LAS VEGAS — When he finally matched face to jersey at Mountain West Media Days, New Mexico linebacker Dakota Cox honestly couldn’t believe it.
That was Thomas Sperbeck.
Sperbeck torched the Lobos to the tune of 20 catches for 281 yards last season, both school records. Everything that was thrown his way, Sperbeck caught.
Even his last catch, when he lateraled to Austin Cottrell and ended up just a yard away from a paydirt and an exhilarating finish, had Cox on his toes.
“When he caught that last pass, when he lateraled it to the other receiver, that was something we were like, ‘Oh, he’s got the ball. He lateraled it. Now it’s even worse because (Cottrell) was wide open,’” Cox said with a laugh. “This can’t be happening.”
Though Markel Byrd wound up saving the day with a tackle just feet from the end zone, Sperbeck had done enough damage to give the New Mexico secondary nightmares for years to come.
So when Cox finally met Sperbeck on Tuesday, he was surprised at his stature or lack thereof.
“When I met him I was like, ‘You’re Thomas Sperbeck?” Cox said with a laugh. “We’re letting this guy get, what, like 280 yards against us?”
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Sperbeck is listed at 6-feet tall. He might weigh 180 lbs. soaking wet. Initially, he only got on the field because of an injury to then-star wide receiver Matt Miller.
He isn’t the biggest. He isn’t the strongest. And he isn’t the fastest. But somehow Thomas Sperbeck just keeps making things happen.
“He doesn’t look like a football player at all. He looks like just some normal dude walking the strip at Vegas,” Wyoming safety Andrew Wingard said. “He’s really slippery and, you know, he’s deceptively fast. You can ask any of the guys on our secondary from last year how they look at him. You can’t underestimate anyone or he’ll blow right by you at any moment. And he’s got freaking flypaper for hands.”
Sperbeck isn’t one to talk about himself. But his numbers from 2015 did the talking for him.
The junior set the record books on fire a season ago, notching 88 catches for a school-record 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns. Sperbeck is already No. 5 in career receiving yards in school history with 2,329 and will likely surpass Titus Young’s record of 3,063 yards.
After a slow start three-game start to the season where he didn’t top 100 yards or catch a touchdown, Sperbeck finished with five games of 120 receiving yards or more. His 108.6 receiving yards per game was good for No. 7 in the nation.
“I don’t really look at the stats like that,” Sperbeck said. “Maybe when I’m done playing I’ll say, ‘Wow.’”
Boise State’s history is littered with All-American wide receivers. Don Hutt, Al Marshall, Mike Holton, Eric Andrade and Ryan Ikebe have special places in Bronco lore.
But that was before Boise State became one of the big boys.
Not once since moving up to the FBS ranks in 1997 has a Boise State receiver been named an All-American. Each of the Broncos’ previous All-Americans came when the program was either in the NCAA’s Division II or in the FCS/I-AA.
Not Jeremy Childs. Not Legedu Naanee. Not T.J. Acree. Not Titus Young. Not Austin Pettis. Not even the school’s all-time leader in receptions, Matt Miller. Though the Broncos own 13 slots on first team all-conference squads since 1997, it has never been enough for an All-American nod.
Enter the young man from Northern California who grew up idolizing Jerry Rice.
According to the statistic website RotoGrinders.com, Sperbeck was targeted on 26.86 percent of all throws from Boise State quarterbacks in 2015 in the team’s first 12 games. That was No. 33 in the entire country among all eligible receivers. The next closest targeted Bronco was Chaz Anderson at a 15.7 percent clip.
A combination of brains, hands, footwork, body control and heart have transformed Thomas Sperbeck from a former high school quarterback into one of the best players in college football.
“Reliable and dependable. That’s Thomas Sperbeck,” Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin said. “Maybe he doesn’t have all the other stuff. Whatever you want to put it, the numbers and flash and all that … You want to put the measurable on there, it’s probably not going pan out in (his) favor. But can (he) play football? (Does he) have the qualities you want? Absolutely.”
THE MIND AND FEEL
Sperbeck came to Boise State as a safety. He played quarterback at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif. He estimates he played just three reps at receiver as a prep. He said he was recruited by Army as a quarterback and as an athlete by Colorado State. Only San Jose State recruited him as a receiver.
But his experiences as a quarterback are part of what made his transition to receiver seamless. He sees things other receivers might not because he has a different perspective having been the one throwing. Being coached by his father also helped mold his football mind.
“It’s helped me a lot. (But) I think what helped me the most was my dad being a football coach,” Sperbeck explained. “He always helped me with coverages, timing. I think that’s what helped me the most more than my time at quarterback.”
In addition to his ability to see the game better than most, he also has an ability to feel it; Thomas Sperbeck just knows how to play. He’s a natural at everything he does, according to his head coach.
“He’s very good at what he does,” Harsin said. “Thomas is a guy that can pick up a tennis racquet, a golf club, hackey sack. You name it, he’s probably good at it. That’s just who he is. I think he’s just got that demeanor about him.”
Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl was on the wrong end of Sperbeck’s natural feel in October.
“First of all, I think he’s really well coached. And then the other thing, there’s an innate ability to see the field and play fast,” Bohl said. “I think he utilizes his skills. He’s a warrior out there. He competes.”
Sperbeck says his favorite pattern to run is the slant. He doesn’t know why, but it always seems to work. As with most things he does, it just feels right.
