Boise State football spring preview: Young WRs compete to fill gaps behind stars Miller, Williams-Rhodes

By Chadd Cripe
ccripe@idahostatesman.com
© 2014 Idaho Statesman

Through the spring, I’ll preview each position.

Today: Wide receivers.

Previously: Offensive line, quarterbacks, defensive line, tight ends, running backs

SPERBECK GETS A BOOST FROM EARLY PLAYING TIME

Thomas Sperbeck didn’t play much as a true freshman, but it was still enough to help him, he said.

Sperbeck made five catches for 40 yards last season. He was inserted into the rotation after the season began, because of injuries to his teammates, and missed several games with a high ankle sprain of his own.

He has been a top performer in spring ball as the No. 2 slot receiver, behind junior Shane Williams-Rhodes.

“I think it helped me a lot this year,” Sperbeck said of last year, “because of the experience and going with the older guys on the trips. … The more games you play, the less nervous you’ll get and all the butterflies are out.”

Sperbeck, whose dad Marshall is the coach at Sacramento State, came to the Broncos as an athlete. He played quarterback and safety in high school.

The Broncos slotted him as a safety, but they told him when he arrived on campus in late June that he would play wide receiver instead.

“I kind of wanted to play offense, actually,” he said. “… It was really difficult at first just because I really haven’t done much of it till now, but the coaches helped me out a lot with it.”

He’s competing with a bunch of young receivers to fill in the rotation behind senior Matt Miller and Williams-Rhodes, two of the top playmakers in the Mountain West.

“There is a lot of opportunity,” Sperbeck said. “We’ll see what happens.”

So far this spring, Sperbeck has looked like he’s ready to seize that opportunity.

“He’s deceiving — deceptively fast,” wide receivers coach Junior Adams said. “He’s understanding how to create separation in tight spaces.”

That showed up in the team’s first scrimmage of spring ball with two touchdown catches.

“A guy who just keeps making plays for us with the two group is Thomas Sperbeck,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said after the scrimmage. “He’s a good route-runner. I’ve been excited. Whenever you need a big play in a big situation … particularly today, he did a really nice job.”

PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE

Roster
Wide receiver
2 Matt Miller, 6-3, 220, R-Sr.
81 Dallas Burroughs, 5-8, 171, Sr.
20 Terrell Johnson, 5-9, 172, R-Jr.
14 Troy Ware, 6-2, 183, R-Jr.
11 Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 160, Jr.
19 Taylor Pope, 6-0, 180, R-So.
82 Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0, 174, So.
80 D.J. Dean, 6-1, 195, R-Fr.
83 Tanner Shipley, 6-1, 183, R-Fr.
39 David McKinzie, 6-0, 169, R-Fr.
87 Dusty Fisher, 6-2, 181, R-Fr.
86 A.J. Richardson, 6-0, 196, Fr.

Signee:
Sean Modster, 6-0, 185, Fr.
(The Broncos also have a commitment from Arizona State transfer Richard Smith, who can’t play until 2015.)

Returning starters (2 of 3): Miller set a school record with 88 catches for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, including a crazy final five games. He made 41 catches for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns beginning Nov. 2 at Colorado State. He made 11 catches for 206 yards and a TD in the Hawaii Bowl. Williams-Rhodes, the slot receiver, made 77 catches for 702 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games with just eight starts.

Key losses: Starter Geraldo Boldewijn (39 catches, 528 yards, two TDs), starter-when-healthy Kirby Moore (36, 280, two) and Aaron Burks (18, 309, three) graduated and left a gaping void in the wide receiver rotation.

Key returners: After Miller and Williams-Rhodes, there isn’t much experience in the group. Ware made 10 catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sperbeck made five catches. Burroughs, whose playing time has dwindled as his career has progressed, made two catches.

Projected starters: Miller, Ware, Williams-Rhodes.

Other players to watch: Johnson, a walk-on transfer who redshirted last year, looked talented in fall camp. And the freshman class should produce a playmaker or two, out of a group that includes redshirts Dean and Shipley and grayshirt Richardson.

Out for spring: Pope

Incoming signees: Richardson, who sat out last season as he recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, joined the team in January. Modster arrives this summer. Smith also will get here this summer, but he can’t play this year.

Notes/quotes:

— Miller needs 14 catches, 476 yards and 14 touchdowns to break the career school records in those categories. He has 216 catches, 2,588 yards and 26 touchdowns so far. Coach Bryan Harsin was the offensive coordinator in 2010, Miller’s redshirt year. He said he thought Miller was going to play that year before he tore an Achilles tendon. That would have put Miller on the field with Austin Pettis (most catches in school history), Titus Young (most yards in school history) and Tyler Shoemaker (most TD catches in a season in school history). “I don’t necessarily think we were in a situation where we had to have a guy come in and play,” Harsin said. “He was a guy who kept showing up in practice as a young guy before he got injured. That’s carried over. Yesterday, he had a great catch at practice and ripped it off for a big run. It wasn’t just good; it was great. He’s a guy who has that talent, but he works extremely hard.”

— Williams-Rhodes likely would have beaten Miller for the school record for single-season receptions last season if not for an ankle injury that required surgery. But he got close in large part because of a heavy dose of screens and quick hitches at the line of scrimmage. His role likely will be more conventional now. “That’s one thing we did talk about when I first got here,” Adams said. “ ‘I understand your stature and you’re small and people always say that this is your role.’ For him, it’s take that next step and understand how to play the position and separate vs. man coverage and running vertical routes.” Williams-Rhodes still isn’t fully recovered. He said before spring break he was about 75 percent but needed to be on the practice field. “We’ve got a new offense,” he said. “I don’t want to wait and be lost.”

— Adams on Richardson: “A.J.’s doing good. We’re just trying to get him going every day. Every snap you have to come off the ball. We’re trying to knock the rust off of him. But A.J. has made plays. He made a play in the scrimmage.”

— Adams on Ware: “Troy did make some plays last year. He’s got a good skill set. The next step for him is being able to make the moment-of-truth plays, as we call it — be able to go up and climb the ladder on guys and go take it out of the air and be a guy we can rely on on those money-down situations.”

— Adams said the receiver group was not as sharp after spring break as before. “The last two days I thought we took a few steps back, but they’re young and they’re progressing,” he said. Added Sperbeck: “We had huge momentum going into the break. We’re still doing all right, but it was a little slow these last few days.”

— Adams emphasizes three skills: “The three basic fundamentals of football at that position are explode off the ball, catch it and run after the catch.”

•••

Here is the video and recap of Harsin’s press conference on Thursday.


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Chadd Cripe has spent the past 12 years as the Boise State football beat writer. You can follow him on Twitter @IDS_BroncoBeat.

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