Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series previewing the Boise State football team by position.
Coming Friday: Tight ends
Boise State wide receivers coach Junior Adams has built his coaching career on his ability to develop newcomers into contributors and contributors into stars.
That’s why head coach Bryan Harsin hired him from Eastern Washington last year.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
Adams’ talent was on display again last year, when he turned a converted college cornerback and a former high school quarterback into the Broncos’ most dangerous receivers.
And it will be needed again this year, when the Broncos hope their three returning starters can become more complete players and a host of prospects with little to no experience can provide some depth.
“Coach Adams does a really nice job with that group,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said, “and we’ve got to continue to improve and continue to develop that depth.”
The receiver crew revolves around the trio of returning starters: senior Shane Williams-Rhodes (one of the smallest offensive players in the country), junior Chaz Anderson (a cornerback until summer 2014) and junior Thomas Sperbeck (a high school quarterback recruited as a safety).
That trio combined for 140 catches, 1,918 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Each has tried to push his game forward this year.
Williams-Rhodes added about 15 pounds to his frame (5-foot-6, 173 pounds) and extended his catch radius, which will allow him to get to errant throws that a taller receiver would be expected to catch.
That’s part of a career-long effort by Williams-Rhodes to go from a sweeps-and-screens specialist as a freshman to a receiver who can be used in any situation.
“I do feel like I’ve gotten better at it,” Williams-Rhodes said, “but I’m not where I need to be yet.”
Sperbeck honed the details of his position. He played a small role as a true freshman in 2013 and for the first four and a half games of 2014 until star Matt Miller got hurt.
From that point, Sperbeck was the Broncos’ best receiver. He was named the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP (12 catches, 199 yards).
Sperbeck has used that experience to find ways to improve. He also has enjoyed himself. He expressed no preference between offense and defense when he was recruited, but inside ...
“Them switching me, I was pretty thankful,” he said of the decision made shortly before fall camp in 2013, “because I liked offense a lot better. I didn’t tell them that at the time, but I was pretty happy when they switched me.”
Anderson — the designated deep threat — averaged 21.7 yards per catch last season, in part because of his high-end speed and in part because he wasn’t used much on intermediate routes.
That should change this year.
Anderson didn’t begin playing wide receiver until fall camp last year.
“We’re able to move Chaz around if we need to and not just play one position,” Adams said. “That’s a credit to Chaz. Chaz took ownership in the offseason by staying in the classroom and studying and doing the work so he can take his game to the next level.”
Adams wants consistency and leadership out of the trio this season. His three key points of emphasis: exploding off the line of scrimmage, catching the ball and gaining yards after the catch.
“When you experience some success, it fuels the fire a little bit more,” Adams said.
On the other end of the development scale, Adams has a slew of receivers who have shown promise but don’t have much, if any, Boise State game experience: senior Terrell Johnson, juniors Rick Smith and Taylor Pope, sophomores D.J. Dean and Austin Cottrell, redshirt freshmen A.J. Richardson and Sean Modster and true freshman Akilian Butler (who may redshirt).
Smith started at Arizona State in 2013, but the rest of those players have a combined major college football catch total of one.
“I’m not worried at all,” Sperbeck said. “I don’t think anybody really is, just because we’ve seen those guys make plays in practice all the time.”
Adams uses Sperbeck as an example for the players fighting for snaps among the second wave of receivers. Sperbeck didn’t have a catch in the first four games last season.
“When the opportunity came, he took advantage of it,” Adams said. “And when the opportunity came, he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the play we called and he knew where to line up and obviously when the ball came his way he made plays.
“If you’re that fourth, fifth, sixth guy in the rotation, your reps are limited. So if it’s five reps a game, we need you to be able to line up five times, we need you to get to your spot five times and we need you to be able to catch the ball five times if we throw it to you five times. That’s what we ask for.”
Who will fill those complementary roles remains an open question with eight days till the opener against Washington. The plus for Adams is that he has so many candidates.
“Guys are still fighting,” he said. “We’ve still got another week left of practice here and game planning. By game time, we’ll have the right guys on the (field).”