LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s not him. It’s us. If Jordan Westerkamp had a nickel for every time he was asked about 1,000 receiving yards, he’d have — well, he’d have about $2.65 by now, more or less, mostly from reporters happily beating a statistical quirk to death.
“I know it’s never been done here, and people bring it up here and there,” Nebraska’s senior wide receiver said, eyes rolling ever so slightly. “It pops up here and there.
“And like I always say, it would be awesome to accomplish that and be the first one to do it here. It would be awesome, it would be an amazing experience for myself. But I’m so much more focused on this team.”
Besides, it’s not like you’re keeping a running meter in your head every time a defender knocks you into next Tuesday.
“Right,” Westerkamp chuckled. “And I’ve said that 100 times. It’s not something, in a game, (where) I’ve got to make sure I get the ball thrown to me 10 times. I just go out there, do my job, and whatever happens, happens.”
What’s wacky is that it still hasn’t happened, officially. Nebraska has sold out 348 straight home games (including the opener this Saturday against Fresno State), played in 52 bowls dating back to 1941, and churned out three Heisman Trophy winners. But the Cornhuskers have yet to produce a 1,000-yard receiver in a single season.
In fact, thanks to Isaiah Ford’s record-breaking 2015 at Virginia Tech, the Huskers are now the only Power 5 program to never see a player over the 1K line.
Well, OK, OK, OK, that’s not technically true. Johnny Rodgers amassed 942 yards in receptions in 1972 and another 71 more in the 1973 Orange Bowl. But the NCAA didn’t recognize postseason statistics as part of the final official individual and team lines until 2002, and out come the asterisks. Some 44 years later, 942, remarkably, remains the Big Red standard.
And only recently, in an age when spread formations are the norm rather than the exception and the huddle is passé, has Rodgers’ single-season mark looked a little out of step. From 1962-2001, from Devaney to Osborne to Solich, a stretch of four decades and five national titles, Nebraska built its empire on the ground, brick by brick, bruise by bruise. Racking up receiving yards was a little like piling up kickoff return yardage, something team was forced to do when behind, when trailing, an offense wearing a scarlet letter. A sign of — gasp! — finesse.
Lincoln has never been that big on finesse.
“I mean, it’s pretty crazy to hear that,” said Westerkamp, whose 918 yards last fall landed him just 25 yards short of topping Rodgers and 82 yards shy of the elusive 1K. “But like you said, the history here, they’ve been successful running the ball, why would you not run the ball winning championships left and right?
“So it is kind of a head-scratcher, at first, to like an uninformed fan. But if you know the history, you kind of understand it a little bit better.”
Huskers coach Mike Riley’s history is different — to say nothing of his world view, a world in which throwing the ball on first down is not a sign of weakness but an accepted strategic gambit. Riley’s Oregon State offenses produced at least one 1,000-yard receiver in nine of 14 seasons. James Newson begat Mike Hass, who begat Sammie Stroughter, who begat James Rodgers, who begat Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. A conga line of catches.
And then you have freshman Derrion Grim transferring out of Nebraska after just a handful of months and popping off to the local scribes that he didn’t “believe” that Riley was committed to a philosophy of multiple-receiver sets, as if Lincoln had somehow changed the man, pitched him back to the stone age.
The truth is in the middle there, somewhere.
“Well, I think that we have knowledge of our team, which gives an even better identity of how we’re going to approach the game and how we’re going to call the game,” Riley said. “Everyone will run a pass pattern, but some patterns are designated more for certain guys. There’s a good route in there that we’re going to throw the ball to (tight end Cethan) Carter, then there’s stuff in there that will be good for him, and then that he has some curveballs with it. You learn more about your people, you learn more about what your offensive line does well, you learn most about your quarterback and how to go forward with that. We think that we did better with that as we went last year, and we hope that it has continued into this offseason and now into this season.”
The eureka moment might well have come on the heels of their darkest hour, a 55-45 loss at woebegone Purdue last Halloween. Nebraska hosted eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State the next week, running for 179 yards and throwing for 320 more in a 39-38 victory.
Over its final four contests, including an upset of UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, the Huskers won three times, picking up 179, 174, 137 and 326 on the ground against the Spartans, Rutgers, Iowa and Bruins, respectively.
“It’ll be interesting to see,” Westerkamp said. “Under this offense, (Year 2 is) normally where you see the biggest growth. You know, we ended against UCLA running the ball a lot more. So it’ll be interesting to see how these first couple games play out.”
Westerkamp and classmate Brandon Reilly are among the 53 players on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the top receiver in major college football. Nebraska is one of just 10 schools with multiple receivers on the list.
Reilly’s 18.9 yards per grab were the tops among Big Ten receivers with at least two catches per game. Westerkamp heads into the fall within shouting distance of Kenny Bell’s records in career receptions (181) and career receiving yards (2,689), as well as Rodgers’ record of consecutive games with at least one catch (37). The Illinois native has snared a reception in 26 straight.
“I’m not going to get hung up on whatever (the identity) is,” Westerkamp shrugged. “We want to do whatever we need to do to win. If that’s run the ball more, then that’s run the ball more.”
The Huskers were 5-2 last fall when throwing it 35 times or less, and 1-5 when chucking it 36 or more. If the stone age ain’t broke, why try to fix it?
“Honestly,” Westerkamp said, “And this isn’t — this is whatever. It’s just you guys (in the media), I think. I mean, if it comes up or it’s in the paper or what not, maybe my parents, they’ll be like, ‘Hey were you asked about it?’
“That’s it. That’s literally all it is. That’s all it is when it comes up.”
So it’s us. Well, us and precedent. Because there’s this, too:
When a Riley college offense produces at least one 1,000-yard receiver, said college team has won an average of eight games and bowled in eight out of nine seasons.
When that offense didn’t produce one, said college team won an average of 4.5 tilts and bowled just once out of six tries. So even if the 1,000 receiving figure is window dressing, a quirk, even if it’s got nothing to do with the Big Red’s illustrious past, it sure does smell like it’s setting up as a signpost for the immediate future.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler