Even though Niles Paul was a very talented athlete, the name mostly evokes memories of disappointment for Nebraska football fans.
In a nutshell, Paul did some good things during his Husker career but more often than not left most people the impression that he should have done more.
Paul was a fifth-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins in April. He was Nebraska’s leading receiver in 2009 and 2010. In the past decade, the only receiver who has had a better season stastically than Paul was Nate Swift in 2008.
Much of the anguish toward Paul and adulation toward Swift among the Husker fan base stems from the fact that Paul was a five-star recruit while Swift was not touted even remotely as high. Personally, I think recruiting rankings are a lot of conjecture but that’s another story for another time. Point being, at times Paul was a difference maker and at other times he was a flake and when you are supposed to be a difference maker, righty or wrongly, people remember the flake.
Most people equate the key to Nebraska’s offense being quarterback Taylor Martinez. When Martinez was healthy, the Husker offense was at times lethal. On the other hand, when he was saddled with an ankle injury the offense was ordinary.
However, it would be foolish for the Huskers to put all of their eggs Martinez’s basket. Even if the good Taylor Martinez shows up this season, quarterbacks that run as much as he does tend to get hurt or at the very least banged up. No one plays an entire football season at 100 percent, and if Martinez gets banged up enough that he has to beat teams with his arm then he is going to need help.
At running back, Rex Burkhead is very good and should have a breakout season stepping out from Roy Helu’s shadow, but I do not know anyone who would classify him as explosive. It is possible that the trio of freshmen backs behind Burkhead (Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard) possesses some big-play ability among them, but they will have a difficult time getting enough carries between the three of them to show if off consistently.
The player that figures to be the key to Nebraska becoming an explosive offense is quarterback-turner-wide receiver Jamal Turner. Turner was moved to wide receiver despite the lack of depth at quarterback but Turner appears destined to stay at wide receiver after his performance in the spring game.
Turner had four receptions for 93 yards (an average of more than 20 yards per catch) and two returns of more than 50 yards (one punt, one kickoff) in the spring game. Granted, spring games can be misleading, but for a guy that should have still been in high school instead of in Memorial Stadium, it was an impressive performance, to say the least.
Obviously it is too early to tell how things are going to turn out for Turner. He may show flashes of brilliance before settling in to being an above-average yet unspectacular receiver. He may flame out completely and the spring game will serve as his best moment in college football.
The truth of the matter is that if a team has a playmaking wide receiver, it can make an average offense into a dynamic one, which I believe is a fair statement. Just ask Rod Rutherford. Who is that? Larry Fitzgerald’s quarterback at Pittsburgh who was in the conversation for the Heisman in 2003 almost exclusively due to Fitzgerald’s efforts. The impact of explosive wide receivers can be very large to an offense.
While Turner carries a lot of promise, expectations for his first season needed to be exercised with caution. Much like we needed to for Martinez last season. Watching the spring game, though, it wasn’t just his stats that were impressive. He’s just an incredible athlete and looked to be naturally suited for receiver and returner. So unless Bo Pelini’s defense suddenly got soft, Turner showed a lot of potential against some good defenders. He’s definitely a sleeper for 2011.