East Lansing — Through his first two seasons, R.J. Shelton had seen plenty of action for Michigan State.
He played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2013 and steadily became a bigger part of the offense in 2014. But the 5-foot-11 native of Beaver Dam, Wis., was still trying to find his niche. He came to campus as a running back but was quickly moved to receiver, seeing most of his work in the slot, getting a chance to run the ball almost as often as he was targeted in the passing game.
However, there was a distinct moment last season when Shelton knew there was no doubt — he was a receiver.
It came in the fourth quarter at Rutgers. Michigan State was a week from its showdown with Ohio State, and found itself in a 24-24 tie with the Scarlet Knights in the fourth quarter, a shocking upset quickly becoming a possibility.
Facing a third-and-9 from its 25, Michigan State needed a big play. That’s when quarterback Connor Cook threw down the middle of the field to Shelton. He was tightly covered, but the junior hauled in a 29-yard reception.
The Spartans eventually scored on an LJ Scott run to put the game away.
“I stepped up and became a wide receiver,” Shelton said this week. “It was third down and we had to continue the drive obviously to win the game. That was confidence for that, ‘You can do this.’ That’s what you need. All you need is confidence. Tell yourself you can do it and you’ll do it when the time comes.
“I believe in myself 100 percent and that was a turning point.”
Michigan State is counting on that confidence leading to another outstanding season for a senior wide receiver.
In 2014, Tony Lippett exploded for 65 catches for 1,198 yard and 11 touchdowns on his way to being named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Last season, Aaron Burbridge made it two straight Spartans to earn that honor when he had 85 grabs for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns.
Now it’s Shelton’s turn, the most-experienced member of a fairly green receiving corps.
“Hopefully it’s my time. All those guys are role models for me, people I look up to,” Shelton said, adding Bennie Fowler who had a solid senior season in 2013. “Being there as a freshman and seeing what they did to get where they are now is nothing but love when you see that happen.
“I have high expectations for myself and I’m gonna meet those.”
That confidence could lead Shelton to the same place the other three are now — the NFL. Fowler won the Super Bowl last season with the Broncos, Lippett is a defensive back with the Dolphins and Burbridge was drafted by the 49ers.
But before they got there, they helped lead the Spartans to championships. Shelton will be just as important if there is another title in store in 2016.
“R.J. is an outstanding football player,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He can play corner for us, he can play tailback for us, he can play wide receiver for us in the slot or outside, so he is a very versatile player — a kick returner, punt returner. Not too many guys play as a true freshman, especially when you go 13-1 as we did in 2013.
“So he is a very active member of that offense and makes big plays.”
The production for Shelton has steadily increased each season. He had only four catches in 2013 but ran the ball 21 times and scored twice. As a sophomore in 2014, he caught 16 passes with two for touchdowns and ran 21 times again while adding another pair of scores. Last season as a junior, Shelton had 43 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns while running the ball 24 times for 127 yards.
Those numbers should all jump this season as Shelton attempts to pull a large but talented group of young player with him in the receiver’s room.
“You’re not in high school anymore,” Shelton said of his message. “You’ve got to have your preparation right, do the right things off and on the field. I preach that to them every day.”
Shelton and the young receivers aren’t sure who they’ll be catching passes from, but Shelton says the belief is there for every quarterback, including fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry.
It’s the same confidence Shelton has in himself. It’s what has him believing he’ll be the next senior wide receiver that has a stellar season for the Spartans.
“I’m confident in myself that I can do what I need to do to get this team back to Indy and win the East and get back to the playoffs,” Shelton said. “I’m confident in myself and I’m confident in every single player at Michigan State.”