LINCOLN — On the same day he was having his best game as a Husker, wide receiver Jamal Turner's left knee had never been in more pain.
In the midst of catching six passes for 83 yards against Minnesota — on top of catching the game-winning touchdowns the previous two weeks against Michigan State and Penn State — Turner was playing on a partially torn meniscus. He just didn't know it until after Nebraska beat the Gophers.
“It was hard to play on,” Turner said. Though the junior from Arlington, Texas, did — and played pretty well.
After not catching a pass against Iowa, Turner caught eight total in losses to Wisconsin and Georgia. Though he got limited targets against the Bulldogs, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Turner had a strong day running routes, especially on a 14-yard skinny post for a first-quarter touchdown.
“He's learning how to set dudes up,” Beck said.
Turner, who caught 32 passes for 417 yards last season with all three of his touchdowns coming in the last six games, had to take a brief break from honing his game when his knee got scoped in January. But soon he was running — NU's running more in the offseason than it ever has, Turner said, to create endurance and tempo — and Saturday he opened camp with the rest of his teammates looking quick as usual.
In 7-on-7 drills, he often lined up in the slot — occasionally against top Husker cornerback Ciante Evans and consistently gave quarterback Taylor Martinez an open target on shallow crossing routes and post corners. In foot drills, he was among the fastest along with junior Kenny Bell and redshirt freshman backup slot Alonzo Moore, who will try to push Turner for playing time this season.
Turner has rarely been shy about his ambition to play professional football — “NFL” is a word he comfortably uses — his skill set, or his willingness to improve. When asked about returning kicks and punts — Nebraska would like to find some consistency, and someone who won't fumble — Turner said: “I think I'll win both spots.” But he offers a reason.
“I'm healthy, I'm older, I'm going to work harder this spring to prove I'm the guy,” Turner said. “I'll leave it to the coaches to decide.”
Beck, who recruited Turner as a quarterback, quickly moved him to wide receiver. He likes the word “explosive” to describe the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, likes the growth he's seen. Turner understands the offense, Beck said. He knows where to block and where to get open. And he's earned Martinez's trust after some costly drops in 2011, when Turner rode the bench during the second half of the season.
“If you give someone a job to do and they do a really good job, aren't you going to give them another one?” Beck said when describing Turner's expanding role in the offense.
Said Turner: “I'd like to think Taylor looks my way more.”
Early in Saturday's practice, Martinez probably looked more for Bell, who was blanketed, but started dialing Turner's number on secondary routes, even if Evans or Stanley Jean-Baptiste had tight coverage. Turner said Martinez is in comfortable command of the offense, and the wide receivers can be beneficiaries of that.
“We see him as a Heisman candidate,” Turner said.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH