MSU receivers: Loads of potential, little experience
East Lansing – There’s one simple ethos Terrence Samuel uses when determining which players in his room will see the field.
“Are they better than what you have?” said Samuel, the Michigan State wide receivers coach.
Simple as that, nothing more. And Samuel has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for. In each of the past two seasons, the Big Ten Receiver of the Year has come from Michigan State – Tony Lippett in 2014 and Aaron Burbridge in 2015.
Whether that trophy stays in East Lansing is hard to gauge, especially considering the lack of experience at the position heading into 2016. Senior R.J. Shelton caught 43 passes last year and is, by far, the most accomplished pass catcher the Spartans have back, the exception being tight end Josiah Price.
The only other wide receivers returning who have caught a pass are sophomore Felton Davis and fifth-year senior Monty Madaris, who each had two grabs in 2015. But that doesn’t mean Samuel doesn’t have potential weapons. He expects big things from Davis, who saw limited time in 2015 as a true freshman, and his classmate, redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart.
“I haven’t had a lot of guys like (Stewart),” Samuel said. “He can stop on a dime and change direction, or if you’re off-balance he can run you over.”
The surprise of the group might be Madaris. A highly-touted recruit when he first arrived at Michigan State, Madaris has been plagued by injuries his entire career.
He’s worked himself into peak condition, however, and Samuel sees a big difference.
“He can have just as good a season as Burb did,” Samuel said.
That would be quite the jump considering Burbridge caught 85 passes last season, a Michigan State record. But while the Spartans might not need that much from Madaris, they do need players to take on bigger roles.
And the most obvious place that could happen is with a heralded group of freshmen.
Donnie Corley, Cam Chambers, Trishton Jackson and Justin Layne were all highly recruited, each of them garnering four-star status. And each has the intention of getting on the field in their first season.
“All four of those freshman receivers are talented guys and you can see that,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in preseason camp.
Corley and Chambers have been on campus since January and have the benefit of going through an entire spring and offseason with the team. However, Jackson was impressive in preseason camp while Layne fought back from a minor injury early in camp to finish strong.
The star of the group is Corley, who was already impressing the coaching staff in the spring and has experienced no drop-off throughout preseason camp.
“He can go get the ball,” Samuel said. “His rhythm, his timing, his speed and burst off the line of scrimmage and then his hands. He catches with his fingers and he has great body control. I could see him catching alley oops and dunking it with ease. He has that athletic component that you covet at the wide receiver position.”
Corley, who also starred at cornerback in high school and could eventually become a two-way player at some point in his career, has been working in some time returning punts and kicks, as well.
But when it comes to transitioning from high school to college, he’s leaned heavily on Shelton, the clear leader of the group.
“I have learned a lot from him,” Corley said. “Just from his work ethic. When we were in winter conditioning, he was coming in first in all of the drills and was a non-stop working. So I tried to shadow him a little bit and I got better. And he is trying to teach me things about routes. He is an amazing player.”
Shelton figures to be the go-to receiver for fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, but it’s also clear there will be plenty of options.
Samuel would prefer to rotate six to seven receivers, but he’s not setting any limits at this point – not with what he sees as a wealth of talent.
“Unless you get at Burb or Tony that starts demanding the ball, but right now nobody deserves a lot of reps,” Samuel said. “We’ve got to find the guy that steps in front, that steps on the stage and makes plays.”