Jared Sparks had never played receiver until this week.
That’s when Purdue’s quarterbacks coach — Sparks’ position coach — Brian Brohm told him during a meeting that he’d spend some time at the ‘Z’ receiver spot in practice.
Sparks says he took the directive as a challenge, hoping to make the most of every opportunity.
Though Sparks believes he’s a quarterback first, he also knows the importance of flashing his abilities in any way he can — especially when he’s asked by the coaches.
“It’s been a joy,” Sparks said Friday of how his taste at receiver went this week. “I respect the coaches for putting me in this position. Like I said to them, when they asked me to do it, I’ll do anything for the team, whatever they need. It’s fun for me because I’m an athlete and me doing the action is better than sitting there and watching the practice go along. It makes me feel more involved, and I can feel a little bit looser out there and just play the game I love.
“What I like about it is having the ball in my hand and being able to make a play and give my team a chance to succeed. Whatever I can do, I know I have some abilities that can help us out in those areas. Of course my love, my heart is quarterback, but if they need me in the slot, if they need on the outside, just to bring a difference to the pace of the game, I’ll do it without no hesitation, I’ll do it with joy in my heart.”
On Monday, the first day he lined up at receiver, Sparks went out and caught some balls and flashed his athleticism. But he also experienced the realities of the position, the expectancy of precise route-running, the knowledge required to line up properly and how athletic the cornerbacks are lining up opposite him.
At one point in practice, Jeff Brohm told Sparks to watch the “shaking and baking” to start his route — Sparks actually took a small hop. Brohm preaches to the receivers to have no false steps and not to have too much movement. Sparks heard the critique and took it to heart and worked on fine-tuning his routes the next day, staying late after practice with receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard.
Sparks said he didn’t want to look like “a scrub” out there.
He hasn’t, though he certainly has much to learn.
He’s been sure-handed when balls have been within his grasp, especially in the quick game, and after a catch on Wednesday, he stuck his foot in the ground, changed direction quickly and accelerated to get past two defenders.
The deep routes have been more of a challenge, though he did have a chance on two balls this week. One went just a touch long — Sparks dove to try to catch it, though, after slipping past Tim Cason and ahead of safety T.J. Jallow — and another was tightly covered by Cason, and Sparks ended the ball landing hard on his back. That’s a kind of physicality he hasn’t had much this spring in the hands-off QB position.
There’s certainly the opportunity for Sparks to be used as a double-pass option guy, too, but that doesn’t seem like what the experiment was about this week. Purdue’s numbers at receiver are low with Anthony Mahoungou, Terrance Landers, Jarrett Burgess and D’J Edwards out.
“Because of his speed, he may be eventually a guy who has to get the ball in his hands some, so if that’s at quarterback, running back or receiver, we’re just looking at a few things with him,” Brohm said earlier in the week. “But he’s athletic.”
On Saturday during Purdue’s scrimmage in Ross-Ade Stadium, Sparks knows he’ll get some reps with the second and third team at receiver, whether in the slot or wide, but that’s not where he’s hoping to make an impression.
Brohm has put in a package specifically for Sparks as a quarterback, and that’s what has the redshirt freshman salivating right now. Sparks currently is fighting with Elijah Sindelar for the backup spot — but wants to climb up the depth chart even more. Sparks has gotten some No. 1 reps this spring, but they’ve primarily gone to last season’s starter, David Blough.
Sparks said his goal now is to “kill” the package Brohm has for him — and leave the coach wanting more.
“My temporary goal is to master everything he’s given me and that package is what I have right now and that’s what I’m going to do,” Sparks said. “These are showcase practices for me. I feel like me lining up at receiver showed them what I can do with the ball in my hands, showed them my niftiness, how diverse I am as an athlete, the different things I can bring to this team. I feel like the more I show them how diverse I am and how smart I am — because to know the receiver part and to know the quarterback part, you have to study the playbook a little bit more — and I’m willing to do that. Just showing them the different things I can bring to the team will give me more of an opportunity to play on Saturdays.”
Details on Saturday's scrimmage:
• Purdue will scrimmage at 10 a.m. Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, the first time it'll practice outside this spring.
Brohm hopes it'll include at least 100 plays of best-simulated game scenarios, likely pitting the 1s vs. 1s, 2s vs. 2s and some mixing in of both. It'll be full speed with live tackling for at least half of the scrimmage. It'll likely end with "thud" tempo work.
"We want to call it up, move the ball and have our guys be able to react and think quick, on the fly, get lined up, execute, find a way to get better, see what guys make plays in the heat of the battle," Brohm said. "I think it’ll be a positive experience and we’ll get a lot of good work. Hopefully our guys come ready to play.
"We want to get some plays in and I think sometimes in practice guys can kind of know what’s coming the next play, and we’re out there on the field with them and we’re helping them, which is fine at times. But we have to get off the field and see what they know."
The scrimmage also will include punting and kickoffs, which Purdue hasn't done much of this spring indoors.
Brohm didn't anticipate holding out any of the team's healthy players. It's likely Anthony Mahoungou, Markell Jones and Brian Lankford-Johnson won't be available on offense as they've all missed practice time this week, though Mahoungou and Jones did participate in non-contact periods Friday.
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