LINCOLN — At the start of Nebraska's 34-23 loss at Minnesota, NU wide receivers coach Rich Fisher finally expected to have his three top pass-catchers — Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner — on the field together and in reasonably good health after a bye week.
Their presence was important. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck had planned beating the Gophers' load-up-the-box defense by alternating quick and long passes against Minnesota's secondary. He'd need his top trio, considered one of the best wide receiver corps in the Big Ten, to do it.
So, naturally, intentions were derailed. Bell got dinged up on the opening kickoff. That's why Husker fans saw redshirt freshman Alonzo Moore catching the game's first pass. And before the first quarter was up, Turner, who had missed most of three games with a hamstring injury, was hobbling off the field to be replaced by backup Jordan Westerkamp.
For Fisher, the hits and injuries just keep on coming to his unit to the point where, after Thursday's practice, junior Tyler Wullenwaber ended his NU football career via Twitter.
“You need that depth,” Fisher said Thursday before that announcement. “Sometimes you sit there and think 'God, how do I get all these guys on the field?' Next thing you know, you're in a game where you're using all of it.”
That included Wullenwaber before his surprise announcement and another walk-on, sophomore Sam Burtch, who has played ahead of scholarship sophomore Taariq Allen, who is in the final stages of fully recovering from last year's ACL tear in his knee. Moore, who showed promise in spring camp before injuries slowed him this fall, is working his way into the lineup, too, Fisher said.
In Turner's absence, Westerkamp is just three catches behind Turner for the season. In just his third year of playing receiver, Turner was expected to have a breakout season. He's been in every game this year, but took limited snaps against Illinois and Purdue because of hamstring injuries. He limped off the field against Minnesota.
“Oh yeah,” Fisher said, “he's questionable (for Saturday).”
Bell, who missed part of his senior year of high school football with a broken collarbone, said he could empathize with Turner.
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“We all want to play football bad, but sometimes your body won't let you,” said Bell, who has caught 27 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns this season. “That's what Jamal's experiencing right now. And that's tough. We feel for him. But the game goes on. That's the worst feeling, being hurt and the game goes on without you.”
Allen, a 6-foot-3, 195-pounder who played for Fisher at a Boston-area high school, has known that feeling since hurting his knee Oct. 27, 2012, on a kickoff return against Michigan. While Allen has played a few snaps this year, as of last week he was still getting fewer practice reps behind Enunwa than Burtch, who has two catches for 42 yards.
“I'm starting to feel a lot better,” Allen said last week before the Minnesota game. “The coaches have a plan, so I'm just going with the flow.”
Why hasn't he played much?
“I'm not sure what it is,” he said. “I can't answer that question. I'm just going to do what I can do.”
Fisher said Allen “kinda popped out” in practice this week and is “climbing north” in his progress toward more playing time. Allen spent six months off the leg, Fisher said, so muscle atrophy was natural and expected.
“His mind is telling him he should be out there, but his body is telling him something totally different,” Fisher said. “That's the frustrating part.”
It's part of a larger, frustrating injury story for the unit.
Enunwa and Bell remain on pace to surpass their number of catches from last year, and Enunwa is just 80 yards from his 2012 yardage total of 470. Both have been counted on to play a lion's share of the snaps. Fisher has lauded their effort, but he wants good productivity out of the backups — especially now that they're needed.
“Don't pray for your opportunity, pray you're ready when your opportunity comes,” Fisher said.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Thursday's practice