Sparks could be emerging as weapon at new position for Purdue

Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
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Jared Sparks still is getting practice reps at quarterback "here and there.”

But that's not necessarily his primary focus these days.

Not with Purdue coaches including him in the game plan more at outside receiver.

Sparks played a season-high snaps at the position last week against Minnesota, and, not only that, he got targeted, catching four passes for 48 yards.

And that could be only the beginning.

“I was very encouraged by the way he played,” said Coach Jeff Brohm, who also calls the offensive plays. “I thought he did a very good job. He not only ran some good routes, he made some tough catches down the field. He got yards after the catch. He’s a strong runner. He played fearless. It was a very encouraging performance, and it’ll definitely garner him some more playing time at that position. I think even Jared was excited after the game and felt good about how he did. I think it really excited him for the upcoming weeks, working at that position.”

Sparks said Tuesday he didn’t know he’d be that involved in the game plan against the Gophers, but he spent the week practicing like he would, so he’d be ready. And on all of the chances he got, he was.

Sparks had five balls thrown his direction, and he caught four of them, three on short, quick throws and another on a pass down the field off a flea flicker. Though the short passes were impressive in the sense that Sparks was sure-handed and was able to flash his athleticism by making guys miss, it was that deep ball that really drew attention.

In the third quarter, Sparks lined up as the single receiver on the left side with two tight ends and another receiver on the right. Elijah Sindelar was in the pistol and handed off to D.J. Knox, who pitched the ball back to Sindelar. Sparks stuttered on his route at about seven yards, freezing the cornerback who’d given him a cushion, before racing across the field. Sindelar zipped the pass about 20 yards deep, and Sparks leaped, high-pointed the ball in the air and held on despite getting popped by the safety.

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Tom Campbell

It was indicative of the kind of plays receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard and Brohm have desperately wanted those outside receivers to make — they’ve been searching for playmakers all year at those spots.

“It’s a confidence booster for not only him but the other wideouts as well as the quarterbacks,” Shephard said. “Those guys saying, ‘We can go make these plays, it’s not that hard, let’s go out there and freaking do what we do every day in practice.’ It’s not like they haven’t made those kind of plays throughout practices, but now to finally make one like that, a couple of them, in the game, it boosts those guys’ morale.

“(Sparks) is athletic. He’s strong. He’s got some speed. And he’s kind of got some grit about him, a little bit of toughness about him that is important to playing the position. I’ll be honest with you, he’s making a pretty smooth transition over there after kind of being sometime-y, as I like to tell him. Going back and forth between playing receiver (and QB).”

It’s also a play Sparks says he wouldn’t have made early in his transition.

Sparks initially got snaps at receiver in the spring, soon after Brohm’s arrival, and he’d gradually been getting worked in since. But, of late, his practice snaps have been more “varied,” as he called them. He’s also spent more time in Shephard’s office, trying to pick up every little nuance he can about the position.

Sindelar has been impressed with Sparks’ crisp routes and his intention of running hard on every snap.

It’s all been quite a process.

For a guy who still considers himself a quarterback at heart but also has shown characteristics of being the ultimate teammate: He’s a gunner on punt on special teams, too.

“I never thought I’d be here,” Sparks said, referencing receiver and special teams, “but at this point in my life, I knew I’d be on this level chasing my dreams. I didn’t know how I would do it. I wanted to pursue being a quarterback — and I’m still doing it — but this is my journey, and I’m going to run with it.

“As long as I get to help the team, like I’ve said before, I’m A-OK. I just love playing the game of football. As a player, I believe as long as you’re on the field contributing, playing the game you love, that’s what you should strive for.”

That’s one reason Sparks is itching for the next challenge against Wisconsin this week.

The Badgers have one of the nation’s best defenses, and they’ve become one by playing an attacking, aggressive style that includes, oftentimes, press man on outside receivers. In most of Sparks’ exposure to receiver in games this season, he hasn’t had those kind of matchups. So a potentially increased role Saturday could be interesting and a good gauge to see how many strides he’s made as a receiver. His strategy to beat it?

“Get open,” he said. “It’s a lot to go into it technique-wise, and I still have to learn some things in that area. But just get open, man. (If) you have the mindset of getting open and staying on time with your quarterback and running your routes crisp and in the exact way the coach told you to run them, you’ll be fine. You have to play physical. It’s man-on-man, one-on-one, that guy is trying to beat you. He’s trying not to let you get in your groove of the route. He’s trying to push you off your route for timing. So you’ve got to make it happen.”

Sparks said it felt amazing to have an “ice breaker” game last week with the catches, and it helped him believe he has the ability to make plays. But it was only the start. He hopes.

And Step 2 can happen Saturday.

“I’m so happy to see him go make that (deep) catch because then I have more confidence in him now, I’ll give him another shot,” Sindelar said. “I’ll keep throwing it to him, keep feeding him.

“He’s big-time.”

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