In football, the long arc of history is bending more and more towards offense, and more and more towards passing.
“I don’t know why’d you be a defensive coach anymore,” UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Spokane. “The rules are designed to help the offense, and it’s tough. … It’s not people lining up in two backs and one tight end and playing inside the box here. That’s not modern anymore.”
In the Big Sky Conference, the spread revolution has empowered a group of wide receivers that might be the deepest and most talented unit of any position group in the conference.
Big Sky preseason Offensive Player of the Year Keelan Doss returns for his senior year at UC Davis after leading the FCS in receptions, receptions per game and receiving yards per game last year. The NFL prospect was the Big Sky Offensive MVP as a junior.
At Sacramento State, Andre Lindsey and Jaelin Ratliff were first and second in the country in yards per reception as juniors. Lindsey, a former junior college transfer, also placed at the Big Sky Outdoor Track & Field championships in the 110-meter hurdles.
Northern Colorado track star Alex Wesley will return for his senior year, a year after finishing ninth in the FCS in yards per game and posting a 1,000-yard season months before adding another Big Sky gold medal in the 400 meters to his trophy case. Idaho State junior Mitch Gueller, a former professional baseball player, finished 14th in the country in yards per game while earning first-team All-Big Sky honors in his first year playing football in three.
Emmanuel Butler, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for Northern Arizona before losing most of his 2017 season to injury, will be pursue his third first-team all-conference nod for the Lumberjacks.
Montana returns senior Keenan Curran and the shifty junior Jerry Louie-McGee, two of the league’s most dangerous pass catchers each of the last two seasons.
All told, with Doss, Wesley, Gueller, Curran, Lindsey, Ratliff and Idaho State’s Michael Dean, six of the top 10 players in the Big Sky in receiving yards per game will return from last year — and that doesn’t include Butler, who’s two most productive seasons exceeds them all with the exception of Doss. And that’s not even including Eastern Washington senior NSimba Webster, who was just 28 yards short of 1,000 last season and should again be All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud’s top target.
“It seems like everybody’s got somebody now,” Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers said. “They’ve got a speed guy, or a great possession guy. It’s hard to tell from year to year, but it seems like everybody’s got a returner. UC Davis’s guy [Doss] is a phenomenal player, and Eastern’s got multiple guys coming up. Montana’s got receivers, Montana State, although they run the ball more. Everybody’s got people that can play the receiver spot.”
With the passing game here to stay, the guys on the outside will have a big say in who contends for the Big Sky title this year.
Here’s a look at some of the Big Sky’s best receivers.
The Little Things
Doss had one of the best seasons in FCS history last year. The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder finished with 115 catches, tied for eighth in FCS history and second in Big Sky history, two behind Cooper Kupp’s senior season.
Like Kupp, Doss is expected to go high in the upcoming NFL Draft.
“Obviously he has size and he’s very physical that way,” Hawkins said. “He’s a hard matchup because he’s a big, physical guy, and typically when you can run with a receiver like that, you usually have a smaller person covering. There’s not going to be too many guys his size that can run like him, and have the athletic ability, so he’s a mismatch issue.”
After playing in 10 games and finishing second on the Aggies in receiving yards as a true freshman in 2014, Doss suffered a season-ending knee injury that forced him to redshirted in 2015. He burst onto the scene in 2016 with 911 receiving yards, earning a second team all-Big Sky spot. In 2017, he became a star.
By the time last season ended, Doss was a consensus All-American, Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, and Walter Payton Award finalist.
To make sure he stays at that level, Doss has spent the offseason working on the little things, the parts of his craft that don’t often get noticed. That means footwork, press releases, and diagnosing coverages.
“There’s a lot of aspects that goes into it that a lot of people sometimes don’t see, so with those little things here and there, I feel like I improved my game a lot this offseason,” Doss said. “To me, it’s pretty important. … My whole deal is, I want to be efficient when it comes to press release, because that’s a big part of it. If you get a step on your defender in the first two yards, then it’s kind of like, he doesn’t know what to do.”
With the physical tools already there, it’s those subtle changes that will keep Doss performing at an elite level and headed towards the NFL. It will also help what’s likely to be an explosive Aggies passing offense.
Quarterback Jake Maier transferred in from Long Beach City College last year and made an instant impact, being named the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after finishing sixth in the FCS in passing yards.
Maier also have tight end Wes Preece, who was on the all-Big Sky third team last year after recording 586 receiving yards, good enough to earn him multiple preseason All-American nods leading up to this season.
Those three should give UC Davis the weapons to hang with any team in the conference.
“We’ve got offensive firepower. We’ve got a quarterback and we have two guys that can catch it that are back that are pretty prolific,” Hawkins said. “It makes it fun. I think it’s fun for the fans, and for me, I think it’s fun from a coaching standpoint because it’s very creative and wide-open. I don’t know about you, but watching a 10-7 football game, for some people, for the purists, might be fun. I don’t think it’s fun for most people.”
