University of Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer enters spring practice looking for receivers.
Ferrer knows how to air it out. He threw for 4,046 yards and 51 touchdowns as a junior in helping the Cougars to the NAIA football national championship last season. He enters his senior year as a seasoned, impressive winner.
There's only one problem: His favorite targets are gone.
Saint Francis' top three receivers from 2016 were seniors, and they take a ton of statistical achievement with them.
Seth Coate caught 83 passes for school-record 1,693 yards and a school-record 25 touchdowns last season. Montay McDowell caught 35 passes for 730 yards and seven touchdowns. Akeim Kelsaw caught 39 passes for 452 yards and six touchdowns.
That's a combined 157 receptions, 2,875 yards and 38 touchdowns. All gone now.
Spring practice, which starts Friday and ends with the intrasquad game April 22, will be a virtual get-acquainted session for Ferrer and his 2017 receivers.
“We have a lot of young guys,” Ferrer said. “Potentially, we'll be even deeper this year at receiver because we're not going to be a set starting lineup right away, especially outside. Week to week, we'll have four or five guys we can roll out at any time and the level of play won't change.”
The returning receiver with the most production last season is senior-to-be slot receiver Sean Boswell, who caught 27 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore-to-be Rocky James caught 14 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
The biggest production loss will be Coate. An argument could be made that he was the most valuable wide receiver in all of college football last season.
In Saint Francis' 38-17 win over Baker in the NAIA title game, Coate caught nine passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns. He finished his career with a streak of 27 consecutive games with a touchdown reception.
“Obviously, you lose a guy like Seth Coate, you're not going to replace him with one guy,” Ferrer said. “We somehow have to recreate his production through different stuff, different ways, spreading the ball around a little more, make ourselves harder to predict.”
James is probably the frontrunner to be the type of big-play, go-to receiver that Saint Francis has always employed to one degree or another. Coate, at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, is a bigger receiver than the 6-2, 162-pound James. But James is deceptively strong and has speed to burn.
“Rocky is one who is going to be really special,” Ferrer said. “He has the tools and everything and puts in the work and is incredibly talented. I'm excited about him and working with him. It was tough for him playing behind Montay and Seth. He'll get a lot more touches and throws his way, for sure.”
Boswell is likely to be the starting inside receiver, given his experience and senior status, with sophomore Duke Blackwell pushing him at that position.
Other outside receivers who could challenge for playing time include sophomore former DeKalb standout Will Chrisman, sophomore Dan Ricksy and juniors Nate Carson and Andreas Gomez-Espino. Gomez-Espino, from Snider, missed last season with injury.
There are also a number of freshmen who will join the competition this fall, including East Noble's Dylan Hunley.
“I'm one of those who welcomes change,” Ferrer said. “We have to look at it as an opportunity for us to improve and get better. Not to say we were predictable, but when you have an athlete like Seth, you're trying to move him around and get him the ball in spots where we get him in good matchups.
“We'll still look for matchups but at the same time, we don't have that guy who, every time he steps on the field, he's the best player, no matter what. We have a couple guys who could be come that. But they're not right now.”