Catching On

Fred Biletnikoff is not a beloved figure in Colorado. In fact, the former Oakland Raider standout wide receiver was a thorn in the side of the Denver Broncos during his 14-year NFL career. Images of Biletnikoff crossing over the middle, dripping with “stick’em,” and snaring passes from Kenny Stabler bring cold sweats to long-time Bronco fans.

But before he donned the dreaded silver and black, Biletnikoff was a star pass receiver at Florida State. He’s a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. In fact, he was so good in college that when they decided to create an award to honor the best wide receiver in college football in time for the 1994 season, they named it after Biletnikoff. Guys like Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are among past winners.

Now, as the college football season kicks off, two of the leading candidates for the 2015 Biletnikoff Award play in Colorado, a state that has never before produced a Biletnikoff winner.

Ironically, the very first year the pass-catching prize was awarded, the University of Colorado produced the Heisman Trophy winner (Rashaan Salaam) and the Jim Thorpe outstanding defensive back (Chris Hudson) honoree. For the record, the Buffs have produced another Thorpe winner (Deon Figures in 1992), a pair of Butkus (outstanding linebacker) winners in Alfred Williams (1990) and Matt Russell (1996) and even the Ray Guy best punter (Mark Mariscal) in 2002. Yet despite a history of producing excellent pass catchers like Clifford Branch, Charles Johnson, and Michael Westbrook, only Rae Carruth in 1996 was even a finalist for the Biletnikoff.

Nelson Spruce aims to change all that. A semi-finalist last season, the CU senior enters the year a consensus choice for pre-season All-Pac-12 honors and an early nominee for the Biletnikoff Award. Spruce burst onto the national scene last September with a huge performance in the Rocky Mountain Showdown, which was just a precursor of things to come. After snaring seven passes (several of the acrobatic variety) for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Colorado State, the native of Westlake Village, Calif. completed the season with a spectacular 106 receptions for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. Not just a “possession” receiver, Spruce has had TD catches of 71, 70, 66 and 62 yards during his career.

“I don’t think the term ‘possession receiver’ is necessarily a bad thing,” Spruce acknowledged prior to the start of fall camp. “It’s something I’m actually kind of proud of, my ability to make the tough catch and move the chains when I have to. But what I’ve been working on this offseason is my down the field speed and explosion and being able to make bigger plays.

“I’m not really worried about topping last season statistically,” he added. “Obviously I’m going to get more attention from defenses. Last season I came in more under the radar. So it’s just about making the plays when my number is called. What I’ve been working on is being more of a leader, bringing some of the younger guys along to help us win.”

Also an All-Academic Pac-12 performer, Spruce will play this season having already graduated with a degree in Finance, and will be working this fall toward a second degree in Operations Management.

Spruce’s position coach, Troy Walters, won the 1999 Biletnikoff Award while a standout receiver at Stanford. His experience is helping Spruce deal with expectations.

“He’s a guy that’s helped me a lot,” Spruce noted. “Just because he’s been in this same kind of situation. He’s helped me on and off the field with the attention and what goes with it. Obviously it would be awesome to get that kind of recognition as the number one receiver in the nation.”

Spruce’s chief competition for the award matriculates just 45 minutes up the road in Fort Collins. Colorado State’s sensational Rashard Higgins enters 2015 as the leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, having been a finalist a season ago along with winner Amare Cooper of Alabama and Kevin White of West Virginia (both of whom are now on NFL rosters). A consensus preseason All-American, Higgins is the only non-Power Five conference player listed on the first team, and could become the school’s second national award winner after Greg Myers won the 1995 Thorpe Award. The spotlight is squarely on his number 82.

“The fact that I’ve always been doubted, now that the time has come (to be getting attention) it’s just another step in my life,” said the man nicknamed “Hollywood” by one of his youth league coaches in rural Texas (even though he’s never been to Tinseltown).

“I like the name, so it’s not going anywhere,” he grinned.

During high school, Higgins choose Colorado State because “Coach McElwain and the guys in the locker room made me feel like part of the family.”

After catching a respectable 68 balls as a true freshman, Higgins – who has started every game during his first two years at CSU – blossomed during his sophomore season, leading all of college football with an astounding 1,750 receiving yards and scoring 17 touchdowns, both school records. After catching just a single pass against the Buffs in the opener (for a touchdown), Higgins went on a tear, grabbing 11 balls against Boise State and turning several short Garrett Grayson throws in long gainers throughout the rest of the season. Higgins had seven scoring grabs that covered more than 50 yards, including a 59-yard score against Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.

“My freshman year, I didn’t do so well,” Higgins recalled. “Those balls that I dropped, I felt I could have made up for. Going into my second year, I caught those balls. So now this year, I’m hungry for more. I didn’t get the award last year, and that makes me drive for more. It shows me that I didn’t do enough.”

While most observers expect Higgins to forgo his senior year and leave CSU for the NFL after this season, the junior from Mesquite, Texas is on course to graduate with his class in the spring of 2017. He says he’s not yet ready to decide or announce any plans for the future, instead focusing on getting his degree is Human Development and Family Studies. “Education is big in my household, so I’ll be looking forward to that,” is all he’ll say.

