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Week of lasts for Pierson-El, Husker seniors

LINCOLN — The interview was De’Mornay Pierson-El’s last in front of a group of reporters at Nebraska’s weekly news conference on Monday. And the senior wide receiver reminded everyone.

“These are all the questions, the last time I’m up here, all the questions I got. This is it,” he said near the end of the session, which lasted just under 10 minutes. “This is it.”

A couple of questions later, he repeated: “This is it. This is the last . . . nothing else.”

As a reporter began a question, Pierson-El interrupted.

“I swear, if it’s about health . . .”

His words elicited laughter.

The question wasn’t about health. But the next one was, good-naturedly, out of a sense of responsibility maybe. Someone had to ask before Pierson-El finished.

So how often has he been asked about his health?

“No clue,” he said after a pause for emphasis, “but too many times.”

Health has been a factor in Pierson-El’s career. He played in only five games, with one start, as a sophomore because of injuries, including a torn knee ligament and a fracture of his left leg that ended the season. He had missed the first four games that season because of a foot injury.

His career had gotten off to a fast start. He played as a true freshman, catching 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns and returning 34 punts for 596 yards and three touchdowns to earn Jet Award Punt Returner of the Year recognition. His 17.5 yards per return ranked second nationally.

He also threw a touchdown pass to quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. against Northwestern to become the first Husker to catch a touchdown pass, return a punt for a touchdown and throw a touchdown pass in the same season since Bobby Newcombe in 2000.

Despite seeing limited action as a sophomore and a relatively modest junior season, Pierson-El goes into Friday’s game against Iowa with career totals of 97 receptions for 1,270 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The receptions rank 11th on Nebraska’s all-time list, the receiving yardage 15th.

He’s third in receptions and receiving yards this season, behind JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr., who is 88 receiving yards short of becoming the first Husker with 1,000 in a season.

Johnny Rodgers holds the Nebraska single-season record with 942 receiving yards in 1972. “He’ll get it” in Friday’s game against Iowa, Pierson-El said of Rodgers’ record – and possibly reach the 1,000-yard plateau, too. He needs 31 receiving yards to break the record.

Pierson-El is among 21 seniors, and junior Thomas Connely, who will be honored before Friday’s game. Kicker Drew Brown, cornerback Chris Jones and safety Joshua Kalu are the others in the 2014 scholarship recruiting class who have gone through without redshirting.

Ten others in that class, which included 22 freshmen, redshirted and are juniors.

In any case, this year’s senior class “as a whole has kind of been through a lot,” Pierson-El said.

The 2014 group “was a bit of a rebel class,” he said. “If you can remember, a lot of people that were in that class actually left. Our class was a lot of knuckleheads. You’ll miss those guys.”

He smiled when he said “knuckleheads.”

Pierson-El played an important role in Nebraska’s last victory against Iowa, at Iowa City, when he was a freshman. In about a minute-and-a-half on the play clock, early in the fourth quarter, he returned a pair of punts, the first for 41 yards to the Hawkeye 32-yard line (on the first play Armstrong and Kenny Bell teamed on a touchdown pass), the second 80 yards for a touchdown.

The Huskers took a 28-24 lead before falling behind 31-28 with 1:49 remaining. Brown kicked a 20-yard field goal with 8 seconds in regulation to send the game to overtime. Nebraska won 37-34.

Though some of the seniors downplay talk of a Nebraska-Iowa rivalry, Pierson-El does not.

“Come on now, who really likes Iowa? Come on. Of course it’s a rivalry,” he said.

It’s also his final game as a Husker, “just one of those things,” said Pierson-El.

He won’t shed a tear. “The criers in my family aren’t coming out, so just go out there and do the best you can,” he said. “Hopefully, they kick a few to me and we’ll see what happens.”

Like the rivalry issue, his last game “is what it is.”

“It’s tough to swallow, that one,” Pierson-El said. “It’s coming to an end. It sucks.”

Doing the news-conference interviews? Well, that’s another matter.

Mike Babcock is a long-time Husker beat reporter and editor for Hail Varsity Magazine.

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