Large and imposing, short and shifty — University of Puget Sound football coach Jeff Thomas does not have a preference in the prototype of his wide receivers.
All he cares about is that they can get open.
Of the 10 receivers who have caught passes from record-setting quarterback Braden Foley this season, only two of them are taller than 6 feet — sophomore Sean Whaley and freshman Nathaniel Abernathy.
Contrast that to a Northwest Conference of gigantic passing targets: Whitworth’s leading receiver is Connor Williams, who is 6-5. Linfield — the Loggers’ opponent for their home finale Saturday — has Brian Balsiger (6-2) as part of its talented pass-catching corps. And don’t forget Pacific Lutheran University’s Kyle Warner (6-3), arguably the best receiver in the conference.
Thomas completely understands the benefit of having big wide receivers. But he isn’t married to the idea that it is the only type of pass catcher than can be effective, especially in a spread offense.
“For us in recruiting, we do not have a specfiic mold for receiver, quarterback or running back,” Thomas said. “For us, you have to be the big, physical, lanky receiver like (Adam) Kniffin (former UPS receiver) or Warner who can out-physical somebody for the football, or you have to be a nimble, agility-heavy player who makes the first (defender) miss.
“A school like us, we have to cast as wide a net as possible.”
This happens to be a year when Thomas is relying on the smaller guys.
And in particular, 5-foot-8, 165-pound senior Kevin Miller.
A former quarterback at O’Dea High School in Seattle, Miller came in with Foley in Thomas’ first recruiting class in 2011. Four days into preseason camp, he switched to slow receiver.
“I was accepting of it,” Miller said.
Because he was a once a quarterback, and studied the offensive playbook like a signal caller, Miller knew exactly what all the receivers were supposed to do on every play, helping his transition to a new position he had never played.
Last season, Miller led the team with 54 receptions for 498 yards. And he’s performing at an even higher level this season.
With two weeks remaining, Miller is third in the conference in receptions (63), fourth in yards (604) and tied for seventh in touchdown catches (five). And he is the co-leader in punt return yardage (224) with Pacific’s Brandon Harms.
And Miller might lead all of NCAA Division III in hard hits taken over the middle. Miller is asked to run a lot of crossing routes in between linebackers and safeties.
“A lot of people who play in the slot, they do worry about getting hit by linebackers,” Miller said. “Honestly I don’t think about it — until a big guy gets a nice rib shot on me.
“Nothing positive comes from running routes scared.”
One of the amazing production numbers on Miller? He catches 90 percent of passes thrown his way.
“He is ridiculous,” Thomas said. “He’s is one of the toughest players I have ever coached.”
Miller will have his hands full Saturday against a physical and well-schooled Linfield secondary, which is never shy about delivering a bone-rattliing blow on a receiver.
“The key part of my success comes in the first five yards of the route, getting the linebacker off balance and having them guess which way I go when they are flat-footed,” Miller said. “Once I make that separation, I can continue on with my speed.”