De'Mornay Pierson-El wasn't sugar-coating anything. His tone was serious.

The Nebraska junior wide receiver/return man wishes he could say with 100 percent certainty that all systems are go for 2016, that he's all set to become the breathtaking, game-changing player that he was in 2014 before foot and knee injuries twice sent him to the operating table in 2015.

He said Thursday he's "really close" to full-go, although he's quick to acknowledge "there are still things I haven't experienced, still things I'm not comfortable with, so I'm not completely there. But I'm really close."

Is there any thought of sitting out this season? After all, he hasn't had a redshirt season, and Nebraska obviously is well-stocked with veteran receivers.

"Next question," he said flatly.

You press him, even though you see the seriousness on his face. He said the injury to his left foot suffered in August — he broke the fifth metatarsal and had a screw implanted — is currently more of an issue than the torn ACL in his left knee incurred Oct. 31 at Purdue.

Bottom line, he's optimistic about playing this season, but can't say for certain whether he'll be ready. Not quite yet.

A 5-foot-9, 185-pound Virginia native, Pierson-El — whose 596 punt-return yards in 2014 led the nation by nearly 200 — is a fiery competitor with a burning passion for football. He smiles easily. He has a playful side. But one of the foremost takeaways from Thursday's 30-minute interview is Pierson-El also possesses a razor-sharp edge. He approaches his craft as if he were, well, a professional. Business is business, he said.

He understands the need for focus and attention to detail. He understands the importance of playing the game — cutting hard and exploding past defenders — without thinking about his injuries, which explains his seriousness as he discusses his ongoing rehabilitation.

He still has to cross "certain bridges" in his recovery, he said. He'll try to cross them sometime this summer. That is, he'll try to gauge whether he's achieved a point where he can make those explosive cuts, hard plants and fearless plays that came to define him as a player.

It's mostly a matter of regaining full strength and muscle memory, he said.

He hungers to return to attack mode.

He works diligently for a chance to prove he can be even more dangerous as a wide receiver than he's been as a return man.

"Those days are coming," he said confidently.

He regards every day as a chance to heal further, as an opportunity to regain the level of productivity that literally changed games in 2014, most notably against Iowa, where in the fourth quarter he returned two punts for 121 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown return that gave NU its first lead in an overtime triumph.

He averaged 17.5 yards per punt return (second nationally) on 34 attempts in 2014. Last season, Nebraska returned only 11 punts for 114 yards — including four for 48 yards by Pierson-El.

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In rehab, there are good days and bad ones.

"Really, it's just a matter of how badly do I want to get back to where I was, that comfort that I had?" he said.

So, another obvious question: How badly does he want that?

"Words can't describe how badly I want it," he said. "Football is what I do. It's what I live to do. It's something that's very close to my heart. I literally can't put words into how much I love it."

Which helps explain why his past eight months have been excruciating at times. He suffered the foot injury during a mid-August practice while simply running a route. He missed the first four games last season. By the ninth game, at Purdue, he felt he was returning to form. The week before, against Northwestern, he recorded a season-high five receptions for 31 yards.

But during the 55-45 loss to the Boilermakers, on a damp day in West Lafayette, Indiana, he suffered a torn ACL in a manner that baffles him to this day. As he was celebrating Stanley Morgan's second-quarter touchdown catch in the end zone, Pierson-El lost his footing.

"As I was coming down, my weight shifted," he said. "Weight wasn't distributed equally on all sides. I stepped on my heel, and my heel slipped from under me, and gravity took care of the rest."

Team medical staff calmed him on the field as they examined his knee. He initially was told it wasn't an ACL issue, but that something was wrong. Once inside the stadium, a team physician again checked his ACL.

"Everything kind of slowed down at that moment," Pierson-El recalled. "I could feel my heart drop to my stomach."

The ACL was in fact torn.

"Everything hit me," Pierson-El said. "I lost it a little bit. My phone was blowing up, but I didn't want to talk to nobody ... I just wanted to gather my thoughts."

Before last year, he never was seriously injured. Now, he has two surgeries to overcome.

There's no questioning his will.

"There's a different fire that's about to be set," he said.

Once he regains full confidence, he could be even better than he was before the injuries, he said.

The seriousness in his voice makes you believe it's possible.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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