Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El quickly established his reputation as one of the nation’s top punt returners.
This freshman can do more than special teams.
Knowing that Pierson-El has returned two punts for touchdowns, Northwestern mostly kicked away from him Saturday. That didn’t stop him from hurting the Wildcats in other ways in the Cornhuskers’ 38-17 road victory.
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Pierson-El was the main attraction on the quick drive that allowed the Huskers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) to tie the game at 14 late in the first half. He started it with a pickup of 46 yards on a catch-and-run. Two plays later, he came around on a reverse, took a pitch from Ameer Abdullah and passed 16 yards to quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in the end zone.
”We knew it would kind of work,” Pierson-El said. ”Just had to make sure we executed it right.”
Pierson-El became the first Nebraska player since Bobby Newcombe in 2000 to throw for a touchdown and score on a punt return and a reception in the same season.
He had an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown against Fresno State and a 62-yarder against Michigan State.
”After seeing those punt returns,” Armstrong said, ”we knew we had to get that guy on the field somehow.”
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s game plan was designed to get Pierson-El more involved. The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder threw for almost 900 yards and seven touchdowns along with running for 1,000 yards as a senior last year at West Potomac High in Alexandria, Virginia.
Pierson-El went into the Northwestern game as the backup slot receiver. With the Cornhuskers’ receivers hit by injuries this season, Pierson-El said his position coach, Rich Fisher, told him to be ready.
The Huskers had a bye week between their loss at Michigan State and the Northwestern game. Pierson-El used the extra time to polish his route-running and catching skills – and apparently his passing skills, too.
Beck drew up the reverse pass for Pierson-El or another receiver, Alonzo Moore, who also played some quarterback in high school. The hope was that Northwestern’s linebackers and secondary would bite on a sweep, allowing Armstrong to easily get open.
Armstrong said he was more worried about himself than he was about whether Pierson-El delivered a catchable ball.
”I just hope I don’t slip and fall,” Armstrong said he told Pierson-El.
Pierson-El’s first assignment this season was to help revive a punt return game that was among the nation’s least productive a year ago. Northwestern punted eight times Saturday, and Pierson-El ran back only three of them for 26 yards. Still, he enters this week leading the nation in total punt return yards (360) and ninth in average (16.4).
”My first expectation? I just wanted to be a weapon,” Pierson-El said. ”I wanted to be as helpful to this team as possible, contribute in any possible way I can, whether I was tackling, blocking field goals, returning touchdowns, catching touchdowns.”