For many Nebraska fans, the name Niles Paul brings up memories of disappointment. He was better than most people remember, yet for some reason his career as a Husker left something to be desired.
Paul was Nebraska's leading receiver for two straight years and his best season (2009) stacks up—at the very least—respectably against any season for a Husker receiver since 2004 with only Nate Swift's 2008 season being significantly better.
The problem with Paul was that he was supposed to be more than just a solid, above-average wide receiver for the Huskers. He was supposed to make a difference. He was supposed to be a playmaker.
While Paul did have his moments where his extraordinary athleticism shined through, he wasn't a consistent difference-maker the way the Huskers wanted him and maybe needed him to be. Nebraska fans certainly were desperate for the type of big-play receiver the program has long been missing, and maybe that is why they were so disappointed when Paul didn't turn out to be that guy.
No matter what style of offense a team runs, a big-play receiver can take his squad from mediocre to dynamic. If you don't believe me just look at what Demaryius Thomas did for Georgia Tech's option-based system.
Athletes with explosive abilities on a football field make plays that not only put points on the board, but demoralize the opponent as well. They make the defense think, "We can't stop this guy."
Nebraska has not had this type of explosive threat at wide receiver for a long, long time, but for a while made up for it with playmakers at the other offensive skill positions. Heading into this season, it is unclear where that offensive spark is going to come from.
Personally, I wouldn't put my eggs into Taylor Martinez's basket. Even if the good Taylor Martinez shows up this season, quarterbacks that run as much as he does tend to get hurt or at the very least banged up. No one plays an entire football season at 100 percent, and if Martinez gets banged up enough that he has to beat teams with his arm then he is going to need help.
At running back, Rex Burkhead is very good and should have a breakout season stepping out from Roy Helu's shadow, but I do not know anyone who would classify him as explosive. It is possible that the trio of freshmen backs behind Burkhead (Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard) possesses some big-play ability among them, but they will have a difficult time getting enough carries between the three of them to show if off consistently.
Before you get discouraged, there is a Husker player who is explosive and a potential difference-maker, and I'm not talking about that guy who every Nebraska fan is hoping doesn't choose professional baseball over college football.
Ironically, that player is the other quarterback recruit Bo Pelini brought in from the 2011 class: Jamal Turner. Of course, Turner has since been moved to wide receiver, and despite the lack of depth at quarterback he appears to be staying there after his performance in the spring game.
Turner had four receptions for 93 yards (an average of more than 20 yards per catch) and two returns of more than 50 yards (one punt, one kickoff) in the spring game. I understand that spring games can be misleading, but for a guy that should have still been in high school instead of in Memorial Stadium, it was an impressive performance, to say the least.
Obviously it is too early to tell how things are going to turn out for Turner. He may show flashes of brilliance before settling in to being an above-average yet unspectacular receiver. He may flame out completely and the spring game will serve as his best moment in college football.
But let's be honest, I wouldn't be writing about the guy if I thought he was going to be a bust or even just another average receiver. I believe Turner is going to be that explosive threat the Huskers have been missing.
It can be difficult to predict how a freshman will perform, but sooner or later Turner will be the playmaker Nebraska needs to deliver knockout punches to opposing defenses. I get the feeling it will be sooner than you might think.