At several of the other schools in the Big Sky, coaches are living by the age-old football axiom — you can’t teach speed.
Wesley, Northern Colorado’s star, is also one of the best collegiate 400-meter runners in the nation. After recording 1,010 receiving yards on 55 catches for the Bears last fall, he won the Big Sky championship in the 400 and advanced all the way to NCAA nationals, where he ran a 45.91 seconds and was a second-team All-American.
That kind of speed has made him a devastating weapon on the gridiron.
“You’re talking about a kid that runs a 45.91 in the 400, he’s one of the fastest dudes I’ve ever coached,” UNC coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “He’s a hard cover. If you don’t double cover Wesley, he’s going to hurt you. He’s not just a fast guy, but he runs great routes. He’s a tough kid, whether he’s running a slant or a route over the middle or running a go pattern or a post, he can hurt you.”
Wesley redshirted on the football team as a freshman, but won the conference 400-meter title. He repeated the feat as a sophomore, while also starting as a wide receiver on the football team. The next year, Wesley sat out the indoor and outdoor track seasons and concentrated on football, finishing with 374 yards receiving. Then came his breakout year, as he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the football team in 2017 and returned to track in the spring to win his third conference title in three tries.
Collins is excited to see what his speedy star can do in 2018.
“You’ve got guys that are fast and can run by you, but it’s about precision, how they run their routes and all that,” Collins said. “He has the rare combination, I won’t say rare, but he has the great combination of being able to run and being able run great routes. I think that’s the thing for Alex, and he’s not bad with the ball in his hands after he catches it. He’s a football player that runs track, he’s not a track athlete that’s trying to play football.”
At Sac State, Lindsey’s track speed showed up in his yards-per-catch average of 30.24, tops in the nation, which turned his 25 catches into 756 yards.
Lindsey won the Big Sky 110 hurdles title in the spring of 2017 and finished third in 2018, going to NCAA preliminaries both years.
His teammate Ratliff, although he doesn’t run track, also has game-breaking speed. His yards-per-catch average of 26.52 was behind just behind Lindsey’s, and his 25 catches were good for 663 yards.
The Hornets, who led the league in scoring offense at nearly 40 points per game during last year’s breakthrough 7-4 season, don’t throw the ball that much, but they know that they can get a big play when they do.
“To put it bluntly, if you have a guy who can outrun everybody, you’re going to force the hand of defenses,” Sac State coach Jody Sears said. “They’ve got to show it, and if they keep a safety over the top, that’s just going to help us in the run game. But it stretches the field for us, and yeah, it opens up the playbook and allows you to dive pretty deep into your run game as well.”
Butler played in 12 games and had 235 yards receiving in 2014 as a true freshman. It was the last time he wasn’t the main attraction for Northern Arizona, again expected to be one of the top teams in the conference.
He broke the Northern Arizona receiving record with 1,208 yards as a sophomore, had another 1,000 yard season as a junior, and was an easy first-team all-Big Sky selection both years. His senior year looked to be more of the same, as 6-foot-4, 220-pound physical specimen started out with five catches for 87 yards and a touchdown in the Lumberjacks’ opener against Pac-12 Arizona.
But the next week, Butler hurt his shoulder against Western Illinois. The injury required surgery, and he was out for the year.
Elijah Marks, who had made the all-Big Sky third team in 2016 as Butler’s sidekick, picked up the slack, with 1,170 yards, ninth in the country, but he graduated and had an NFL shot before being cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in July.
The good news is that Butler should be ready to step right back into his role, and NAU coach Jerome Souers thinks that he could be even better than before.
“The success that he’s had so far has been largely because of his size, and he’s what we call a possession receiver,” Souers said. “But I think his top-end gear has improved, making him more of a deep threat than he has been. So I’m excited about what that looks like when we get into competitive situations, because I think that he presents a tough matchup for most secondary players.”
Before his injury, Butler had already established a rapport with star quarterback Case Cookus, the 2015 FCS Freshman of the Year and the Big Sky’s first-team all-conference quarterback last season despite Butler’s absence. Cookus had his own injury troubles, missing all but four games in 2016.
That means that the two haven’t had a full year together since Cookus’ freshman year. The combination could be explosive this year.
“It’s tough to overestimate the value of rapport,” Souers said. “The receiver knows where the ball is going to be, the quarterback knows where the receiver is going to be. I think that confidence and skill effectiveness makes for a dangerous combination. I’m excited, I think our guys do a great job of that.”
Andrew Houghton is a freelance sportswriter providing Big Sky Conference football content for Skyline Sports this fall. Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.