Nov. 21, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - There may not be a harder grader on the Michigan State University campus than wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel.
A graduate of the If You Can Touch It You Can Catch It School of Pass Procurement, Samuel refuses to give credit to a defender for dislodging the ball from one of his wideouts.
The term "pass break-up," or PBU, doesn't exist in his vocabulary. If a Spartan receiver doesn't flip a ball thrown by quarterback Andrew Maxwell back to the official, it was either off-target for any number of reasons, or it's the receiver's fault.
That's why the unofficial number of dropped passes reported by the media is probably significantly lower than those assessed by Samuel.
In last Saturday's 23-20 loss to Northwestern, MSU receivers were in the process of making what would have been a handful of big plays until they lost control of the ball after contact.
Some observers chalked it up to good defensive plays, but Samuel saw plays that were there to be made but weren't.
"As a wide receiver, for myself, when that ball's in the air I'm going to run over my mom to get to it," said Samuel, who played receiver for Purdue from 1991-94. "I'm going to extend my hands, I'm going to catch it and I'm going to hold onto it like it's my newborn baby child.
"Some of that mentality still has to be learned because they're still learning the speed of the game."
Samuel has been charged with the task of molding a revamped crop of wideouts into clutch playmakers.
When the Spartans line up against Minnesota in Saturday's regular-season finale, true freshman Aaron Burbridge or sophomore Tony Lippett, a converted defensive back, will start at split end and sophomore Keith Mumphery will be at flanker.
Bennie Fowler, a junior whose career was interrupted the previous two seasons by foot injuries, could start if the Spartans open in a three-wideout set. Red-shirt freshman Andre Sims Jr., true freshman Macgarrett Kings and sophomore transfer DeAnthony Arnett are also in the mix.
The role dropped passes and missed plays by receivers has played in MSU's 5-6 record is subject to speculation, but Samuel said the unit won't rest until it's consistently reliable.
"Knowing (a defensive back) is right there breathing down your neck is different for a young wide receiver," Samuel said. "These guys are starting to learn that drive, that mentality like a power forward going to get an alley-oop (pass in basketball).
"When that ball's in the air and it's an alley-oop, you're going to get it no matter what. We're trying to instill that in them, but it's an everyday deal."
Samuel won't cut his receivers any slack, and won't let them make excuses - if they don't hold onto the ball, they're charged with a drop. Even head coach Mark Dantonio, a defensive backfield coach by trade, can't influence him.
"Coach Dantonio sometimes says, `Oh no, that was a great play by the DB,' but I say, `That's a drop,'" Samuel said. "If it touches our hands (and it's not caught), so every last one of you knows, Coach Samuel thinks that's a drop."
Although MSU's passing production is only down from 252.5 yards per game when it was second in the Big Ten in 2011, to 225.6, which is good for fourth, the wideouts are well off the pace established last season when B.J. Cunningham averaged 93.3 yards per game and Keshawn Martin finished with 55.5.
Mumphery leads the team with a 46.0 average and Fowler is second at 38.5. As a group, MSU's wideouts combined for 19 receiving touchdowns last season compared to seven so far this season.
"I know that there's a learning curve," Samuel said. "You can't just sit back and say, go out there and run a slant or run a post. It's not that easy with how intricate these defenses are and the (different) coverages.
"I said at the beginning of the year, we've got to be patient, we've got to make sure these guys learn the offense and it will speed up as we get going. I expected it to be rough. I didn't expect it to be this rough. We count the drops just like everybody else, but we're seeing the progress right now."
The drops have decreased significantly since earlier in the season, and Samuel is confident the receivers will eventually defeat defenders for the ball in crucial situations on a regular basis.
"As a coach, you can bring them to the water, but you can't make them drink," Samuel said. "I want them to make more plays, but I don't play anymore. It's a matter of knowing we're going to get hit, knowing where the (defenders are) coming from and we're going to get hit, and then getting our hands extended on the catches instead of letting the ball get to our body.
"When you take a high school kid who's generally running away from people and you get to this level, you've got to learn that extending your hands on the catch changes the catch-point."
Mumphery said the receivers understand the standard that's been set for them.
"Our No. 1 job is to catch the ball, so there are no excuses," he said. "If you get your hands on the ball in your area, you've got to catch it. Even if (the defensive back) hits your hands, it's a drop.
"You've got to be tough. If you're not tough, you're not going to get better. You don't want anybody around you being soft. We've got it in us and we'll continue to progress."