Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp masters the circus catch

LINCOLN, Neb. – Last August, as Nebraska opened the season against Florida Atlantic, De'Mornay Pierson-El knew he needed to keep an eye on Jordan Westerkamp.

Pierson-El is a fast study. He led the nation in punt-return yardage a year ago as a true freshman, doubling as an offensive weapon late in the season. And Pierson-El made it that far, in part, by absorbing all his teammates had to offer.

So when Westerkamp raced toward Pierson-El’s spot on the Nebraska sideline in the third quarter, the freshman perked up.

“I knew if the ball came anywhere near his hands,” Pierson-El said, “he was going to catch it.”

The ball thrown by Tommy Armstrong Jr., actually glanced off the hands of FAU defensive back Christian Milstead. Westerkamp had no shot to snag it -- until he reached both hands behind his back and pinned the ball to his right hip.

The catch was voted as college football’s play of the year. And this was no one-time event. Ten months earlier at Memorial Stadium, Westerkamp dove to grab a deflection in the end zone, completing a successful Hail Mary from QB Ron Kellogg as Nebraska beat Northwestern 27-24 in miraculous fashion.

Westerkamp is the king of the circus catch.

It’s an art form for the 6-foot junior from Lombard, Illinois. Some people can eat 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Others can throw a baseball 100 mph. Westerkamp can catch everything thrown at him.

He displays his talent regularly in practice.

“I’m fully aware of what he can do,” Nebraska cornerback Daniel Davie said. “As a DB, you’ve got to get your hands on the ball before he does, because if he touches it, he’s coming down with it.”

When Westerkamp arrived at Nebraska in 2012, former receivers coach Rich Fisher told him he didn’t need to dive for every out-of-reach ball in practice.

Westerkamp didn’t know any other way.

“I’m a wide receiver,” Westerkamp said. “It’s kind of what I’m expected to do. I’m supposed to catch the ball.”

Westerkamp’s father, Bob, who played at Illinois and coached Jordan as an assistant at Montini Catholic in high school, schooled his sons on catching the football. Often on summer days, Jordan had to catch 100 footballs before he could conclude a workout.

He and his brother, Christian, staged contests to see who could make a crazier grab.

“Doing that over and over again,” Jordan Westerkamp said, “it makes those catches seem not so unrealistic, because you’re kind of used to it at that point.”

Nebraska receivers coach Keith Williams, upon joining the Cornhuskers last winter, studied film of his new players before he worked with them on the field. In Westerkamp, Williams saw great reason for optimism.

The junior wideout possesses all the natural abilities to consistently make spectacular catches, according to Williams.

“He tracks the ball well,” Williams said. “He sees it coming in. And he completes the process. A lot of guys have good hand-eye coordination, but at the end, they don’t complete the process. The last 16 inches of the ball getting to your hands is when you should focus the most, and he does that.

Westerkamp said he’s known around Lincoln for the Hail Mary and the behind-the-back grab. With 64 career catches for 1,030 yards and six touchdowns, he rates as the Huskers’ most experienced pass-catcher.

No problem there, according to Williams. Westerkamp sets a great example for young receivers in the program.

“On a poorly thrown or underthrown ball, some guys lose focus,” Williams said. “They realize it’s going to be a tough. When that happens to Westy, he actually becomes more focused.

‘He’s exceptional.”