Bronco Beat

Boise State football position breakdowns: Big-play WR trio seeks consistency

I'm previewing the Boise State football team by position. I'll post a blog with many notes and quotes about the position and write a feature for the newspaper that runs the following morning.

Today: Wide receivers

Previously: Linebackers, tailbacks, defensive backs, quarterbacks, offensive line, defensive line

WIDE RECEIVERS ROSTER

20 Terrell Johnson, 5-9, 173, R-Sr.

1 Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 173, Sr.

19 Rick Smith, 5-9, 178, R-Jr.

16 Taylor Pope, 6-0, 183, R-Jr.

6 Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 186, R-Jr.

82 Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0, 175, Jr.

89 Brock Barr, 6-3, 202, Jr.

80 D.J. Dean, 6-1, 197, R-So.

83 David McKinzie, 6-0, 173, R-So.

17 Austin Cottrell, 6-2, 206, So.

28 A.J. Richardson, 6-0, 205, R-Fr.

8 Sean Modster, 5-11, 187, R-Fr.

81 Akilian Butler, 5-10, 175, Fr.

9 Bryan Jefferson, 5-11, 188, Fr.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

Wide receiver

Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0, 175, Jr.: Led the team with 877 receiving yards last season despite not having a catch until the fifth game. He made 51 catches in the final 10 games.

A.J. Richardson, 6-0, 205, R-Fr., OR Austin Cottrell, 6-2, 206, So.: Both inject size into the receiver group. Richardson has grayshirted and redshirted, so he hasn't played since 2012. Cottrell transferred from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College this summer.

Wide receiver

Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 186, R-Jr.: Speedy deep threat averaged 21.7 yards per catch last season. He has worked to become well-rounded this season.

D.J. Dean, 6-1, 197, R-So., OR Sean Modster, 5-11, 187, R-Fr., OR Taylor Pope, 6-0, 183, R-Jr.: Pope (one) is the only guy in this group with a career catch. Dean impressed coaches and teammates during the offseason and Modster was a standout in the fall scrimmage.

Slot receiver

Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 173, Sr.: Has made 170 catches in his career, 74 short of Matt Miller's school record. He led the team with seven TD catches last year.

Rick Smith, 5-9, 178, R-Jr., OR Terrell Johnson, 5-9, 173, R-Sr.: Smith started nine games in 2013 for Arizona State. He caught 32 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He was Boise State's Offensive Scout Player of the Year last season. Johnson threw an incomplete pass on a trick play last year.

THE BREAKDOWN

Overview: The Broncos return all three starters from last year – Sperbeck, Williams-Rhodes and Anderson. That trio combined for 140 catches, 1,918 yards and 12 touchdowns. Each has tried to expand his game this offseason. Sperbeck, who has been playing receiver for just two years, worked on the details of the position. Williams-Rhodes, one of the smallest offensive players in college football, added some bulk and extended his catch radius. And Anderson tried to develop beyond the deep threat label. Wide receivers coach Junior Adams wants consistency from the trio. "The three criteria of exploding off the football, catching it and run after catch – we really want to be able to do that on a daily basis," he said.

Key to success: The receivers' ability to provide big plays in the pass game was instrumental to the Broncos' nine-game winning streak to end last season. Anderson averaged 21.7 yards per catch and Sperbeck averaged 17.2. They'll need to provide that kind of spark again this year.

Reason for concern: The rest of the receivers on the roster have combined for one catch in their Boise State careers. The Broncos must develop at least a couple reliable options beyond the starting trio. "I honestly think this might be the most athletic group we've had in the receiver room since I've been here," Williams-Rhodes said. "We have a lot of athletic young guys who can go up and make plays. ... We have a lot of talent." Added Sperbeck: "I'm not worried at all. I don't think anybody really is, just because we've seen those guys make plays in practice all the time."

Star player: Sperbeck was the offensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl with 12 catches for 199 yards. If you pro-rate his numbers from the 10 games in which he made a catch over the entire season, he would have had more than 1,200 yards. He has shown clutch ability, great hands, toughness and speed – a combination that makes him an All-Mountain West candidate. He originally was recruited to play safety but switched when he arrived and played as a true freshman. For the first time this week, he admitted where his true preference was. "I was pretty thankful because I liked offense a lot better," he said. "I didn't tell them that at the time, but I was pretty happy they switched me." He played quarterback in high school.

Breakout performer: If Smith is healthy, he should factor heavily into the offense. He was injured in a locker room incident with teammate Jack Fields last winter and left the team for the spring semester. Smith was limited when fall camp began and didn't participate in the fall scrimmage but coach Bryan Harsin has said he expects Smith available for the opener. Smith is a former starter in the Pac-12, so there's no question about his talent.

Newcomer to watch: True freshman Akilian Butler created a buzz during camp and provided the highlight of the fall scrimmage with his one-handed grab on a ball thrown behind him on a crossing route. Adams hinted that Butler won't be used immediately but will be kept ready if needed. "We're still looking at Akilian," Adams said. "Like I told AK, just keep preparing for the moment. Look at the situation (tailback) Jeremy McNichols was in last year – that's a good example to use. ... He's got his head screwed on straight. He has a plan of what he needs to work on moving forward."

Quotes/notes

– Adams on the group: "First off, they're funny. It's pretty cool because they're all eager to learn. I think that's where it all starts. ... When you experience some success, it fuels the fire a little bit more. I think they work hard, they come out to practice and they work hard, they run miles and miles a day in practice. They don't complain. They're hard on themselves. They get in the classroom and they study. They are a lot of fun to be around."

– Adams on Anderson: "We're able to move Chaz around if we need to and not just play one position. 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."

– Coach Bryan Harsin would like to have about six receivers in the rotation. "You've got your four and then a couple guys who can spell them," Harsin said. "That's been a good formula for us."

– The receivers can help quarterback Ryan Finley settle in, Williams-Rhodes said: "It's our job to make it a little easier for the quarterback. ... Our job is to go make the plays because we're the vets."

– Williams-Rhodes isn't focused on Miller's record: "That's something I kind of learned from Matt. It's really not a big deal on those records. It's more about the team. If I get it, I get it. But if I don't, then I don't."

– Anderson: "We put a lot of work in over the summer to expand all of our games and being able to be that complete receiver is something that I've been working on personally and I'm excited to show that this fall."

– Sperbeck on the group's strength: "I think it's our speed and knowledge of the game. We play with a lot of speed. We have some deep threats, but we also know what we're doing. We know the game plan and know how to execute."

– Dean hopes his knowledge of the offense leads to playing time: "That's something that I've really had to focus on and figure out, find where I can have an edge," he said. "Using my mind and learning all the positions, that's something that can really help me get on the field and contribute this year."

– Cottrell went to junior college because he didn't get FBS offers out of high school. Boise State was recruiting him for 2016 but decided to bring him in a year early because of the career-ending injury Troy Ware sustained in the spring. "This was my ultimate goal since I was a kid," he said. "It happened so urgently that I can just thank God. That's all I can do. I can't wait to get to work out there."

RELATED POSTS

Williams-Rhodes expands his game and his body

Chaz Anderson draws a crowd when he goes deep

Boise State must develop next wave of receivers

Rick Smith returns

D.J. Dean didn't let injuries derail him

Email me at ccripe@idahostatesman.com.

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