LOS ANGELES – Nelson Spruce could consider himself a Los Angeleno and get away with it. He grew up about an hour’s drive from LAX in Thousand Oaks and watched enough Pac-10 football as a kid to know that USC and UCLA don’t get along and that throwing and catching in the conference were elements not likely to fade any time soon.
Years later, with the morphing of the Pac-10 into the Pac-12, Spruce has a better view of the throw/catch league he grew up watching and hoping someday to play in. Hope has become Saturday reality. As a wide receiver for the University of Colorado, Spruce catches quite nicely and throws upon request.
With the absence this season of the prolific Paul Richardson – he’s trying to become a Seattle Seahawk – Spruce and CU’s receiving corps have big shoes to fill and even bigger numbers to try and match. Since last spring, when “P-Rich” had declared his eligibility for the NFL Draft, we’ve heard Buffs coaches and players declare that replacing Richardson will be done by committee – that two, three or four guys will be tasked with the job.
Spring practice did little to alter that notion, although it did yield several new names and faces to ponder (Bryce Bobo, Lee Walker, Devin Ross) as part of the committee. Of course, Spruce also belongs there and incoming freshman Shay Fields has the potential to impress with feet and hands when camp opens in little more than a week (players report Aug. 1 and begin practice the next day).
“One guy doesn’t make (Richardson’s) numbers up,” Spruce said Wednesday as the Pac-12 launched its annual media day. “But I think we’re a lot deeper at this position than at any time since I’ve been here. I think guys are going to step in and you’ll see the ball spread out more. I don’t think our passing game is going to slow down at all. We’re going to see more guys making plays – maybe not those kind of big plays, but they’ll be productive.”
Richardson’s numbers in 2013 were off the chart – at least the CU chart. He set single-season school records for receptions (83) and receiving yards (1,383). His 10 touchdown catches were one shy of CU’s single-season mark held by Derek McCoy.
Spruce, meanwhile, wasn’t going through the motions. With Richardson frequently drawing double coverage, Spruce reaped some of the benefits. He finished second behind Richardson in receptions (55), receiving yards (650) and TD catches (4), and averaged 11.8 yards a catch. Of his 55 receptions, nearly half (23) were for 10 or more yards. And he even threw a 32-yard pass to quarterback Sefo Liufau against Utah. In 24 career games, Spruce has 99 receptions for 1,096 yards (11.1 average) and 7 TDs.
HIS SECOND POSITION COACH in three years – Troy Walters – tagged Spruce “Mr. Dependable,” and the name fits like the skin-tight No. 22 Spruce pulled on here Wednesday morning to pose for various photo ops. Spruce doesn’t have Richardson’s speed – few WRs do – but on several occasions last fall Walters termed Spruce “deceptively fast.”
Which means that if Spruce doesn’t have the upper end gear that Richardson had, he at least is going to make Pac-12 DBs respect him. Walters and CU’s strength and conditioning crew have put off-season emphasis on quicker bursts from the line of scrimmage. And Spruce believes he’ll enter August camp quicker in that regard.
“Those first few steps off the line, trying to get into a DB’s cushion, are very important,” Spruce said. “That really helps a lot with any route you run. It’s a big part of things and I think it’s going to really help me because I think I’ve improved there. I’ve worked on my stance and there are a bunch of other things that go into kind of tuning it up.”
As for the “deceptively fast” tag, Spruce has lived with it since he played at Westlake High School. And he doesn’t take offense. “Since I came out of high school it’s something I always heard,” he said. “It’s something that people think about when they’re thinking about me. But I think I do have an element of speed that I can utilize. It’s something I’ve been working on going into this season.”
When a receiver wears the “deceptively fast” label, more often than not he also will answer to “possession receiver.” Spruce, who accounted for 28 receiving first downs last season, believes his first couple of seasons as a Buff etched that description on his resume, “But I’m trying to kind of expand my role as far . . . I think I can do a little more than just be a possession guy.”
I asked him to envision himself as a DB and how he would view himself at the line of scrimmage. He answered: “I think I’m a physical receiver (he’s 6-1, 195) and I do well with playing with contact. I’m a good route runner, I get out of my breaks. I’d try to stay as tight as possible on me and be ready for contact.
“I think the type of receiver I am, my hands are what makes me successful. Any ball that’s kind of thrown in my area I feel like I can come down with it, even in tight coverage. That’s really helpful for my quarterback in making plays.”
Spruce has no doubt that Liufau’s chemistry with his receivers will be better this season than last. That’s mainly because Liufau became a mid-season starter, replacing Connor Wood after game four. “Last year Sefo came in halfway through the year, so he wasn’t even working with the first team and didn’t get that much time really,” Spruce said. “And he came in as a freshman, so there wasn’t that time (in the off-season) to build that chemistry we had all spring, all summer and all of fall camp.”
That has changed and will continue to change. Spruce said Liufau and his backup, Jordan Gehrke, both are developing more rapport with their receivers and their throws are very similar: “They both have good touches and throw catchable balls. Sefo does a good with where the defense is, placing it on the receiver’s body if the defender is to one side. What I’ve noticed is he does a good job of leading you away from trouble.”
In directing the offense for eight games (seven as a starter) last season, Liufau compiled experience that should be invaluable in his sophomore year. Also, hopes Spruce, “We can build on our playbook and what we do, throw a few different wrinkles in our game. We’re all more comfortable with the playbook. Sefo has more experience. I think we can use more variation with our plays.”
In the days preceding its annual football media briefing, the Pac-12 asks the media to project the upcoming season. Since joining the league three years ago, the polling hasn’t been kind to the Buffs – and the Buffs have responded in kind with lowly finishes. This season, media that regularly follow the conference put the Buffs last in the South Division (not a surprise) but gave CU 43 total votes to California’s 41. We’ll see how that projection holds up; CU defeated Cal 41-24 last season and plays in Berkeley this Sept. 27.
SPRUCE DOESN’T PUT MUCH, if any, credence in the preseason polling. “We don’t look at any of that,” he said, also preferring not to reflect on CU not having had a winning season since 2005 and not being a postseason participant since 2007.
“With the all the media events like today’s, you hear that (discussed) a lot,” he said. “But it’s something we block out; it has no bearing on our performance on the field. The only thing it can do is negative, bringing you down. We know we control what we do on the field. It’s not too big a distraction.”
Spruce has been at CU for three seasons, including a redshirt season in 2011, and played for two coaching staffs. He was taken with the former staff assembled by ex-head coach Jon Embree but is comfortable now with Mike MacIntyre and his assistants – especially Walters.
“I think what Walters brings to the table is the experience of a guy who played in the Pac-10 (at Stanford),” Spruce said. “He not only helps us with the on-the-field stuff, but with the lifestyle of the college athlete. He talks about preparing for games and keeping our minds right. I’ve learned a ton from him on that level.”
And as for the change at the top, while he “loved Embree and his guys and was pretty close with that whole staff,” Spruce believes MacIntyre “brings more of a sense of team. I think he really focuses on our lives off the field. We do a lot of team bonding, which has brought us closer and I think ultimately is going to pay off on Saturdays.”
Buffs fans hope so. It’s been a long, long time between pay days.