Boise State wide receivers coach Junior Adams tells his players to become “Frisbee-catching dogs.”
In a couple years, he might just ask them to play like Thomas Sperbeck.
Sperbeck, a junior wide receiver, has spent the past 13 months amassing a collection of highlight-reel catches in games and some equally stunning catches in practice that have built the expectation among teammates that he can catch anything.
Like those Frisbee-catching dogs.
“Yes, it’s amazing, but we expect that out of him,” senior wide receiver Terrell Johnson said. “If you go out and throw a trained dog a Frisbee, no matter where it is, he’ll go get it. So that’s what we want to be in that receiver room.”
Sperbeck’s latest jaw-dropper was an 8-yard grab last week against Wyoming that was nominated for catch of the week by Yahoo! Sports. Sperbeck was dominating voting as of Friday evening, so he likely will be a finalist for catch of the year.
Sperbeck ran an out route to the first-down marker on third-and-7. Quarterback Brett Rypien’s throw was a little wide, so Sperbeck jumped, fully extended his right arm and tipped the ball to himself. He took two full steps while the ball fluttered, then caught it with his right hand while his left arm was stretched behind his body.
He stuck his left foot in bounds and dragged his right toe before diving out of bounds. He even tucked the ball against his chest as he fell so the ground wouldn’t knock it loose.
Thomas’ one-handed catch was as amazing a catch as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Boise State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, on Thomas Sperbeck’s one-handed grab against Wyoming last week
The Broncos ran the next play in a hurry — successfully snapping the ball before the replay official could get the referee’s attention.
“We should have let the replay booth look at it,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said. “He caught it, and he caught it pretty easily.”
Sperbeck, as he has since becoming one of the Broncos’ top playmakers a month into the 2014 season, downplayed his remarkable effort.
It just kind of stuck to my glove, luckily.”
Sperbeck’s sure hands and emerging ability to contort his body and adjust to deep balls have made him one of the best offensive players in the Mountain West. He leads the conference in receiving yards (766), yards per catch (19.6) and receiving touchdowns (7). He has 39 catches, six off the lead.
He also is on pace to break Titus Young’s school record for receiving yards in a season (1,215 in 2010).
Coaches struggle to explain Sperbeck’s ability because he’s of unremarkable size (6-foot, 175 pounds), his hands aren’t abnormally large like some of the receivers known for their amazing grabs, he ran the 40-yard dash in a ho-hum 4.6 seconds the last time he was timed and he didn’t play wide receiver seriously until he arrived at Boise State in August 2013.
He did grow up around the game as the son of a college football coach.
“I don’t really have the answer for it,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “You see these guys all the time, warming up making one-handed catches and their hands are enormous. He’s got unbelievable determination to stay with it and he’s really competitive. In his mind, ‘I can make this play.’ ... He’s made catches in practice, too — not that spectacular, I’ve never seen one like that (catch vs. Wyoming) — but he’s made some that are pretty good and he practices that way so when it comes to game time it’s not like it’s something he can’t accomplish or is amazing to him.”
Sperbeck doesn’t practice catching the ball one-handed — he just does it when the situation arises. He credits drills like throwing a tennis ball against a wall in the weight room and making toe-tapping sideline catches on the practice field for developing his knack for the fantastic.
He enjoys watching players like the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. — famous for his one-handed catches — but knows he doesn’t have the same physical tools.
“It’s just knowing the plays you’re capable of making and not really accepting the fact that maybe I’m not as big as those guys or as tall as those guys. I can still make plays,” Sperbeck said.
The first evidence of that came when he made a last-second adjustment to catch a ball over his outside shoulder last year at Air Force. He added a 78-yard touchdown reception against BYU and was named the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP with 199 receiving yards.
His highlights this year include a 21-yard touchdown grab in the back corner of the end zone against Hawaii and a 36-yard TD against Wyoming on which he adjusted his body to catch a so-so throw.
He became Grant Hedrick’s favorite target last year. And he’s clearly Rypien’s favorite target.
“Every time the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand,” Sperbeck said, “he should just trust us to make the play.”
Chadd Cripe: 208-377-6398, @IDS_BroncoBeat
Boise State at UNLV
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, Sprinturf), Las Vegas
TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, John Congemi)
Radio: KBOI (670 AM), KTIK (93.1 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 6-2, 3-1 Mountain West; UNLV is 2-5, 1-2
Series: Boise State leads 5-3 (Broncos won 32-7 in 2012 in Boise)
Vegas line: Boise State by 20