) and three touchdowns while averaging 17.5 yards per return (second in the nation). For his efforts, he was named to the Football Writers Association of America All-America Team.
Coming into the 2015 season, he was named a preseason All-American and was also placed on the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, given each year to the most versatile player in college football.
In other words, this kid is good.
So how can Nebraska possibly cope without him?
Well, it certainly doesn’t have anyone that can replace him—and that’s especially true in regard to return duties. That’s a hugely specialized skill. Guys either “have it” or they don’t. Pierson-El “has it” in a way that few players in the entire nation can match, so it would be unfair to expect any of his potential replacements—Terrell Newby, Jordan Westerkamp, Stanley Morgan, Jamal Turner or Kieron Williams, among others—to come close to matching his production. It’s just not going to happen.
At wideout, though, there’s at least a little bit of hope. While the existing receiving core is, as we’ve already discussed, a bit short on big-play ability, there is some experience in guys like Westerkamp. And according to reports out of camp, there’s at least one promising youngster who is impressing coaches and teammates alike.
True freshman Stanley Morgan, a kid who was drawn to Nebraska all the way from New Orleans, has done so well in camp—he has impressed with both his physical skills and maturity, and caught three touchdowns in a recent scrimmage—that he might actually find his way into the starting lineup, and could bring a new dimension to the Husker offense. He’s certainly one to watch.
But as for those punt returns?
Yeah, Husker fans, you’re still out of luck.