Say this about De’Mornay Pierson-El: He knows how to make an entrance.
The true freshman wide receiver’s first catch as a Husker? A touchdown. His 8-yard catch from Tommy Armstrong in the third quarter added to the blowout in Nebraska’s 55-7 win against Florida Atlantic.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said of Pierson-El, who also returned a couple punts. “He’s going to play a lot of football for us. … He’s a mature football player who is ready to go.”
Pierson-El finished his debut with two catches for 14 yards.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder from Alexandria, Virginia, joined defensive backs Kieron Williams, Josh Kalu and Chris Jones, and kicker Drew Brown as true freshmen who played Saturday.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” sophomore wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said of Pierson-El. “Great kid, great player. He works hard. He definitely earned that playing time today. A touchdown in, what, the second play he was in? We were excited and happy for him.”
Brown comfortable in spotlight
The first meaningful kick when you’re the new guy always packs the most pressure, Drew Brown says. Put the ball 44 yards away from the goal line and put 91,441 people in the stands who know a good kicker when they see one, and the sun beating down on you gets a little bit hotter.
No big deal, though. The true freshman was unfazed as he knocked through his opening kick, along with six PATs.
“I tried to keep myself together,” Brown said. “There was a little bit (of relief), not gonna lie, just knocking that through. Just getting that off my shoulders and off my chest felt really good. ... I like that added pressure, because I feel like it brings out the best in me.”
Brown, who beat out Mauro Bondi in fall camp for the starting job, is the younger brother of former Nebraska kicker Kris Brown. So if there’s anybody who knows how good Nebraska kicking has been through the past 15 years, it’s Drew Brown. Alex Henery, Brett Maher, Josh Brown (not related), the list goes on.
“They’ve been solid every single year,” Drew Brown said. “It’s just a great opportunity for me to add my name to that list and just be able to create a name for myself and go along with those great other guys that have come before me.”
Not to be outdone, Bondi, who handled the kickoff duties, hit a 45-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Brown said the competition has made both kickers better, and wasn’t decided until the very end of fall camp.
“Mauro had a great camp, I had a great camp. We were neck-and-neck the whole time. It was pretty close the whole time. It came down to the very last day.”
Turnovers were the talk all offseason after the Huskers finished 119th last season in turnover margin.
The good news is the Huskers didn’t commit one turnover Saturday. The bad news is they didn’t create one, either, though there were opportunities, including one pass that slipped through linebacker Trevor Roach’s hands. It likely would have been a pick-six.
But it was a positive step for the offense to go 60 minutes without a giveaway. Pelini cited it first among things he liked Saturday. It was the first time since the 2012 season opener against Southern Miss that NU went without a turnover.
“If there’s one thing I’d say we improved on it’s no turnovers,” said junior right guard Givens Price. “Not one interception or fumble today. That was a big thing for us. Now we just have to clean up the penalties as far as holding and stuff like that.”
Yes, the Huskers did end up with six penalties for 60 yards. Five of them came on the first two offensive series.
“It was weird, the penalties that happened,” Pelini said. “It wasn’t like we had a bunch of false starts and things like that. Guys were being aggressive and guys were within the play. I’ll just have to take a look at them. We had a number of penalties that could have hurt us in the first half, and we were able to overcome that. You’re not going to be able to do that consistently.”
It was an emphasis in the offseason, but the punt-return game still proved adventurous for the Huskers.
Kenny Bell got the start as Nebraska’s punt returner, was hit immediately after a 2-yard gain on his first return, then muffed his second return as he misjudged the flight of the ball and stumbled while trying to catch it.
The ball ended up out of bounds before an opposing player could recover it, but no doubt brought back some bad memories for Husker fans.
It wasn’t all bad. Later in the game, Pierson-El took a turn, and had some success, with a long return of 15 yards.
While there were no breakaway returns, the Huskers did appear more aggressive in trying to block punts than they were last year.
And Pelini said he thought the punt-return unit as a whole was OK, all things considered.
“We took a couple shots … that I thought were close. … We had an opportunity on the one where the ref picked our guy off early in the first half. If Kenny catches that one on the run, we have a chance. He was one block away from going to the house. Overall, I thought it was pretty good. I thought their punter had a heckuva day. That guy was good. He was getting hang time. It makes it difficult when a guy is that good.”
Backups see time
The most advantageous part of a blowout is that a lot of guys get to play.
The Huskers rotated nine offensive linemen in the first half. At running back, five different players got carries.
At quarterback, backup Ryker Fyfe came on midway through the third quarter. He was 1-for-4 for 9 yards, but showed ability to run, picking up 29 yards on just four carries.
“I thought our 2s came out and had good energy, and moved the ball,” Fyfe said. “I thought we did a good job managing the offense and just going down and scoring a couple times.”
It’s been a big year for Fyfe. The walk-on from Grand Island said coaches told him the last day of fall camp he’d earned a scholarship after battling his way to No. 2 on the depth chart.
“Just like (Coach Joe) Ganz said, ‘Just go out there and play, because you earned this, you earned that second spot out there,’” Fyfe said. “It was never given to me. I had to earn my scholarship and earn playing time, and I thought that’s what I did out there, was just try to execute the offense.”
Third-string quarterback Johnny Stanton got in the game in the final minutes, completing his only pass for 6 yards.
“Fortunately we got a chance to play a lot of guys, so I was happy about that,” Pelini said. “We got a lot of guys on tape and a lot of guys evaluated.”
Redshirt freshman Josh Faulkenberry ended up getting the assignment as Nebraska’s long snapper.
The position became a bit of a question mark in August, with scholarship snapper Gabe Miller out with a back injury. Faulkenberry and safety Nate Gerry both tried their hand at it during camp, sometimes with mixed results.
But Faulkenberry’s two snaps to punter Sam Foltz were both clean Saturday. Given Nebraska’s success on offense, he was barely called on, with the Huskers not punting for the first time until the very end of the first half.
It’s hard to find much to nit-pick about on an offensive line that helped pave the way for 498 rushing yards.
Despite having limited starting experience, the Husker O-line flexed its muscles, with NU averaging 8.7 yards a carry.
After a serious competition all fall on the right side of the line, the Huskers started Mike Moudy at guard and Givens Price at tackle, with Chongo Kondolo backing up Moudy and Matt Finnin backing up Price. (Right tackle Zach Sterup did not suit up because of injury.)
“We like each other. It’s kind of cool, because we’re pretty interchangeable. It’s me and Chongo, and then Givens and Finnin,” Moudy said. “It’s good that we finally have some depth that we can actually do some rotations instead of last year when we had injuries and stuff.”
This and that: The win pushed Bo Pelini’s record at Nebraska to 59-24, putting him third on the Huskers’ career coaching victory list. He moved ahead of Frank Solich, who has 58 wins. He trails Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney. … Saturday marked the 16th time in the Pelini era the Huskers have rushed for at least 300 yards. They’re 16-0 in those games. … Abdullah has now run for 3,209 yards in his career. He is the eighth player in school history to hit 3,000 career rushing yards and is just 120 yards from being in the top five on Nebraska’s career list, catching Rex Burkhead. … Sophomore Terrell Newby had his first 100-yard game with 107 yards on 16 carries. … Kenny Bell now has 2,018 receiving yards, the third player in school history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark, and he's third on NU’s career receptions list with 138.