Even though Tajae Sharpe is only a sophomore, he already feels like a veteran on the Massachusetts football team’s wide receiving corps.
Sharpe is the most experienced player in a group that consists entirely of underclassmen, and has willingly taken on the leadership role that was held by the likes of Deion Walker and Alan Williams last season.
The difference there, of course, was that Walker (a grad student) and Williams (a senior) were both polished veterans.
But with so much turnover in the wide receiver position and injuries to a number of key offensive players, including senior tight end Rob Blanchflower, the Minutemen needed veteran presence at the skill positions to start the season.
Sharpe was the ideal candidate and he stepped in right away.
“I think (my role) has been a lot bigger,” Sharpe said. “We’ve had a lot of key guys that either graduated or didn’t come back for this upcoming season, so I think I had to jump into that leadership role where I just try to embrace each and every day for my receiving corps and my teammates in general.”
Sharpe said he tries to lead by example for some of the younger, less experienced players with his own on-field performance in order to show them the right thing to do come game day, which he did on Saturday.
Sharpe had a career-high 11 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in UMass’ 24-14 loss to Maine, and showed off his newfound ability in the short-yardage game.
Quarterback Mike Wegzyn hit Sharpe seven times in the first half on several short-yardage plays, but it was after the catch when the sophomore was at his best. Wegzyn found Sharpe on a screen pass to the outside near the end of the first quarter, and Sharpe broke free for an 11-yard gain. Wegzyn went Sharpe’s way again on the next play, and this time the receiver turned a marginal quick slant into a 27-yard play – his longest of the season.. In total, he’s averaging 8.2 yards per catch this season.
“I love having him as a receiver,” Wegzyn said. “He’s got speed, height, he’s athletic and he catches it when I throw it his way so there’s not much more you could ask for.”
You wouldn’t tell by watching the game, but yards-after-catch (YAC) isn’t actually one of Sharpe’s strengths. In fact, it’s something he’s been trying to get better at.
Sharpe considers the strongest parts of his game to be his reliability as a pass catcher and his enthusiasm in going out for deep balls. But after Saturday’s showing, he may have a new skill to add to his itinerary.
“I feel like I needed to work on (YAC) going into the season,” Sharpe said. “I think I’m improving on that, but I really want to take another step forward. I wouldn’t say that’s one of my strengths, but I’m working towards making that one of my strengths.”
With an offense that has struggled like UMass’, the pressure is on Sharpe to perform each week with the same caliber as he did on Saturday in order to hang around with some of the high-powered offenses the Mid-American Conference has to offer, especially with Blanchflower and freshman receiver Shakur Nesmith’s futures still uncertain.
“We have some explosive players on offense so I wouldn’t put everything on my shoulders, but I would definitely say I have a big part in that,” Sharpe said. “I have to step up for my teammates. I’m one of the older guys in this receiving group, and I know I have to make plays and set an example for the younger guys.”
One thing that UMass coach Charley Molnar likes about Sharpe is his consistency, which makes him an ideal leader on a team still establishing itself.
“He’s been a steady force,” Molnar said. “He’s been a starter almost since he rolled into camp as a true freshman. He worked tremendously hard in the offseason, had excellent winter workouts, spring ball and summer camp. He’s been very, very consistent, by far our most consistent wide receiver.”
Staying at that consistent pace may be a tall order for an underclassman, but Sharpe already feels mature enough to handle the challenge.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.