Nebraska Football: Four challenges facing Mike Riley’s first year with Cornhuskers

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Aug 30, 2014; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp (1) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half against the Florida Atlantic Owls at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Challenge One: Replacing De’Mornay Pierson-El at Wide Receiver

Finding a way to make big plays may be challenging for the Cornhuskers this year with both Abdullah and Kenny Bell departed. Tommy Armstrong, Jr. was a big playmaker himself as the team’s second-leading rusher, but he’s becoming more of a drop back passer this season. A lot of changes are coming, but a real issue for Nebraska this season is going to be finding a way to make the big strikes.

This becomes significantly worse with one of its biggest threats now injured: De’Mornay Pierson-El is out for six-eight weeks after suffering a foot injury, and the receiver was one of the best big play threats on the roster (not to mention his pure crushing as a return specialist who was good for three TD-returns last year).

Who does Nebraska turn to until he’s back in the lineup? How long will he take to reach peak form again? These questions linger as Nebraska searches.

Pierson-El has proven himself as a major playmaker, and last season he caught 23 passes for 321 yards while also tallying four touchdowns. He could be a premier wide out, and he set a Nebraska bowl record with eight receptions for 102 yards. Basically, he’s the shining gem in Nebraska’s retooled crown, and now he’s out for up to two months.

One solution in attempting to create some big plays lies in the talents of junior Jordan Westerkamp. Last season, he caught for 747 yards on 44 receptions with five touchdowns. In the Holiday Bowl, he had three catches for 81 yards, including a big 65-yard catch. He’s capable of opening it up. Inconsistency remained a huge issue for Westerkamp last season, however, and he caught just 66 yards total in the three games leading up to the Holiday Bowl.

The Cornhuskers will ramping up his work load significantly (that applies to all wide receivers this year of course), so expect more games with heavy usage. Last year, Westerkamp had more than three catches in just four games. This year, that should double. He’s the best option to step in as a No. 1 receiver until Pierson-El is back in the fold.

Freshman Stanley Morgan may also end up being a big source of offense. He caught three touchdown passes in a recent scrimmage and is fighting for a starting role. At a minimum, it’s worth keeping an eye on the true freshman to see if his speed ends up creating yet another tool for Armstrong to air it out to.

Nebraska is also now without the injured freshman Lavan Alston, and though his potential impact was less certain, at a minimum it subtracts further depth and that hardly helps.

Next: Can Tommy Armstrong Jr. Adapt?