Boise State spark plug goes from too small to too versatile

Shane Williams-Rhodes has always changed the minds of those who doubted his short frame.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comNovember 2, 2013 

  • Broncos follow losses with wins

    Boise State football coach Chris Petersen doesn't lose often. When he does, he usually gets his team to rebound.

    The Broncos are 9-1 after losses in Petersen's eight seasons. The only losing streak came with a loss in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl, one month after the previous defeat.

    After the past six, all of which were followed by a regular-season game a week or two later, the Broncos have outscored their opponents by a combined total of 313-96. They've scored at least 49 points in five of those, including 63 and 60 this season.

    Colorado State coach Jim McElwain apparently has noticed. He suggested Saturday night's game is tailor-made for a "(butt) kicking."

    The Rams and Broncos meet in Fort Collins, Colo. The Broncos' emotional state was a hot topic this week on the heels of a defeat at BYU, because they have lost three regular-season games for the first time since 2005 and started 5-3 for the first time since 2001.

    "I'd be ticked off if the guys came out here laughing and giggling and all that," Petersen said. "Morale is not down, but it's not a party. We're not doing what we want to do."

    The Broncos have tried to keep their focus on the Mountain West championship. They still will win the Mountain Division and qualify for the title if they win their final four regular-season games.

    "You can't let losses dictate what we want to get done," sophomore cornerback Donte Deayon said. "Our goal is to win a Mountain West championship and we've got four games and that's where we're headed."

    Chadd Cripe

— Shane Williams-Rhodes signed up for his first football team when he was 8 years old.

The team didn't want him.

Too small, coaches said.

"So I went to another team in that same conference and ended up playing them and doing really good," Williams-Rhodes said, "so the next year they allowed me on the team."

Williams-Rhodes has been stunning doubters, juking defenders and scoring touchdowns ever since.

At 5-foot-6 and 157 pounds, the Boise State sophomore wide receiver and kick returner is among the smallest players in college football. Only 12 position players in the Football Bowl Subdivision are shorter.

Williams-Rhodes leads the Broncos with 55 catches, ranks second with 863 all-purpose yards and is tied for second with five TDs.

He has been particularly potent in the past four games as the starting slot receiver in place of Kirby Moore, who is week-to-week with a foot injury. Williams-Rhodes has 37 receptions in that span.

"I'm glad I got the opportunity to start a couple times," he said, "and I'm glad I took advantage of it. Hopefully I just keep getting chances and I keep producing."

He's a weapon unlike any the Broncos have possessed since coach Chris Petersen arrived as offensive coordinator in 2001. He's the quickest, shiftiest player Petersen can remember.

That's why the Broncos throw him so many passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, where he has made 34 catches this season. Coaches count on him to make at least one tackler miss.

Last week at BYU, Williams-Rhodes caught a trick-play pass from wide receiver Matt Miller near the right sideline at the 30-yard line. He cut left to dodge a defender and put his hand on the ground to stay upright, darted forward to elude a second defender, slipped left to avoid a third, ducked back to the right to break the arm tackle of a fourth and finally was tackled at the 21.

That's four Cougars who failed to make significant contact in 9 yards - and Williams-Rhodes never ventured more than a few yards from the sideline.

"That little guy is deceptive," BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. "People would think it's easy to stop a guy like that, but I give him credit, he's a good player. He has guys wanting to put some good hits on him, but he gets away or he gets right back up."

There once was a whole field of T-ball players in Texas saying the same thing. Williams-Rhodes was born in Austin, where his mom was a student at Texas. His biological father, Bobby Rhodes, is a former Longhorns linebacker.

His mom moved to Houston shortly after he was born. He still has a relationship with his biological dad, who lives in Dallas, but was raised by his mother and stepfather.

His stepfather is so important in his life that the former Shane Rhodes legally changed his name to Shane Williams-Rhodes as a high school senior.

"I've always wanted to change my name to my dad's name," said Williams-Rhodes, who refers to his stepfather as his dad, "… but it was a lot of money. I decided to do it for my dad for Christmas."

Williams-Rhodes' first foray into sports was T-ball at age 5. It quickly became apparent that he'd fit better on a football field.

"When it was time to run the bases, I would hit it and just wouldn't stop," he said. "When they'd try to tag me, I'd just juke 'em out and keep going."

His dad started a summer track team when he was 8 to help him build speed and quickness. Williams-Rhodes contributed to two undefeated seasons with that youth football team that rejected him the first time. "Even with me being small, I was always faster than everyone else," he said, "so I felt like I had the upper hand."

That confidence stayed with him at Klein Collins High in Spring, Texas, where he played a specialty role as a sophomore like he did with Boise State last year.

He broke out as a junior - racking up 1,517 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage as a runner and receiver to earn district offensive MVP honors. He also gained attention for his "did you see that?" kick returns.

Former Boise State special teams coach Jeff Choate, who recruited the Houston area, told Williams-Rhodes he would offer him a scholarship as a punt returner if his colleagues weren't interested in him as a wide receiver.

"The film sold itself," said Choate, who now is the special teams coach at Florida. "I think any reservations that there were about his size were quickly dispelled because of who he was. You're like, 'We have to have this guy on our team.' I'd take him here in a heartbeat. He's great in the locker room. He has an infectious personality. I just like hearing from him because he's that type of kid."

Choate's concern: that the Broncos' other coaches would think he was crazy. Robert Prince just arrived as the wide receivers coach with an NFL pedigree.

Choate came up with a plan. He would list Williams-Rhodes as 5-5 - to undersell him - and lead with clips of Williams-Rhodes dominating prep defenders as a blocker.

The worrying was wasted. Undersized players are a tradition at Boise State.

"(Choate) was like, 'Every coach says I really wish we could take this guy, I wish they'd let us take this guy,' " Petersen sad. "I'm like, 'Yeah, typical, we'll take him. You don't have to convince me.'

"I knew he'd do something, and I knew it would be a bigger role than we'd even count on from him."

Said Prince: "First of all, his blocking was very impressive for as small as he is. He's a very strong, very powerful man. He's very dynamic and that's what we needed - we needed playmakers."

Williams-Rhodes chose Boise State over Kansas State. Those were the two biggest football programs to offer him scholarships in early recruiting - and Boise State had the best track record of success. He ignored later advances from schools like Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, he said.

"I figured the reason (Boise State and Kansas State) offered me early was they needed me," he said.

That proved true in 2012, when he played as a true freshman. Williams-Rhodes mostly served as a screen receiver and fly-sweep runner, contributing 239 yards from scrimmage and three TDs. He also became the primary kickoff returner and delivered a 47-yarder that set up the game-winning field goal in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.

Senior wide receiver Aaron Burks, who is 6-foot-3, said his initial reaction to Williams-Rhodes was, "Are you kidding me?"

But it only took one scrimmage in fall camp to wipe out any doubts.

"The kid can turn any direction at any time running full speed," Burks said. "It seems sometimes like he doesn't have an ACL. He's just kind of crafty."

Williams-Rhodes' role has expanded greatly this year, with more catches down the field and the starting punt-return job (19.2-yard average). He prefers traditional receiver routes to the screens at the line of scrimmage - and likely will do more of that in the future. The Broncos considered using him as a wildcat quarterback during recruiting, Choate said. And they still could use him as a kickoff returner, a job Petersen took away to lighten his workload.

So the guy who once was considered too small to do anything on a football field now is considered so versatile that coaches worry about using him too much.

"He's a get-it-to guy," Colorado State coach Jim McElwain said. "I wish I had a get-it-to."

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398,

Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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