If you want to get a proper sense of the frustration that was building in Jamal Turner, maybe start with the number 63.
That’s how many times he scored a touchdown as a quarterback at Sam Houston High in Arlington, Texas.
Shoot, Turner scored 35 TDs his senior season alone. And that doesn’t even include the 42 he threw for while leading Sam Houston’s offense.
So you can imagine how a guy so used to scoring touchdowns feels when the scores suddenly disappear.
“I’m like, ‘Why can I not get in the end zone?’ I’m just getting so close,” Turner said. “It just wasn’t happening. I was like, ‘It’ll come. Hopefully it will come.’”
After a while, even a playmaker begins to wonder, though.
Twenty-one games as a Husker came and went without Turner cashing in. Game No. 21 against Michigan perhaps brought the biggest frustration.
The play call was right. The throw was right. Turner looked up for the ball and his first touchdown.
“All I saw was lights.”
The football sailed by. Then another week sailed by.
Still, if the scoring drought was annoying, Turner also sensed it was about to end. As Nebraska was mounting its drive to pull out a comeback win at Michigan State, the sophomore receiver just had a feeling.
He said it to Quincy Enunwa. He said it to Tim Marlowe.
“It was a weird deal,” Turner said. “I just felt like I was going to score.”
Same play from the week before, just a different side of the field.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to run this route as hard as I can.’ I didn’t even stick the (route), I just ran by him (the Spartan defender) to make sure I got open."
The lights did not stop him this time. Turner had a touchdown. A game winner with six seconds left.
“I feel like a new man,” he said this week. “I feel like a way better wide receiver because of that. I feel like the team looks at me differently. I feel like when we need a big play, they look at me to make that play because of that one touchdown. It’s definitely a confidence-booster.”
It's just one play, he knows.
But Husker receivers coach Rich Fisher agrees it’s one play that could help serve as a springboard for Turner.
“I think it kind of puts you over the hump a little bit and you feel like you’re contributing,” Fisher said. “That’s the other thing: I know he feels like he’s worked really hard and wants to feel like he’s helping the group out.
"Helping the group out doesn’t necessarily mean you’re scoring a touchdown. If you’re running your routes properly and you’re pulling defense and you’re blocking and getting after it, all those things, obviously you’re helping the group.”
But blasting through that force field to the end zone was a significant step.
It also showed how far Turner had come from a season ago, when his playing time was sporadic as a true freshman. Now, coaches trusted him to make a play in the final seconds of a game with the season’s goals on the line.
With three games remaining in the regular season, Turner already has one more catch than he had all of last season, having caught 16 passes for 214 yards as the slot receiver.
As elusive and fast as Turner is, Fisher said it’s not surprising it’s taken time for him to adjust to life as a receiver.
“Even when he was in high school playing quarterback, it was, ‘Run the football. If you don’t like what you see, take off and run,’” Fisher said. “(Last year) he was running around making plays. But then when it got into understanding the entire game plan, all the personnel and all the sets, and everything we asked him to do in the running game and passing game, it got overwhelming. And I don’t think, especially when you’re a true freshman, you don’t realize exactly the work that it takes.”
But Turner has put a lot of attention into the details this season.
Looking at things such as the depth on his routes, when to stick those routes, how to stick a route, how to leverage a cornerback.
And blocking. Yes, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Turner takes pride in being part of a receiving corps that leaves its mark (literally) blocking.
“We feel like we’re the best wide receivers in the nation,” Turner said. “That’s our swagger in the room. That’s how we carry ourselves. We go out hard. We block. People are really starting to notice our blocking. We block our tails off. That was instilled in us from Coach Fisher. From Day One, he was like, ‘I’m going to coach you like this. And if you don’t do it, you’re not going to play.’”
Turner didn’t always do it last year. So he didn’t play.
But Fisher can’t help but notice the new level of maturity.
“When you watch film, the questions he asks, understanding the coaching and the things that we’re asking him to do, you start to see all that in terms of him developing,” Fisher said.
The payoff came last Saturday.
Those film studies now includes a touchdown catch of Turner’s own.
“I’m glad I got it out of the way,” he said. “I just have to stay hungry. And get another one.”