De'Mornay Pierson-El will leave it up to others to judge the performance of Nebraska's special-teams unit this season.

With the junior finally healthy after seeing last season end early with a devastating knee injury, many thought the electric punt returns that gave Nebraska such a spark in 2014, when Pierson-El's 596 punt-return yards led the nation by nearly 200 yards, would be back.

But outside of a 45-yard punt return against Oregon that set up a touchdown, the magic hasn't returned. And Nebraska's special teams ended the season in such disarray that head coach Mike Riley fired his longtime special-teams coordinator Bruce Read two days after a 40-10 loss at Iowa.

"That's on you to (judge)," Pierson-El told the media after Tuesday's practice. "I just do my part, catch the ball, make people miss. I don't judge or anything. I don't perceive whether we're doing good or bad. I just do what I'm supposed to do."

Pierson-El wasn't able to do much in his opportunities, averaging just 7.3 yards on 23 returns. Oftentimes he would make a fair catch when he appeared to have room for a return. Or try to create a return when there was nowhere to go.

"I can't say I'm too sure about all that (doing things differently on punt returns) right now because I haven't looked at the whole picture of it," Pierson-El said, adding he'll look at the entire season's work after the Music City Bowl. "It just depends on how I felt back there. It was just a scheme of how they set up the return; whether they were going for the block or not for most parts of it."

Outside of a few small schematic adjustments, Pierson-El said not much has changed since Riley helped take over special-teams coaching duties. The head coach has been very "hands-on", Pierson-El said, and preparation has been thorough.

"It's a little exciting to see how it works," Pierson-El said. "We've watched film on it after practice and you just kind of get a different look at it. So it has its times where it's fun."

As for his role when Nebraska is on offense, Pierson-El is preparing to do whatever is needed for a unit that has seen the injuries pile up. The latest, of course, is the meniscus injury suffered by slot receiver Jordan Westerkamp last week.

"Football is a physical game. One man goes down, the next one has to step up," Pierson-El said. "So whatever comes my way I'm open to it. I just have to do my job."

Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Pierson-El's job isn't likely to change much. The coaching staff likes his ability as a flanker, where he's made 15 catches for 205 yards and a touchdown. He also has 14 carries for 48 yards on jet sweeps.

"He's been pretty locked-in at that flanker position. That's a good spot for him," Langsdorf said. "We can always move guys around to different spots where we need them by play, but he's got that flanker spot down pretty well. He's pretty comfortable there, so we'll continue to play him there."

Hard to believe, but Pierson-El has also emerged as a veteran presence in the receiver group as seniors Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore near the end of their college careers.

He's watched Nebraska's younger receivers try to make their mark in these bowl practices as they begin to work toward spring ball.

"They're feisty — a lot of them are," Pierson-El said. "It's fun seeing them going at it. They're hungry, they're ready for it, so I know they can't wait for the spring."

Pierson-El mentioned players such as sophomore Keyan Williams, freshman JD Spielman and redshirt freshman Conor Young as guys unafraid to mix it up. Spielman especially sticks out because of his similar build (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) to Pierson-El (5-9, 185).

"He has a tenacity to get after it," Pierson-El said. "He catches the ball well, catches it in traffic and he's not afraid to block at all. He catches punts real good, so he's on track."

Does seeing the young players get after it in practice give him more motivation?

"Iron sharpens iron, so, of course," Pierson-El said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.


Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

Load comments