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Maybe the best illustration of Stanley Morgan the freshman is not that one-handed snag in the bowl game, the leaping touchdown in the final minute at Miami, or even the tenacious blocking that earned him a nickname from his position coach.

"Officer Stan," Keith Williams called him.

Maybe most telling is when Husker coaches looked at one of their bigger messes last season, a stuck-in-the-quicksand kick-return game that even briefly featured passer-by Jordan Stevenson, and pointed to the freshman wide receiver to try to help out.

Morgan had not returned a kick before. Never. Ever.

Yet when coaches asked him to handle the role, he brought the first return of his life back 23 yards. Longer than any return in 15 combined tries last year by Stevenson, Terrell Newby and Jordan Nelson. Later in the game, Morgan returned another 27 yards.

He would end up leading all Huskers in kick-return yardage last season, 14 returns for 324 yards, including a long of 42 against Purdue.

"Just being a ballplayer, I guess," he once explained of accepting that challenge.

Stanley Morgan the sophomore has not changed in mindset, saying this week that, you bet, he'd like to return more kicks in 2016. He's even got a little back-and-forth going with senior Brandon Reilly, another option at returner, about who will do it better.

"I'm just going to beat 'B' up in the locker room so he can't come out for the games," Morgan cracked.

A year ago at this time, Morgan was making heads turn in camp, headlines announcing him as a newcomer to keep top of mind. It was not hype in this case. It was real. It was shown in the fall when Morgan caught 25 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

And yet, meh. Morgan sees the flaws when he reviews his first year of work.

"It's more mental for me this year, I feel. Last year I was out of control, I feel," Morgan said. "Now I'm more smooth and paying attention to my details and everything I need to go through."

Out of control? Yes, Morgan thinks.

"Just kind of running around, trying to show off."

While Morgan is perhaps a little harsh in his own critique, wide receivers coach Williams is not surprised the sophomore from New Orleans is focused more on what needs fixing than his highlights.

"He has a lot of pride," Williams said. "With Stan, it starts with pride."

It came to the surface after Nebraska's 36-33 overtime loss to Miami a year ago. Morgan had a coming-out party of sorts. He broke loose across the middle for a 33-yard catch that helped in fueling a comeback. He took the football away from a Hurricane defender in the end zone in the waning seconds. He returned three kicks for 71 yards.

Even so, Morgan brought up his worst play of the day in the postgame news conference. It was near the end of the first half. Nebraska was driving for a score that would have cut Miami's lead to 10. Tommy Armstrong fired a pass toward Morgan, just inside the pylon. Miami's Artie Burns beat Morgan to the ball and picked it.

"That was my fault, all the way," Morgan said after the game. "I tried to release outside, go back inside, and I can't do that. That's all on me. I blame myself for that. It feels like I'm not a freshman anymore. I've got to really go."

A layperson would have known enough to pin the play on Morgan, but the receiver publicly put it on his shoulders.

When Burns was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round with the No. 25 pick overall this spring, Williams jabbed at Morgan in lighthearted fashion.

"He got that friggin' guy drafted. I get on him all the time," Williams said with a laugh. "Every time they show that guy's highlights, like, they show that interception he got on Stan ... I say, 'Stan, that guy should send you $20. You helped him go first round. Every time when they show his highlights, you're on there.' But Stan's a prideful guy ... as you would like it to be for everyone. It means something to him."

The Huskers will have many options to turn to at receiver this fall: Jordan Westerkamp, Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El.

Yet it's worth reminding that only Morgan and Pierson-El from that list will be back after this season. Morgan is critical to Husker success not just this year, but for more Saturdays coming after.

To make sure he's ready, he's spent his offseason re-watching games, analyzing how he got off releases, how he came out of breaks, then rehearsing how to do it better on the field.

He doesn't expect any of the Husker receivers to get caught up in the offseason pub about how good they might be.

"Everybody's humble in our group. Nobody feels like they're over everybody," Morgan said. "We go through everybody's film. It doesn't matter if you're a 2, 3 or 4. You work through everybody's film and get better off of everybody's film."

It only helps that his relationship with his coach goes well back before Lincoln. Morgan was a sophomore at St. Augustine High School when he met Williams, coaching at nearby Tulane.

When Williams first saw Morgan play, he knew the receiver had something extra. He just couldn't have known they'd both end up in Lincoln together.

"He played just like he plays now. He just attacks everything he does as far as football is concerned," Williams said. "He attacks everything full-speed, head-first."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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