With trusty Jordan Westerkamp out with an injury, Huskers turn to Brandon Reilly, Stanley Morgan to make plays from slot position

With trusty Jordan Westerkamp out with an injury, Huskers turn to Brandon Reilly, Stanley Morgan to make plays from slot position
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Nebraska wideouts Brandon Reilly and Jordan Westerkamp have a college class together, and the two fifth-year seniors were recently chatting about Westerkamp’s back injury, which he suffered late in NU’s 31-16 win over Illinois.

I think they’ll let me play, Westerkamp told Reilly.

“Dude, shut up,” Reilly said back to Westerkamp. “You can’t even stand up.”

Reilly laughed Wednesday as he recalled the conversation.

“That’s just the guy he is,” Reilly said.

That’s why Westerkamp is one of the most prolific receivers in Husker history. For as many times as he’s taken hard tackles and helmets to his back, Westerkamp has never missed a full game at Nebraska.

Indiana will be his first.

And, because it’s on the road, Westerkamp likely won’t be on the team’s 70-man travel roster. He’ll be at home, Reilly theorized, texting all of his teammates. A lot.

“The whole time we’re in the hotel, being annoying,” Reilly joked.

If there was one position the Huskers had enough depth and experience to absorb the loss of such a key player, it might be wideout. And Reilly — as quick with a one-liner as Westerkamp is to give a sheepish grin — will be the guy who takes Westerkamp’s spot in the slot.

“We always tell Westy it’s easier playing slot,” Reilly said, “so hopefully I don’t mess up and make him look too good.”

At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Reilly is a different kind of slot receiver from the 6-0, 200-pound Westerkamp. He’s not as sure-handed as Westerkamp — few receivers are — but he’s a longer strider and faster. Should Indiana choose to guard Reilly with a linebacker or even a safety, Reilly could have a mismatch.

“He has all the tools to play inside,” wideouts coach Keith Williams said. “He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s fast. He can make tough grabs.”

Reilly also knows the position. In the offseason, Williams began to emphasize the need for his receivers to know more than just their preferred positions. Reilly can play all three — X, Z and R, which is the slot. Stanley Morgan knows the slot spot as well.

When Reilly began his Nebraska career in 2012 — as a walk-on from Lincoln Southwest — then-senior receiver Tim Marlowe told Reilly to learn every position he could. The more Reilly knew, the more he could play.

Now, Reilly is versatile enough to move around — which comes with a bonus.

“It’s easier if a younger guy only knows one spot,” Reilly said. “They can still come in and I can just bump over.”

For most of his career, Reilly’s speed has made him a good match for the perimeter of the field, where he can beat a cornerback on a go route, or perhaps on one of those deep post routes that coach Mike Riley likes to draw up.

Last season, Reilly was hard to stop in that role. He caught 40 passes for 754 yards and four touchdowns. His yards-per-catch average of 18.9 led the Big Ten and ranked 21st nationally.

This season, Nebraska’s offense has run the ball nearly 10 more times per game than it did in 2015. Reilly has missed two games — the opener against Fresno State because of a suspension and the Oregon game because of a hamstring injury — and has just four catches in the other three games. He’s averaging 24.25 yards per grab. He dropped what would have been a long touchdown pass against Illinois.

“Don’t remind me, man,” Reilly said.

“We’ve joked about it since then,” Williams said. “But initially it wasn’t made for TV, my first initial comments.”

But the nagging hamstring injury didn’t keep him out as long it did in 2014 — 50 hours in the training room helped — and Reilly said he’s at full health now.

“He’s poised,” Williams said. “It just has to happen for him.”

It might against Indiana. NU quarterback Tommy Armstrong has never shied away from throwing the ball into tight spots between the hashmarks — where Westerkamp often plies his craft — and Armstrong and Reilly are good friends with good on-field chemistry.

Reilly said he’s looking forward to operating with more space in the middle of the field. Against zone defenses, his job is to read the defender and adjust his routes accordingly. Armstrong has to see the same thing. When it’s Westerkamp, the duo often do see it at the same moment. With Reilly, the same magic could create some big plays.

“There’s a lot of different ways to get open,” Reilly said. “I’ll see what I can do there.”

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