LINCOLN — Standing outside the Nebraska locker room almost an hour after catching the game-winning touchdown pass at Michigan State, Jamal Turner tried to recount the aftermath of his career moment.
What was he thinking after the score? Who'd he leap into and hip-bump first? What did his teammates tell him?
The normally talkative sophomore didn't have many answers. The celebration was all a blur, he said.
Well, until Turner found assistant Rich Fisher on the sideline. He remembered that.
The straight-to-the-point, no-nonsense receivers coach had benched Turner last year because of inconsistent practice performance. Turner initially felt underutilized but eventually realized he needed to mature, choosing to reset his priorities and dedicate himself to the game's details.
Fisher and Turner embraced in the chaotic moments of elation with Nebraska six seconds away from securing a 28-24 win.
“He's grown up a lot,” Fisher said.
Turner credits Fisher. Always pushing, always encouraging. Especially Saturday against the Spartans, in a game that began with the same frustrations that overwhelmed Turner during his freshman year.
Through 3Ĺ quarters, the dynamic slot receiver had one rush for minus-2 yards and no receptions. He was open regularly — including on two of quarterback Taylor Martinez's three interceptions.
“I'm coming off the sideline, like AHHH!” Turner said.
Then Fisher would find him between drives. “You're fine. You're going to make a play when we need it. Relax.”
Turner stayed patient.
It was tougher to wait last season.
Turner, a highly-touted, dual-threat quarterback in high school from Arlington, Texas, showed game-changing ability early in his first year at receiver for NU, but he hit an emotional wall in October and never fully recovered.
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“A part of growing up is that whole mental aspect of being able to put plays behind you, move on to the next play,” Fisher said. “(Don't) let a negative play affect you.”
Turner used the offseason to address that, developing resiliency by boosting his confidence. He sifted through the playbook and game film to find the intricacies that he'd been overlooking — from coverage scheme recognition to route running to blocking technique. He made an effort to bring a detailed approach every snap, too.
“You can just turn on the film and see the way he presents himself throughout football games,” sophomore Kenny Bell said. “It's amazing how far he's come in such a short period of time.”
His playing time reflects that.
Against Michigan State in Lincoln last year, Turner was on the field for one snap.
On Saturday, with the Huskers down by three in the final minute, he was the primary option on a pass play that might have been Nebraska's final shot at the end zone before being forced to settle for a field goal.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck actually wanted to call that route combination earlier in the game-clinching drive, but the Spartans weren't blitzing until NU drove inside the 20. Against man-to-man coverage, “it's a hard play to stop,” Beck said.
Turner, one-on-one with a defensive back, lines up in the slot before faking a slant and running a corner route. It worked against Michigan last week, but Turner lost the football in the lights. He took the visor off his helmet to make sure that didn't happen again
But when he got a second chance with 11 seconds left Saturday, he wasn't thinking about what had gone wrong the previous week.
“'You've got to win, Jamal. Especially when the game is this tight. You've got to score.' That's really what was going through my mind,” Turner said.
Fisher said after the game that he had little doubt Turner would deliver.
There are plenty of deficiencies in Turner's game, and reasons to wonder if he's truly turned the corner.
The 185-pounder has 16 receptions this year, one more than 2011. His yard-per-reception average is down by about 3 yards. He and Martinez still have moments when they clearly aren't on the same page. That game-winning touchdown was Turner's first score.
But Fisher sees progress every day.
“Just the way that he's preparing, the way that he's playing, his attention to detail, just his focus when he's studying an opponent — all those things add up to building trust,” Fisher said. “I know when the play was called I felt real confident that he'd go up and make a play. It's a great first one to get.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/JonNyatawa
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>> Video: See NU-MSU postgame analysis video with Jon Nyatawa:
>> Video: Jamal Turner discusses the Michigan State game: