TERRE HAUTE —
When it comes to establishing his new role, Indiana State wide receiver Donald Spencer isn’t wasting any time.
On the first day of practice Friday, when ISU coach Trent Miles lamented the drops made by the receivers in a talk with the team and to the media, Spencer had his fellow receivers on the field doing push-ups.
“I’ve got to lead these guys. I have to take this role to lead the receivers. From playing and my experience on the field, I have to get these receivers to be better,” Spencer said.
Much of the offseason spotlight regarding the ISU offense has been on the quarterback position. The race to replace two-year starter Ronnie Fouch has been all-consuming with Western Michigan transfer Mike Perish making his bid to solidify the position.
Lost in the shuffle a bit are the players Perish — or whoever plays quarterback — will throw to. ISU has a relatively green receiving corps. The expected starters — Spencer, Demory Lawshe, Tanner Riley and Chris O’Leary are the prime candidates — are not new players, but aside from Spencer, none have been starters.
Spencer could find life as a wideout a little different in 2012. He had 31 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns in 2011 — his first ISU season after transferring from Michigan State. But current Cincinnati Bengals receiver Justin Hilton was considered to be the No. 1 target and former tight end Alex Jones was also a downfield threat.
Michael Mardis is expected to step in at tight end, but the kind of coverage Spencer will be blanketed with this season could be a lot tougher than he had in 2011 if ISU can’t establish anyone else on the outside.
“They have the talent, but we need to be more consistent catching the ball. Sometimes they’re thinking too much or trying to hard. They’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to do what Justin Hilton did,’ but they just need to play within themselves,” Miles said.
Past Spencer, the rest of ISU’s returning pass catchers have a combined three catches for 25 yards and one touchdown in their careers. Lawshe and Riley compiled those statistics during the 2010 season. Riley was hurt in 2011 and Lawshe didn’t have a reception. O’Leary, a converted quarterback, has not caught a pass.
“Some of us have played in the past, but the time has come for some of us to step up. We’ve got a great running game, we’ve got great quarterbacks, we just need to start making plays,” Lawshe said. “We’re ready to play, we’re excited about it.”
ISU’s revamped receiving corps has the benefit of experience to fall back on. Wide receivers coach Steve Watson played for the Denver Broncos from 1979-86 and was a Pro Bowl receiver. He is still evaluating whom he has to work with.
“We’re throwing a bunch of drills at ‘em to see what they can do. You get a general idea for the skill set each guy has,” said Watson, who also said he was “blessed” to be on the ISU staff after he didn’t coach in 2011.
Watson was most recently at Minnesota as wide receivers coach in 2010. He was the Broncos’ receivers’ coach from 2003-06 and associate head coach at Denver in 2007-08.
Neither Lawshe, Riley nor O’Leary have had the chance in a game situation to display the kind of downfield speed Hilton and Spencer combined to have in 2011. All have characteristics of possession receivers.
ISU also has a bevy of players who have never played a down for the Sycamores who could step up. Cory Fisher is a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College. Redshirt freshmen Barry McCarter and DeSean Prentice will get their first chance. They’re joined by true freshmen Collyn Bennett, Jeff Burley and Dyris Haywood.
“We have a lot of young guys, but have a lot of vets too. We’re going to be a talented group. I have confidence in them,” Spencer said.