Thursday notes: NU regroups without Pierson-El
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When Nebraska took the practice field on Thursday morning, it was without the player who arguably had as much promise and potential going into the 2015 season as anyone on the roster.
Sophomore De'Mornay Pierson-El suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot while making a cut during Tuesday's practice, and the standout wide receiver and All-American punt returner underwent successful surgery on Wednesday.
Head coach Mike Riley took time to address media on the situation following Thursday's session, and said that while NU is still anticipating a six-to-eight week recovery time, he wasn't ready to guarantee that would be when Pierson-El would be back on the field.
"From what we were told everything went well (with the surgery), and now it's all biology," Riley said. "Our goal is for him to return this year. How soon? I hesitate to say, because I don't want to put anything on him, and then when it gets real close everybody is always asking if he's going to play this week… I don't know that. Nobody does.
"They initially said something like six to eight (weeks), but it's all biology. It's one thing about being healed and it's another thing about being ready to play."
Along with the impact that Pierson-El's loss has on Nebraska's offense, which has already been dealing with a plethora of wide receiver injuries this fall, it also leaves the Huskers without one of the country's top playmakers in the return game.
Special teams coach Bruce Read said junior Jordan Westerkamp would take over as the No. 1 punt returner in Pierson-El's absence, but it would be very difficult to replicate the natural instincts the 2014 Jet Award winner brought to the table.
"I think the one thing that he does is he tracks the ball so well that he'll catch a punt that most guys would back off," Read said. "But he runs and gets under it and takes it. He has an uncanny ability to just make it look really easy. He's getting more touches because he's getting under more balls that other guys just couldn't cover that much ground. He's got some really good instincts. I think they've rallied around him."
As for the receiver group, Riley said they would add another player to the 'Z' position that Pierson-El had been manning with the possibility of some other shuffling in the depth chart. The good news is that even with the rash of injuries the group has already endured, Riley said he still feels good about the depth the Huskers have at wide out.
In addition to Pierson-El, freshman Lavan Alston was lost for the season to a knee injury on Tuesday. However, junior Lane Hovey was back in action on Thursday and Riley said junior Brandon Reilly, who sat out another practice Thursday, was close to returning.
***Other players who sat out of practice due to injury: Chris Jones, Sam Burtch, Jalin Barnett, and Michael Decker.
***Antonio Reed (concussion) did some limited individual work but did not participate in team drills.
***To help with the receiver depth, walk-on Ty Betka has been added to the 105-man roster.
***The first group of receivers during 7-on-7 drills was Westerkamp, Jamal Turner and Stanley Morgan Jr.. In full 11-on-11 work, it was Westerkamp, Alonzo Moore and Morgan.
***Riley said Thursday may have been Tommy Armstrong's best day of fall camp yet, and Riley said he even made it a point to tell Armstrong that after practice.
***Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said not only is NU hoping Luke Gifford can help them this season, "he has to." Banker said Gifford has had a very good week of practice.
***Banker said they're still trying to develop the depth at defensive end behind the starters. He said Freedom Akinmoladun and Ross Dzuris were coming along, but both still needed to improve.
***Asked to evaluate the defense's tackling in the first major scrimmage back on Saturday, Banker said he gave the group a C+ grade.
***One of Banker's main issues with the play of his defense in the scrimmage was the number of big plays it allowed. He said the defense gave up an average of 8.4 yards per play on first down, but that number was hugely inflated by the big chunks of yards the offense would get on one play after hardly gaining anything on the previous first downs before it.
***A scout from the Jacksonville Jaguars watched Thursday's practice.
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