SPRING FB: At WR, The Long Journey Continues

By at April 7, 2010 | 10:45 PM | Print

It was the gut check of Curenski Gilleylen’s career.

The Nebraska receiver, then a sophomore, had just been demoted from starter to scout after a 9-7 loss to Iowa State. He tried to take his medicine, man up, roll with it.

But then he stood on the sidelines of NU’s 20-10 win at Baylor, waiting to enter the game for one play. Any play.

“It was one of the first times I had a lot of family there,” said Gilleylen, a native of nearby Leander, Texas. One hour from Waco.

But wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore never sent him in. Not once. Imagine how that would burn.

“I realized then, this is for real,” Gilleylen said.

Said Gilmore: “I think (Curenski) miscalculated how long it would take.”

And no wide receiver could have hoped to predict what happened to the Cornhuskers’ offense after that. The power sets. The fullback. Four tight ends, lined up like dock workers, mashing into extra defensive linemen. Three yards and a mist of the rubber stuff in FieldTurf.

Other than Niles Paul, do you think any of NU’s wide receivers signed up for that? Standing on the sidelines, watching trench warfare between the hash marks?

“Did I have counseling sessions at times?” Gilmore said. “Sure. Absolutely. But we have to understand at times we have to surrender the ‘I for the We.’”

Brandon Kinnie, an athletic junior college transfer, watched all of it transpire, watched friends Gilleylen and Menelik Holt get demoted, thus opening a door for him. Time to step through it.

It cracked open once before in the Missouri game, when Gilmore benched his starters to begin the third quarter and welcomed Kinnie and Antonio Bell to a driving rainstorm, without their gloves, which Gilmore had snatched from his pupils at halftime.

Then Zac Lee fluttered a pass toward Kinnie’s feet. A slider in the dirt, low and outside, no gloves, hard rain, soaked ball, smashed up against the sideline.

Like you’d catch that.

So Kinnie was taken out. Later, Paul rescued the Huskers with the first great catches of his career.

When Holt got demoted – never to really return – and Chris Brooks got hurt right after that vs. Texas Tech, Kinnie seized his second opportunity.

“I was like ‘anything can happen,’” Kinnie said. “I just kept telling myself: You have to make plays.”

He made a few – two of the seven receptions in the Oklahoma game, two more in the Big 12 Championship game. The Sooners and Longhorns blanketed Paul. Kinnie was Plan B. And he finally figured out blocking by the Kansas State game.

“That took the whole year,” Kinnie said.

But Kinnie, a talkative, motivated competitor, was more driven by what he didn’t do. Didn’t catch a touchdown. Didn’t get his foot down on two key plays vs. Texas, one on third down, when Lee dialed up Kinnie – not Paul – on an end zone fade route.

“If I have had that ball, we score a touchdown,” Kinnie said. “We would have won that game, we would have been Big 12 champs.”

Gilleylen felt the same way about his near-miss vs. Iowa State. He ran a post, Lee stuck the ball a little high and wide. Gilleylen only got two fingers on it, tipping the ball to a Cyclone defender. Pick. Eighth turnover of nine for the day.

“That’s a ball you want to come down with,” Gilleylen said. “And that pretty much sealed the game. That’s one I wish I could have had back.”

How much would the receivers, as a group, take back from 2009? Enough of it.

The mastery of small details – ball security, route running, hand placement – that defined Nate Swift and Todd Peterson in their senior seasons eluded the 2009 bunch. Instead – frustration. Ego. Inconsistency. Immaturity.

“I got comfortable a little bit,” Gilleylen admitted. “I can’t get complacent. I always have to strive to get better.”

It’s still a journey. For all of them, really, even Paul, although Gilmore sets him apart for now.

“He’s had one mistake all camp,” Gilmore said. “He’s really matured.”

Kinnie, who knows his coach too well, rattles off a list of details he trying to master. Gilmore, while praising the junior for his competitive zeal, just as quickly mentions: “We’ve got to clean up his routes.”

Beyond that, Kinnie guns for Paul. It’s friendly, but hardcore. Somebody has to push No. 24.

“Every little thing you could think of, we competed at it,” Kinnie said.

Gilleylen started spring camp, Gilmore said, “on fire.” Gilleylen has that gear, you see. Straight-line speed, size, strength. He flashed all of it at the beginning of last year, when he made many of the best plays in the Florida Atlantic game, including the one he was proudest of, a block to spring Holt for a touchdown.

But then Gilleylen “took a step back” in the last two spring practices, Gilmore said.

“He’s got to play hard, he’s got to play explosive every single time,” Gilmore said. “We’re still working on that. We’re not where we need to be.”

Gilleylen’s battling with senior “adjuster” Mike McNeill for the slot job while Paul holds down one outside receiver job and Kinnie seeks to secure the other. Sophomore Khiry Cooper rejoins the fray in the fall. Tim Marlowe’s in there. Sophomore Antonio Bell is “on the come,” Gilmore said, but he needs to catch more balls this summer, build up his confidence. More work in the weight room, too.

“You see it on the field,” Gilmore said. “He’s getting knocked around a little bit.”

A challenger has emerged at the edge of the frame, too, in senior walk-on Joe Broekemeier. Doesn’t know what he doesn’t know yet. But he has ball skills. And a summer to catch up.

“This fall could be interesting,” Gilmore said of Broekemeier, but he could have been talking about the entire corps.

Kinnie uses a different phrase: “Big-time.” He’ll answer a question that way, or use it as a description. Oh, big-time, big-time.

Interesting. Big-time. The distance between the two.

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