Both Spruce and Higgins are looking forward to their chances to impress on the field this season, but both emphasize that the individual success will only matter if their teams are winning.

“I think as far as the day to day, the work ethic and attitude of the team, we’re definitely progressing,” said Spruce. “As a team, the individuals have bought in and hopefully that translates into some more wins. The success of the team is definitely complimentary to the success of the individual.

“It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve been to a bowl game,” Spruce recalled (it was actually at the end of the 2007 season). So with everything we’ve got going on, the new uniforms, the new facilities, I think getting to a bowl game would make it a successful season. If we can turn some of those close games into wins, a bowl game is pretty realistic for us and a huge step in the right direction.”

Higgins and the Rams want to build on last season’s 10-win season, with their sights set on playing on New Year’s Day.

“Our main goal every year is to win the Mountain West championship,” Higgins said, aware that in doing so the Rams would very likely land themselves in a New Year’s Six bowl game. “Last year didn’t end as well as we wanted it to (a 45-10 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl) and it left us with a bitter taste in our mouths. We’ve got guys that are hungry and we’re looking forward to a Mountain West championship this year. The things that I can contribute to the team can help lead us to a championship.”

Spruce figures to have a bit of a head start in the race for this year’s Biletnikoff Award, at least at the beginning of the season. He will be catching balls from a familiar quarterback in returning starter Sefo Liufau. The junior completed better than 65 percent of his passes last season, and while plagued by interceptions (15) he did throw for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns. The comfort level between Spruce and the junior QB should be a big factor for CU.

“Since Sefo has started halfway through his freshman year, I’ve really liked him,” Spruce said. “I think he’s progressed each game. I know he did turn the ball over in some important situations last year, but he never let that rattle him. He’s just a guy that I’m super confident in and definitely on the same page with, so I’m excited to have him back.”

CU’s passing attack figures to be improved in 2015, with emerging pass catchers Shay Fields, Tyler McCulloch and Bryce Bobo drawing increased attention from opposing defenses.

“We have a lot of younger guys that are going to be stepping up this year,” Spruce states. “They’re going to take some pressure off me, and I think our running game is going to definitely improve this year as well.”

Higgins on the other hand will be breaking in a new signal caller. With Grayson – who threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2014 – off to the NFL, the Rams will turn to redshirt sophomore Nick Stevens or redshirt freshman Coleman Key as they compete for the starting job. Higgins smiles as the question is posed. He says he feels very comfortable with both.

“There was timing that me and Garrett had,” Higgins said during the summer. “It was the overtime that we put in to get that chemistry that we had together. For the new guys coming in, we’re just getting the timing down right now, just pitch and catch. We’re looking forward to a heck of a season this year.”

It will help that new CSU head coach Mike Bobo will employ an offense that’s similar to the one that former coach Jim McElwain used with great success in Fort Collins the past three seasons. Even though Higgins will be the guy opponents focus on, the Rams have other key weapons who can make the passing game click, like tight ends Kivon Cartwright and Steven Walker, plus wideouts Xavier Williams, Joe Hansley and Deionte Gaines. If they produce as expected, Higgins will see fewer double-teams.

“When Coach McElwain was here, our scheme was to run the ball to open up the pass,” Higgins said. “That’s the same type of style that Coach Bobo will have. So when teams start putting all those guys in the box, that’s when we throw it over their head. We have playmakers that will go out and catch the ball.”

The 22-year-old Spruce has only a surface knowledge of Biletnikoff, who retired after the 1978 season (setting aside a brief comeback attempt in Canada in 1980). “One of my teachers told me I should watch a video of him,” Spruce laughed. “He said I reminded him of (Biletnikoff). I don’t think I’ve seen any of his tape, but I’ve heard about the whole stick’em thing and the long hair and all that. I’ll definitely have to check him out.”

Higgins did speak to the award’s namesake last season, prior to finding out he’d be one of the three finalists for the award.

“He was actually the coach of my receivers coach, Alvis Whitted, when Coach Whitted played for Oakland,” Higgins recalled. “It was exciting when I got to talk to him on the phone (during last season) and he told me I was having an extraordinary season and I’d be up for the award if I kept playing the way I was playing.”

The competition between Spruce and Higgins will be only a small factor when the Buffs and Rams meet September 19 at Sports Authority Field.

“The game is so much bigger than one player,” Spruce shrugged. “It’s a good storyline I guess, two of the top receivers in the nation going head-to-head, especially in the state of Colorado. You media outlets might make a big deal out of it, and obviously our defense is going to be focusing a lot on Rashard Higgins, but it comes down to a lot more than just me versus him.”

There will be a touch of irony should Spruce win the award. The man most CU fans consider the greatest wide receiver in CU Buffs history – Branch – was Biletnikoff’s Raider teammate during his entire NFL career. Some observers would tell you Branch was the better of the two. (FYI: It was the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation that created the Biletnikoff Award.) For now, it’s the former Raider from Florida State whose name will be on the minds of football fans in the state all season long.

This year’s winner will be announced in mid-December.

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine

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