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Cornhuskers expect De'Mornay Pierson-El's return to provide a jolt

LINCOLN, Neb. -- De'Mornay Pierson-El retreated to catch the punt from Peter Mortell at the 37-yard line. The Nebraska sophomore ran left and cut right. He split three Minnesota players by the 40 and left seven Gophers spinning before he crossed midfield.

Just like that on Saturday, Pierson-El was back.

He returned from surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot, suffered Aug. 18 in practice, two weeks earlier at Illinois. But with this 42-yard return, stopped when Mortell knocked Pierson-El out of bounds at the Minnesota 21, he was actually back.

“Little pissed off at myself,” Pierson-El said for allowing the punter to stop him.

Last year as a true freshman, he led the nation with 596 punt-return yards, the most by an FBS player since 2008, and Pierson-El displayed an element of electricity in catching 23 passes for 321 yards. Against USC in the Holiday Bowl, he caught a Nebraska bowl-record eight passes for 102 and a touchdown.

When Mike Riley surveyed his returning talent in the offseason, the new coach perked up at the mention of Pierson-El. He appeared a great fit in Riley’s offense as a multi-faceted weapon in addition to his expected contributions on special teams.

So Pierson-El’s injury, less than three weeks before the opener, zapped energy from preseason camp in Lincoln.

Needless to say, the Cornhuskers have welcomed his return.

“He’s a big play waiting to happen,” I-back Terrell Newby said.

Nebraska players and coaches hope his spark helps push this team over the top in close games. Its four losses, by a total of 11 points, were all decided on scores by its opponents in the final 10 seconds of regulation or in overtime.

The Huskers (3-4, 1-2) host Northwestern (5-2, 1-2) on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN2).

Pierson-El fumbled his first chance of the season to catch a punt -- in the first quarter on Oct. 3 at Illinois. He said he wished he had played more on offense to get his feet wet before the first return but that he wasn’t about to turn down the chance.

“A lot of thinking going on,” said Pierson-El, whose returns ignited second-half rallies on the road last season against Michigan State and Iowa. “Everybody makes mistakes. It just showed me where I was at and how much I needed to go.”

Nebraska worked him slowly into the offense. Pierson-El caught one pass against the Fighting Illini in a 14-13 loss. He caught two against Wisconsin in a 23-21 loss.

“It’s a little more complicated than just throwing him back in there and throwing him the ball,” Riley said. “But we do need to get him going more. We have things that are specifically good for him.”

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. targeted Pierson-El five times on Saturday. He caught three pases for 31 yards in the 48-25 win over the Gophers, including a 14-yarder in the fourth quarter on which Pierson-El leapt to tip the ball to himself in the end zone.

It was a thing of beauty, made even sweeter by the presence on defense of cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. In last year's 28-24 Gophers win over Nebraska, Boddy-Calhoun stripped Pierson-El after a catch at the Minnesota 6-yard line in the final seconds.

Pierson-El was flagged for illegal touching on the play. It wouldn’t have counted if he held on, but the sting of the turnover did not disappear.

He categorized the catch Saturday, his first touchdown of the season, as revenge.

“I wasn’t going to let him go up and get it again,” Pierson-El said.

He and Boddy-Calhoun, in fact, shared good-natured conversation during and after the game Saturday.

The win against Minnesota, Pierson-El said, provided a shot of confidence for the Huskers.

As should the return of a top playmaker.

The injury taught Pierson-El about patience, he said. He worked to better himself with every day he missed. Asked if he thought he could have made the difference for Nebraska in any of its four losses if he had never been hurt, Pierson-El brushed aside the question.

“What’s done is done,” he said. “I’m not going to elaborate on the past.”

The goal moving forward is simple, according to Riley.

“Get him the football,” he said.