Zack Darlington, Nebraska’s quarterback pledge for the 2014 recruiting class, left the field Saturday on a stretcher and was loaded onto a helicopter after hitting his head on the turf in the fourth quarter of his first game as a senior.

Darlington was trying to lead Apopka (Fla.) on a game-tying touchdown drive when he was hit near the sideline by a defender for the home team, Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes. Darlington’s head bounced hard off the turf. ESPN, which televised the game nationally, reported that Darlington had been knocked unconscious by the hit. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was put onto a stretcher, stabilized with a neck brace and taken to an adjacent baseball field to wait for a helicopter from Spartanburg Regional Hospital.

ESPN ended its broadcast — a 51-36 win for Byrnes — by showing a picture of the helicopter taking off and reporting Darlington was moving on his own and conscious. Players are often flown or driven to hospitals after major hits to the head as a precaution, whether the injury turns out to be long term or not.

Darlington — who picked Nebraska over Ohio State, among other schools, after an unofficial visit this summer — had helped Apopka close Byrnes’ lead to 44-36 in a physical, wide-open game. Zack’s dad, Rick Darlington, is Apopka’s coach. ESPN cameras captured Darlington’s large family visibly upset in the stands.

The Orlando Sentinel — which rates Darlington as the top player in Central Florida and had him as a centerpiece to its 2013 high school football preview — reported that Darlington suffered a concussion earlier this summer during a conditioning exercise. Darlington took several big hits during the game Saturday, and even exited for a series of plays, sitting on the bench, being surrounded by teammates. The Blue Darters struggled to protect Darlington against the Rebels’ constant blitzing.

“The diagnosis is that he has a concussion and has to be under observation for 24 hours,” Apopka Athletic Director Fred Priest told the Orlando Sentinel. “His parents are staying here with him while the team returns home.”

Bo pranked ’em

Senior defensive tackle Brodrick Nickens had just watched his coach smash a cellphone with a hammer, and he instantly started dreading the media circus that potentially awaited him and his teammates at the next practice.

Nickens had no idea, though, that he and the rest of the team were being pranked.

The staged incident begin like this: A cellphone rang during a team meeting two weeks ago, and Bo Pelini responded by breaking the device, which the team thought belonged to senior Thad Randle. Upset at this, Randle picked up his backpack and walked out. Pelini followed him. The rest of the players stayed seated, stunned, yet still able to hear some yelling and banging in the distance.

In that moment, Nickens said, his mind started racing as he began envisioning a practice field covered with reporters and cameras.

“How do you explain that to all you guys?” Nickens said Saturday.

But the meeting room’s projector screen soon revealed the truth — that Pelini had tricked them all and he planned to give the Huskers a night off from practice.

“It was good. None of us saw that one coming,” Nickens said. “We had previously had a little incident with a phone going off, and he got kind of mad. So it worked out well. It was funny.”

A video of the prank, posted on YouTube Friday afternoon, had more than 250,000 views in 24 hours.

Marcus Newby to suit up

The wait is over for freshman Marcus Newby.

The linebacker from North Potomac, Md., signed with the Huskers in February, but didn’t meet the NCAA’s initial eligibility requirements until this week.

Pelini said Newby was scheduled to arrive on campus Saturday. He’ll practice for the first time Monday.

Another member of the 2013 recruiting class, though, won’t be on the Husker roster this fall.

Freshman defensive end Dimarya Mixon, from Mesquite, Texas, has not been cleared to enroll. Pelini said he hopes Mixon will be able to join the team in January.

Sam Cotton ‘doubtful’

Redshirt freshman tight end Sam Cotton probably won’t practice as Nebraska prepares for its season opener, Pelini said.

Cotton recently recovered from a hamstring injury, but then twisted his ankle in practice. He’s “doubtful” at this point, Pelini said.

NU will have presumed starter Jake Long back healthy this week at tight end, Pelini said.

In other injury news, Pelini said redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong is healthy now, though minor surgery this month did “set him back a little bit.”

Progress pleases Pelini

The final day of practice before the school year ended in somewhat low-key fashion as the Huskers practiced without pads Saturday afternoon inside Memorial Stadium.

But by no means is Pelini ready to identify starters and backups.

Fall semester classes begin Monday, allowing the roster to expand to include the full team.

Several position battles remain unsettled — Pelini mentioned the kicker and backup quarterback spots specifically Saturday. And the coaches have yet to discuss the possibility of redshirting freshman.

Pelini said the team has more to prove this week.

But he’s pleased with what the Huskers have accomplished so far.

“(We’re) about where I thought we’d be, maybe even further ahead in some areas,” Pelini said. “I like the work we’ve gotten done up to this point.”

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