The loss of former wide receivers Jeremy Horne and Victor Cruz has not been felt by the Massachusetts football team this season, due in large part to transfer Anthony Nelson.
The senior, now is in his first and only season at UMass after departing from Hofstra, is providing quarterback Kyle Havens with a reliable receiving target down the field.
Nelson leads the Colonial Athletic Association in receptions per game (6.71) and receiving yards per game (87.1). Those statistics both rank 13th in the country, making Nelson not only one of the best receiver on the Minutemen and in the conference, but one of the best in the nation.
After the departure of Horne following the 2008 season and the loss of Cruz after last year, there were questions on who would fill in as the primary receiving threat on the outside in 2010. In their finals season with UMass, Horne pulled in 50 receptions for an average of 74.6 yards per game, while Cruz caught 59 passes for a 78.9 average.
Now, Nelson is on pace to have a better season than either did in their senior campaigns.
In this past week’s loss to New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium, Nelson set a career-high with 11 receptions for 190 receiving yards, easily surpassing his previous high of 128, which also came against the Wildcats back in 2007. For his effort, he was named to the College Football Performance Awards honor roll.
“It was an outburst by necessity a little bit because we had to throw the ball to get back into the game and take some chunk yards,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said in his weekly conference call. “It just shows you what we’re capable of, certainly. We’re capable of running on all cylinders, which we have been at some points during this year. We can get the ball up and down the field and do it very well.”
Along with Nelson, Julian Talley also made a big impact in the passing game with eight receptions and 111 yards. The performance of the duo marked the first time UMass had two receivers over 100 yards in the same game since Rasheed Rancher (143) and Michael Omar (114) on Dec. 1, 2007.
The contest also marked the first-career 100-yard receiving game by Talley, who now has over 1,000 yards for his career. This season, the junior is second on the Minutemen with 33 receptions for an average of 63.3 yards per game.
This week, Talley and Nelson will face off against a stingy pass defense in James Madison.
Despite dropping three of their last four contests, the Dukes rank first in the CAA in pass defense, allowing just less than 150 yards per game and four touchdowns in the air.
“Obviously last week when the score got out of our control a little bit, we had to throw the ball probably a lot more than we normally do in the ratio,” Morris said. “We’re going to come out and try to be balanced and you need to be balanced against JMU because if they know you’re going to pass it, they’ll gang up on you in those pass-rush lanes and cover in the secondary.”
The Dukes secondary hasn’t allowed a receiver to top 100 yards in a game this year. The receiver who had the most success against JMU was Villanova’s Norman White, who caught seven passes for 72 yards in a 14-7 win this past week.
With their running game coming back down to earth after the bye week, the Minutemen will continue to lean on Nelson and Talley in the air down the stretch of the schedule.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com