Huskers' Pierson-El finding 'groove' after gruesome injury
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) When No. 7 Nebraska visits No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday night, it will have been 23 months since De'Mornay Pierson-El returned a punt for a touchdown and two days shy of one year since he sustained a devastating leg injury.
Anyone in the Cornhuskers' scarlet and cream would love the high-stakes game at Camp Randall Stadium to be the stage where Pierson-El shows that he is all the way back.
''I'm getting into my groove,'' he said, ''and everybody's starting to see it.''
The first sign was in the third game, when he broke a 45-yard return to set up a momentum-shifting touchdown against Oregon. Two weeks later, the junior from Alexandria, Virginia, busted a 27-yarder against Illinois for the 11th return of 25 yards or longer in his career. He was one missed block from going all the way on a return against Indiana, and last week he scored his first touchdown of the season on a 40-yard catch-and-run against Purdue.
''He's capable of, just like that, in the blink of an eye, making a big play,'' coach Mike Riley said, ''and so I'm really happy for him personally to come back from two major injuries a year ago.''
Pierson-El emerged in 2014 as one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers. He ran back three punts for touchdowns, had almost 200 more yards than anybody in total punt return yards and his 17.5-yard average ranked second. As a receiver, 17 of his 23 catches came in the final four games, and he set a school bowl record with eight receptions against Southern California.
Upon his hiring, Riley excitedly spoke about the ways Pierson-El could be featured in his offense and as a return man in 2015. But Pierson-El broke his right foot in preseason practice and missed the first four games. In the Oct. 31 loss at Purdue, he tore two major ligaments in his left knee, ruptured his hamstring and fractured the leg, all while celebrating a teammate's touchdown.
Pierson-El went into this season having mostly recovered physically, but he lacked confidence in his left leg. He thought sitting out as a redshirt. In retrospect, he said, doing that would have been ''heartbreaking.''
''I'm absolutely glad I'm playing,'' Pierson-El said. ''It was a decision that I didn't know where it was going to go at first.''
Against Oregon, he fumbled while making a fair catch, and he lost yards on a jet sweep. Any doubts he might have had about playing this season were erased late in the half when he sidestepped a player and went 45 yards deep into Ducks' territory.
''It was positive thinking all the way,'' he said. ''My teammates have believed in me. The trainers have put work in day in and day out. A lot of people don't see that. It's a weight off the shoulders because I've been waiting for it. I knew what I had to do, which is catch it and just run.''
Pierson-El did plenty of catching and running as a freshman. His 596 punt return yards ranked third on the school single-season chart, and he tied for the national lead with three returns for TDs - 86 yards against Fresno State, 62 yards against Michigan State and 80 yards against Iowa.
This season, his 9.9-yard average on 11 returns ranks second in the Big Ten behind Michigan's Jabrill Peppers. Pierson-El said he's doing nothing different this week to prepare for Wisconsin, which is giving up 6 yards a return since Akron broke a 55-yarder for a touchdown in the Badgers' second game.
His goal in Madison?
''Hopefully get into the end zone again,'' he said.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org