Spiller, Hughes making splash in first season

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 9, 2003

LORMAN &045; The throw appeared short. And quite honestly, it wasn’t the kind of pass Charlie Spiller likes to grab.

&uot;I like to catch all my passes in stride,&uot; he admitted.

But this time he didn’t mind. In a one-on-one coverage in the end zone against Southeastern Louisiana Saturday, Spiller just jumped up and pulled down the pass from quarterback Donald Carrie for a 33-yard touchdown pass for his fifth scoring catch of the season.

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&uot;It wasn’t really underthrown,&uot; Spiller said. &uot;He told me to go up and get it. I used my vertical to go up and get it. He left it for me.&uot;

It’s been Spiller’s vertical, along with efforts from Nate Hughes, that has the Alcorn State passing game motoring awfully well, arguably the best the passing game has been all season. While junior receiver Corvin Johnson has been a stalwart catching the ball with a team-high 39 catches, it’s been the efforts of Hughes and Spiller in their first seasons with the Braves that have really caught everyone’s eyes.

Both are freshman &045; Hughes a true freshman out of Starkville and Spiller a red-shirt freshman out of Woodville &045; and have combined for nine touchdowns, including seven of the Braves’ eight touchdowns in the last two games.

&uot;They haven’t been a big surprise,&uot; Alcorn offensive coordinator John McKenzie said.

&uot;When we recruited those guys, we felt they were special and could contribute early. Honestly, I projected them to be starters after the opening week. You could tell from Day 1 they would excel in this offense. Those two were projected to play right away. Going into the season, we felt like receiver was one of our weakest spots.&uot;

The last two games have been unreal for the two young receivers, who will be relied upon as the Braves enter the final stretch of the schedule with Saturday’s home game against Mississippi Valley State. But fortunately for both the transition to the college level has been eased due to the offense each played in during high school.

&uot;It says a lot about where you came from,&uot; said Hughes, who had three TD catches Saturday against SLU. &uot;Starkville High has always been a passing team. We won the state championship my 11th-grade year passing the ball. When you pass the ball, the field opens up a lot more for everything else.&uot;

The same can be said for Spiller, who starred at Wilkinson County High School along with Alcorn teammate Travis Dent to help lead the Wildcats to the third round of the playoffs during the 2001 season before getting oustedy by Columbia.

But it’s worth noting that just because their high school teams passed the ball a bunch doesn’t mean they were able to jump right in without problem.

&uot;I’m still learning,&uot; Spiller said. &uot;I’m just getting better day by day, game by game. (During camp) the coaches worked with me, and the other receivers worked with me. I’m straight right now. I’m still learning. (Before signing) I really liked it and felt like I could really fit into the system. In high school we were throwing the ball a lot, too.&uot;

The two did have their problems adjusting early as the Braves skidded to that 1-4 start early in the season. While Spiller has caught a pass in every game except the loss at Fort Valley State, Hughes didn’t get his first catch until the third game of the season against Alabama State.

That game he only caught one pass for three yards. Then in the next game he caught one pass for four yards.

&uot;They kind of hit the wall earlier, but they’re coming on like we predicted them to,&uot; McKenzie said. &uot;But now they’re back on track and playing well for us. It’s a big gap between high school and college. When you step on the field in college, you’re going up against great competition week-in and week-out.&uot;

Both teamed up to spark the passing attack in the last two weeks, helping Carrie throw for over 300 yards in consecutive games for the first time since his freshman season. Spiller had the big game the week prior in the win over Southern when he caught two passes &045; both for scores &045; for 85 yards, including the game-winner with under a minute to go.

&uot;Spiller has exceptional speed,&uot; McKenzie said. &uot;He’s a guy that can flat-out run, probably one of the fastest guys on the team. Spiller, because of his athletic ability and speed, he can jump, too. We just throw the ball up a lot and let him go get it. If it’s short, he can go up and get it.&uot;

But both games were huge for Hughes, who had over 100 yards receiving in each. It was in that Southern game he established himself as more of a go-to guy by making some big catches on third-down plays to keep the chains moving after not getting many catches early in the season.

&uot;When two-a-days started, he came in and I knew he would be good,&uot; Carrie said. &uot;He was learning things fast, and he was catching the ball. As the season went on, being a freshman, he had struggled a little bit, but we kept throwing him the ball. That got his confidence up.&uot;

Said McKenzie: &uot;Hughes made some exceptional catches at Southern. His first touchdown &045; it was an acrobatic catch. I felt his game against Southern was better than Saturday’s game. He made all those third-down catches in traffic. Saturday was wide open, and it was based on the coverage they were giving us. But the catches he made at Baton Rouge were exceptional.&uot;

The freshman pair &045; who live next to each other in the dormitory &045; are creeping upon the receiving leaders in the conference, although Spiller moved up to eighth in yards per game at 54.9. Hughes has is at 50.2 per game, but he’ll admit he’s still a freshman trying to learn.

&uot;I’ve still got some work to do,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m getting better. I’m starting to see things the way the coach is seeing them. I’m still adjusting. It’s a little more stuff to learn &045; like reading defenses.&uot;

But as they continue to adjust and improve, don’t be surprised to see more touchdown catches before the season is over.

&uot;Hughes and Spiller made some great catches going down the stretch,&uot; ASU head coach Johnny Thomas said. &uot;Great receivers make great plays when they have to make plays. I’m very happy for them.&uot;