- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Whenever wide receiver recruits visit Nebraska, Kenny Bell doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth.
"I tell them, 'If you want to jog around and only work when routes are being run, then don't come here,'" Bell told ESPN.com. "'We only care about winning football games, and the best way to do that is by having a strong running game.'"
Nebraska might be the school of Johnny Rodgers and Irving Fryar, but for decades the first job of any Cornhuskers wide receiver has been to block. It's no coincidence that the team's current wide receiver coach, Rich Fisher, was a former star linebacker at Colorado. In the receivers' meeting room, Bell said, the stats that are featured on the walls relay which player has the most successful blocks and the most knockdowns.
"We don't care about yards after catch or receiving yards or receiving touchdowns," Bell said. "That's definitely at the bottom of our priority list. Coach Fisher always talks about being perimeter warriors, about wreaking havoc out there."
The receiving corps' ability to clear traffic on the outside is an underrated reason why Nebraska leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's best in rushing yards, at 269.3 per game. When Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah turns the corner, they often have an open lane.
That's nothing new for the Huskers. What's different this year is that those receivers aren't just good blockers. They're also highly productive in the passing game.
Bell leads the way with 35 catches for 653 yards, which already ranks as the ninth-most receiving yards in team history. Quincy Enunwa, known as the most physical of the wideouts, has had some big moments himself, including a 110-yard game at Northwestern. Jamal Turner has come on of late, catching the game-winning touchdown at Michigan State and adding another score last week against Penn State. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed have added playmaking ability at tight end; Reed hauled in a crucial 56-yard third-down catch late in last week's win.
"Every one of the skill players at Nebraska can take it the distance when they touch the football," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty scary."
Last season, the Huskers' passing game was inconsistent as the receivers struggled with drops and Martinez reverted to some bad habits. Both Martinez and his wideouts have made great strides this season, turning Nebraska's offense into a truly balanced attack.
"They've given us a lot of big plays," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think they've steadily improved as the season has gone on. … We play a lot of guys at the receiver position, and they've responded well and I think they complement each other."
Playing receiver in Lincoln is not easy. You have to be in good enough shape to line up repeatedly in the Huskers' hurry-up style, and strong enough to battle cornerbacks and safeties at the line of scrimmage. Enunwa, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, relishes the challenge.
"When you're a big guy and you see those DBs who are much smaller, you have to take advantage of that," he said. "Then we get into the passing game, they're already worn out and we're running past them and getting touchdowns, so it just helps so much."
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he asks a lot of his wideouts, and several plays demand that a single receiver blocks two defenders. Bell took that to an extreme in the Michigan State game, disrupting four different Michigan State defenders to help spring a 71-yard touchdown run by Martinez.
"I knew I was going to get at least two, and I just got lucky with the other two guys who were flowing to the play," Bell says. "There wasn't too much praise that went around. I did my job. That's how we're coached."
It takes some coaching to get receivers prepared for Nebraska's style, as many wideouts don't do a lot of run blocking in high school. Divas need not apply. The program has not produced too many true star receivers over the years, and has never had a player post 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Heisman winner Rodgers holds the team record at 942 yards in 1972.
Running backs, mobile quarterbacks, the Blackshirts defense and even the offensive line are far more illustrious positions in Huskers history than receiver. Enunwa said he didn't know much about the history of the position group when Nebraska recruited him out of California.
"When I looked them up, it was all about blocking more than it was passing," the junior said. "This year, we worked on making both those things big."
So far so good for the Cornhuskers' perimeter warriors.