“Slant over the middle. From the slot,” Sperbeck said after a moment’s hesitation. “It just always works for us. I’m not sure (why).”
A single catch against Wyoming gave the nation insight into what many Boise State faithful had known for a few years.
Thomas Sperbeck has solid mitts.
On a third-and-seven play from the Cowboys’ 17-yard line, freshman quarterback Brett Rypien dropped back and threw a dart to the left sideline. The ball was high and outside. It was an incompletion ready to happen.
“I think we were in man coverage or something like that. I was on him. I remember the play. I fell over or something,” Wyoming safety Andrew Wingard said with a laugh. “I saw that ball thrown to the sidelines and I was like, ‘Ok, good. It’s incomplete.’”
Sperbeck calmly stretched his right arm out and did his best to grab the ball. He couldn’t catch it cleanly. He tipped the ball to himself and again grasped it with his right hand. This time he was able to secure it.
The only problem was he ran out of sideline.
Sperbeck brought the ball into his chest without a foot having touched the ground after the reception. He calmly dragged his left toe to the turf, just inches away from the white chalk.
He fell to the ground already a Boise State hero. He picked himself up from The Blue a household name who would be seen on SportsCenter for days to come.
“I got a lot (of messages). Just a lot of my friends, family,” Sperbeck said with a grin. “They said ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ It was pretty cool.”
Sperbeck’s stellar hands didn’t happen by accident. Though he admits they aren’t huge, he takes pride in having strong hands.
Fingertip push-ups and constant grip strength exercises are just a few of the ways he’s developed grip strength. In a world where NFL evaluators fault players for having small hands, Sperbeck manages to get by with strong ones.
“I do take pride in the balls that I catch. I take a lot of pride in my hands,” Sperbeck said. “They’re not very big. But they’re pretty strong.”
Sperbeck is also a regular user of the jugs machine, though he said he prefers catching passes from Brett Rypien. He didn’t play receiver in high school but believes that simply playing catch with his other quarterbacks in warmups helped him tremendously.
“I don’t know. When you’re a quarterback, you warm up, play catch every day,” said Sperbeck. “I caught a lot of balls just playing catch.”
THE FEET AND BODY CONTROL
Thomas Sperbeck estimates he runs somewhere between a 4.5 and 4.6 second 40-yard dash. It’s not blazing for someone of his dimensions.
But what he lacks in pure speed he makes up for with incredible quickness, agility and footwork.
“He’s really slippery and, you know, he’s deceptively fast. You can ask any of the guys on our secondary from last year how they look at him,” Wingard said. “He’s so sneaky.”
Cox pointed to sharp route running and his preciseness that sets Sperbeck apart. He can beat you off the line of scrimmage even if he isn’t torching you.
“He’s very crisp at his route running. His footwork, his initial step off the line, too,” Cox said. “He’s a lot like the guys you watch in the NFL like Wes Welker, just the smaller, undersized guys.”
Sperbeck takes a lot of pride in his footwork. He runs routes cleanly and easily. Though he appears a natural route runner, he works at it constantly.
“It’s my footwork. I’m very fundamental. So I try to stick to that a lot. A lot of it is our concepts for offense. I think the coaches do such a good job of just reading defenses and calling plays at the right time.”
As his highlight reel grab against Wyoming proved, Sperbeck is also tremendous at adjusting to poorly thrown passes. That body control was a point of emphasis for New Mexico heading into their 2015 matchup with the Broncos.
It didn’t make a difference.
“He does really well bad adjusting to passes. That’s something that we definitely noticed,” said Cox. “Our DBs were definitely worried about that.”
What Thomas Sperbeck lacks in size and speed he more than makes up for with his toughness and desire. It’s not coachable but it is certainly tangible.
“I think it’s just that. I think he knows that he’s a little smaller. He’s not that ideal wide receiver. I think that drives him to prove people wrong,” said Cox. “I think that’s what makes him dangerous. That’s what makes him so good.”
As good as he was in 2015, Sperbeck has every expectation of being better in 2016. He said he has worked on his vertical speed in the offseason in addition to his other fundamentals. He’s not content with where he is.
“For right now I’m just trying to be the best that I can,” Sperbeck said.
Statistically, Sperbeck is as good as any wide receiver in college football. His 2015 numbers match up favorable with anyone in the country, including USC’s Juju Smith Schuster and Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman from Baylor.
But just as raw numbers in a wind-sprint don’t tell the story of his game, Sperbeck doesn’t believe that his statistics or accolades match him with anyone. He doesn’t want to play that game.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” said Sperbeck. “I’m confident in my ability, but I don’t really compare myself to other receivers.”
Sperbeck has a realistic chance to be Boise State’s first FBS All-American wide receiver. Literally and figuratively, however, that is not all in his hands. Nor is it his concern.
Because as large of strides as he has made as a converted quarterback, Sperbeck isn’t done yet.
“Sometimes I’m pretty surprised at how far I’ve come. But, I mean, I’m not done yet. Maybe when I’m done playing I can look back and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did all that.’”
The former signal caller has one more year of football left on The Blue. He has a chance to set a plethora of records that the school’s all-time greats will never touch.
He isn’t the fastest. He isn’t the thickest. And he isn’t the tallest. But Thomas Sperbeck plays wide receiver as well as just about anyone in the history of Boise State football.
And that isn’t by accident. He’s earned the great things that have come his way.
“He is a football player, is what coaches would say. He’s not a combine guy,” Harsin said. “(But) you’d take that guy 100 times out of 100.”