Nebraska head coach Mike Riley looks at the scoreboard as he walks off the field following an NCAA college football game against Southern Miss in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Nebraska won 36-28. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nati Harnik
September 28, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) De'Mornay Pierson-El, the dynamic punt returner who has been out since the preseason with a foot injury, will return to practice this week and might play a limited role in Saturday's Big Ten opener at Illinois.

Coach Mike Riley said Monday the rest of his injury report was filled with uncertainty.

The Cornhuskers were missing four starting defensive players against Southern Mississippi on Saturday. That included linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, who'll miss at least three more games with a groin injury.

Riley called it ''50-50'' that linebacker Josh Banderas (groin) and defensive linemen Vincent Valentine (ankle) and Jack Gangwish (elbow) would play against the Illini.

Marcus Newby, who started in place of Rose-Ivey, also is questionable after leaving the Southern Miss game in the second half with a groin injury.

The Huskers (2-2) have shuffled so many linebackers in and out of the lineup, they've been unable to establish continuity on defense, Riley said.

''It's really at a bad spot for us, linebacker,'' he said. ''We're thin there to start with. We've known that since the day after we took the job and looked at the depth chart. We tried to fix it with recruiting, but you can't do that with a whole bunch of freshmen anyway.''

Pierson-El broke his right foot during a non-contact drill on Aug. 18, was second nationally in punt-return average last season, and he tied for the national lead with three returns for touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four TDs.

Riley said head football athletic trainer Mark Mayer wants to see how Pierson-El progresses this week before a role is determined for him Saturday.

''One of the dangers here is overuse early, right?'' Riley said. ''We'll see where he is as we go and see if we can possibly fit him in - probably not count on him for a full game of 70 or 80 plays, but parts thereof, hopefully. We'll see.''

The loss of defenders to injury has made Riley appreciate the program's history of having walk-ons as contributors. Chis Weber, a sophomore from Elkhorn, Nebraska, started for the second time at linebacker against Southern Miss and made a career-high and team-leading 12 tackles. Luke Gifford, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln, went in after Newby got hurt and performed well.

''Those are, I think, all products of what has been done here for a long time,'' Riley said. ''So it just hits you right between the eyes, the opportunities to have these guys who want to play here help the team in a lot of ways.''

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