Boise State wide receivers coach Junior Adams came from an offensive system at Eastern Washington where the starting receivers were every-down players.
He walked into a system with the Broncos that for years found roles for the fourth, fifth and even sixth receivers.
With the Broncos running an up-tempo system but still wanting to keep their backups involved, Adams has tried to find a way to balance the two approaches.
Last week, he carved out a spot for redshirt freshman A.J. Richardson at Utah State and watched him deliver a 5-yard catch on third-and-5 and an 11-yard grab on fourth-and-3 — the first two catches of his career.
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“When I was at Eastern, evaluating myself, I should have done a better job of getting more guys involved,” said Adams, who is in his second year at Boise State. “Now being here, I’m starting to learn how to rotate the guys and get them in better situations to where they can be successful. That’s how A.J. got his opportunity.”
Richardson’s breakthrough game gave the Broncos’ backups seven catches this season. The others: two by true freshman Akilian Butler, two by senior Terrell Johnson and one by sophomore transfer Austin Cottrell. Redshirt freshman Sean Modster was targeted last week but doesn’t have a catch yet.
“All those wideouts — we’d like to get more guys involved, and we need to,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “They’re improving. That’s why you see A.J. out there. Akilian has been used more. Sean was out there. Those guys are starting to show up. You’re going to see more of them because they’re getting better.”
The challenge for Adams is to substitute players without affecting the pace of the offense — and to seamlessly remove one of the team’s best players from the field.
Senior Shane Williams-Rhodes, junior Thomas Sperbeck and junior Chaz Anderson have combined for 93 catches for 1,318 yards and six touchdowns this season. Sperbeck leads the Mountain West with 682 receiving yards and 20.7 yards per catch.
Richardson is Sperbeck’s backup.
“Patience is the key,” Richardson said. “I have three great players in front of me. I look up to those guys a lot. (Playing time) didn’t really matter to me a lot. I was just happy that they actually worked with me and worked with all of us to make sure we were ready when that time comes.”
Richardson (6-foot, 205 pounds) is one of the Broncos’ more stout receivers and he’s known for his big, reliable hands. He’s built for third- and fourth-down situations, when physical receivers can use their bodies to create space for a first-down throw.
He could tell from practice that he was likely to get his chance against Utah State.
“I’m thankful for my first college catch,” he said. “It actually meant a lot to me, despite the loss. ... It says that they’re trusting me more. I’ve just got to keep that trust and keep working my way into it.”
Said Adams: “A.J. deserved the opportunity. We trust him. Obviously trust comes from getting it done in practice, and he took advantage of his game reps that he’s had in prior weeks.”
While the backup receivers haven’t seen the ball much, they have filled in for the veterans to give them much-needed rest — in games and, importantly Adams said, in practice. They also contribute on special teams.
Richardson played more than 20 offensive snaps last week, about double his usual workload.
“The cool thing is, with that room, everyone buys in,” Adams said. “We play the position because we want to catch the ball. Yeah, we want the ball. But they’re going to do their job. They’re going to play their role. I’ve never heard any one of them complain or gripe about not getting the ball.”
Richardson, echoing the sentiments of several receivers before the season, said it’s “special to see” what the Broncos have in the wide receivers room.
Soon, perhaps everyone else will see it, too.
“They’ll have opportunities with the way we spread it out,” Williams-Rhodes said. “They’ve just got to take advantage of it like A.J. did.”