LINCOLN — Kyler Reed's eyes widen and a smile surfaces the moment he's asked about his role in Nebraska's 17-14 win against Penn State last year.
You don't often see a tight end line up just a few yards from the sideline, but that's where Reed began a handful of plays that day. He caught a 24-yard pass from that spot, part of a key touchdown drive.
It's the type of versatility Reed spent much of last summer preparing for, but it ended up being one of just a few instances when Nebraska made a deliberate attempt to showcase Reed's athleticism.
Why so few opportunities for Reed in 2011? Injuries are one reason.
“I wasn't healthy for a lot of the season, so a lot of the stuff that we had worked on in camp (wasn't used),” Reed said. “I knew what I could do and I just wasn't able to do it. And it was pretty frustrating.”
First, it was an ankle that he tweaked during fall camp. Reed felt OK by mid-September, but a month later, he came up hobbling with a hamstring injury while running a deep route during a bye-week practice.
The trainers' advice was to sit out a few weeks. He chose to play. The hamstring didn't heal until winter.
As a result, Reed said the coaches set aside some innovative elements designed for him. He'd been a backfield blocker in practice. Caught screen passes. Corralled option pitches. Lined up like a slot receiver and on the outside as he did against Penn State on an afternoon when Reed said the hamstring felt good.
But after those injuries, the guy who spent his sophomore season smoking defenses (a Husker tight end-record eight touchdowns) wasn't much of a mismatch during his junior season.
“I couldn't do what I wanted,” he said. “It was a struggle. I wanted to be helping my team, but I couldn't get big plays.”
Reed still averaged a team-high 17.1 yards per reception in 2011 (his average was 20.6 yards per catch during the season's first half). But his 15 receptions were tied for just the fifth highest total on the team. He was targeted 25 times (slightly less than twice per game) by quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Could he have been more involved, even despite the injury? Reed's not sure.
Senior linebacker Will Compton said explosiveness when healthy isn't the only thing that makes Reed a tough cover downfield.
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“I wouldn't put a linebacker or safety man-to-man on him,” Compton said. “They're so specific and detail-oriented on route running and body positioning, getting the right space at the right time. Kyler does a great job of that, setting people up.”
His 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame only makes it tougher. Reed said he noticed defenses more consistently hovering a safety over on his side of the field last year. Opposing linebackers aren't surprised by his skill set anymore, either.
Reed just hopes that he'll be fully healthy to further showcase his ability this fall.
A trustworthy tight end whose bigger body is easier for QBs to spot can be a valuable weapon.
He wants to find holes in zone coverage and pluck key passes out of the air. He wants to beat linebackers and safeties one-on-one again.
“Wherever (the coaches) can find good mismatches for me is what they want to do this year,” Reed said. “We can do a lot of things with our tight ends.”
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