Can Boise State’s backup wide receivers step up?
No, this isn’t 2016, but the question remains the same from a year ago.
It turns out the Broncos didn’t need to rely on a gaggle of wide receivers last year, opting primarily for their starting three in nearly every passing situation. Of the 179 receptions by the group in 2016, 166 came from Thomas Sperbeck, Cedrick Wilson and Chaz Anderson.
Wilson returns for his senior year as a likely NFL prospect and a true No. 1 receiver, but the others departed. That means the backups who didn’t get in the mix this time a year ago have no other option but to take a leap.
“They were going into this offseason knowing they’ve got to step up, there’s going to be more opportunities,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “That creates more excitement for those guys to work harder. They’ve come a long way.”
Juniors A.J. Richardson, Sean Modster and Akilian Butler and senior Austin Cottrell have a combined 28 career receptions.
Richardson had two receptions in 2016, one from backup quarterback Tommy Stuart and one from Sperbeck on a trick play. Four of the eight Modster had last season came in one game. Two of Butler’s three were from Stuart, and Cottrell didn’t have one last year.
“It’s patience, really, you’ve got to wait your turn, but it’s time to step up, not just for me, but everybody,” Richardson said. “It’s most definitely exciting. I think about it every day. I think every receiver thinks about it every day. Those are two big spots.”
Hill said Richardson “is very sure-handed, a good route-runner,” while the speedy Modster “creates some fun mismatches for us.” Those two are the most likely to step in and fill starting roles, but with a new coach at the position in Eric Kiesau, there’s a new set of eyes, too.
The Broncos’ new receivers coach, who has coached at Alabama, Cal, Colorado and Kansas, among others, stressed a fundamental approach in working with a relatively inexperienced group this spring. He focused on “being more technically sound, details on route-running and releases.”
“I tell them, ‘Now this is your time, this is why you came here,’ ” Kiesau said. “You can look at it as a negative or a positive. I like to flip it to a positive. We know what Ced can do, how do we integrate this into a unit, a corps of six or seven really good players?”
Added to the competition is a trio of talented true freshmen: Octavius Evans, CT Thomas and Damon Cole. Evans and Thomas have performed well in fall camp and seem likely to play this season. Evans is of the more prototypical build (6-foot-1, 195 pounds), while Thomas (5-8, 152) is a bolt of speed and agility. Kiesau said as fall camp began he was prepared to play at least one.
“Absolutely ... if I’m an older guy and I’ve got a freshman making plays, you’re like, ‘Oh, that guy is pretty good, I’ve got to step up my game a bit,’ ” Kiesau said.
For the uncertainty that surrounds most of the position, there is one known commodity: Wilson. His 56 receptions for 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns last season after transferring from a junior college earned plenty of attention. He’ll get more opportunities in 2017.
Wilson, whose 20.1 yards per catch were No. 8 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, is working on his route-running to become a more dangerous option in all sorts of situations. On multiple occasions, he’s been the first player mentioned by coaches as a fall camp standout.
“He’s one of those guys that makes unbelievable plays at any time, he’s made a few catches that were eye-popping, even for us,” Hill said.
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said of the receivers, “those guys have improved,” particularly Richardson. He added that sophomore Bryan Jefferson has made some tough catches.
Though the Broncos’ tight ends are sure to be involved more in the pass game this year, without a clear-cut, do-everything running back like the departed Jeremy McNichols, most of the receivers are bound to be more productive.
“I’m going to play my role, but I think a lot of guys behind me are going to surprise a lot of people we go against,” Wilson said. “They might be looking at me, but somebody’s going to sneak in a few touchdowns if they are.”
Projected depth chart
1 Cedrick Wilson, 6-3, 188, Sr.: Fast, big and athletic, had a team-high 11 TD receptions last year and will vie for All-MW honors
7 A.J. Richardson, 6-0, 209, Jr.: Sturdy, sure-handed and good route-runner, he could be the sort who moves the chains
8 Sean Modster, 5-11, 196, Jr.: Stepped up with four catches against BYU, and has some speed that could create big plays
81 Akilian Butler, 5-10, 193, Jr.: A quick option who also has returned punts, had three catches in 2016 and has improved in camp
9 Bryan Jefferson, 5-11, 193, So.: Missed last season with an injury, but was a highly touted recruit who is shaking off rust
6 CT Thomas, 5-8, 152, Fr.: Versatile and fast, may play role that uses him in multiple ways after earning veteran snaps early in camp