Nebraska has no shortage of frustration to go around through the season’s first seven games, particularly on offense.
Perhaps nobody has a better claim to the feeling, though, than sophomore wide receiver Kade Warner.
The walk-on, who earned a starting spot last year — and finished with 95 receiving yards on 13 catches — entered preseason camp as a contender for a starting job again under wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator Troy Walters.
Early in camp, however, those aspirations came to a screeching halt when Warner developed a stress fracture in his lower leg.
“I felt something on a break,” Warner said Saturday night of running a route in practice. “I felt it, and they said it’s just a continuation of it breaking and breaking and breaking. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but then again it took me out for the rest of fall camp.”
The Scottsdale, Arizona, native missed the first four games of this season. He finally got healthy enough to see the field in a blowout loss to Ohio State on Sept. 28 and promptly suffered another injury, this time a hamstring pull that Walters later characterized as an aggravation related to the original stress fracture.
“I never had a hamstring injury before and I didn’t know that it would linger this much, so that’s really tough because I just wanted to play so bad,” said Warner, who called himself 100% healthy now.
When he returned to action in the second half of a 34-7 loss at Minnesota on Saturday, he picked up three catches for 38 yards.
“It’s been really frustrating, because all that work you put in in the summer and the spring, it leads up to this,” Warner said after the game. “And for me to be injured and just watch my dudes out there, it was just real tough, to say the least. I’m happy to be back out there, I just wish I could have helped more tonight.”
At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Warner isn’t a game-breaker. Nebraska, though, hopes he can provide a lift in any form to a group that’s been inconsistent throughout a 4-3 start. JD Spielman is a big-play machine and Wan’Dale Robinson looked like an ascending star before a left ankle/foot injury suffered Saturday cost him the final two-plus quarters and an unknown amount of time going forward.
Beyond that, NU has been searching. Senior graduate transfer Kanawai Noa has just seven catches for 74 yards. Mike Williams: three for 51. Jaevon McQuitty: two for 14. Darien Chase: one for 13. Jaron Woodyard: one for 5.
Frankly, as much as Nebraska could use a game-breaker, Walters has made it clear that the Husker coaching staff will settle for options that are consistently where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there.
"Our job as receivers is to give the quarterback an accurate picture," Walters said earlier this month. "When he gets to his third step, fifth step, whatever it is, we're where we're supposed to be and he trusts that we're going to get there.”
That’s what Warner does well. He might not blow past defensive backs up the sideline, but he has a consistency about him. Call it a cliché, but he knows the offense and he understands his role, and that counts for something.
“When he’s on the field , he knows what to do. He’s another coach on the field,” Walters said of Warner. “I think the quarterbacks trust that he’s going to be in the right position and run the right route. We miss him and hopefully he gets back soon and gets healthy where he can be 100 percent.
“He’s probably a 4.7-(second 40-yard dash) guy as it is, so he needs to be 100% so he can play as fast as he can, and he understands that.”
Warner’s recipe for offensive improvement sounds a lot like the coaching staff’s.
“It’s a lot about details,” Warner said. “We stress that a lot in the wide receiver room. Getting your depth, getting open. … We will figure it out on this bye week.”