Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Sharpe Focus: Tajae Sharpe returns as UMass’ unquestioned leader at wide receiver

Collegian File Photo
(Collegian File Photo)

It’s hard to get Tajae Sharpe to talk about himself very often.

The top offensive threat for the Massachusetts football team (who’s within an arm’s length of topping the program’s leaderboard in career receptions and receiving yards, and is a candidate on numerous preseason award watch lists acknowledging him as one of the nation’s top receivers), Sharpe has plenty of reasons to embrace any added individual attention.

But as the senior wide receiver from Piscataway, New Jersey, sat comfortably in his seat inside of the Football Performance Center on UMass’ media day Aug. 27, he insisted on focusing on the team’s expectations for the season and his own responsibilities, rather than any personal numbers or milestones.

“I just want to go out and make plays, that’s all you can do,” Sharpe said. “They count on me to make the plays when my number is called and that’s what I plan on doing, being that playmaker.”

Quiet by nature, Sharpe’s on-field play over his three seasons in Amherst has done the talking for him. In each of the past two seasons, he’s led all Minutemen in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Under coach Mark Whipple’s return to the helm of UMass last season, and the emergence of Blake Frohnapfel under center, Sharpe amassed 85 catches and 1,281 yards in 2014.

“Just aside from his speed, he’s a detailed route runner who understands leverage and how to beat different techniques from defensive backs,” UMass co-passing coordinator Spencer Whipple said. “When that’s all said and done, he has very good ball skills as well. So it’s kind of a total package.”

But with this “total package” that’s separated Sharpe as one of the most talented receivers in the Mid-American Conference and across the nation has come a new wrinkle to an already packed skillset: vocal leadership.

Leader of the pack

Sharpe will be the first one to admit that he’s not the most outspoken figure in a locker room that includes Jovan Santos-Knox, Joe Colton and other experienced players who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

But the key to Sharpe’s leadership is his ability to pick and choose situations to speak out.

“I’m not really a rah-rah guy too much, but I’ll say something when I feel there’s something that needs to be said,” Sharpe said. “I just want to go out there and work hard and show the younger guys that success on the field doesn’t just come overnight.

“You really have to work hard and put the time in. I’m trying to become more of a vocal leader to get all the young guys on the same page.”

Frohnapfel has taken notice of Sharpe’s greater vocal assertion this preseason. According to him, Sharpe’s words carry great meaning throughout the locker room.

“He’s a quiet guy but he’s someone where, when he talks, people listen,” Frohnapfel said. “He’s definitely focused on saying a few more things here and there, even though that isn’t necessarily his leadership type.”

While his vocal leadership continues to emerge, Sharpe’s silent impact simply through his own work ethic continues to pay dividends as well.

Sharpe is often seen putting in extra reps following practice to fine-tune already developed strengths such as route running and taking correct angles toward balls. He added that he’s well-aware of the influence this extra work has had on the rest of the receiving corps and the team.

“If you want to be the best, you have to put the work in that other players aren’t doing,” Sharpe said. “That also goes with being a leader. When younger guys see you doing those things, they get the message and hopefully they’ll start doing those things as well.”

As a redshirt sophomore receiver, Shakur Nesmith has been influenced by Sharpe firsthand as he looks to earn more playing time this year and become a consistent offensive weapon to complement Sharpe.

According to Nesmith, he and Sharpe worked together extensively over the summer particularly on fighting for position with the defender to find the ball in the air.

“Everything he does, I’m just watching. Every move, I’m trying to add everything to my game,” Nesmith said. “He demonstrates, he doesn’t just tell me. He’s doing it on the field as a coach, not just telling me what to do.”

Sharpe pointed to Nesmith and freshman Lamarriel Taylor as two UMass receivers with the most potential to contribute in coming years.

“That’s a good thing to hear from him because I know how successful he is right now,” Nesmith said about Sharpe’s praise. “I just have to keep working hard, I don’t want to let him down.”

A deadly combo

 The prolific connection between Frohnapfel and Sharpe didn’t develop immediately to start the 2014 season. With Frohnapfel transferring from Marshall as a graduate student and both players having to learn and get used to Whipple’s pro-style offense, it admittedly took some time to gel.

“It was kind of over the course of the fall through last season that we built that chemistry up,” Frohnapfel said. “It probably wasn’t until that fifth or sixth game that we started to feel real comfortable in the offense and with each other.”

The Minutemen opened 2014 against Boston College with a 30-7 loss. In what was Frohnapfel’s debut at UMass, he and Sharpe connected for only two receptions – although one was a 77-yard touchdown.

The following week against Colorado, Frohnapfel found Sharpe five times. Sticking with the upward trend, the two connected eight times in week three against Vanderbilt.

But it was two weeks later, a 47-42 loss to Bowling Green in the Minutemen’s long-awaited return to McGuirk Stadium, that Sharpe felt completely in-sync with his quarterback.

“We were very fired up and had a lot of energy coming into the game,” Sharpe said. “That was really one of the first games when we took off on the offense and put a lot of points on the board. Obviously, we fell a little short but I believe that was one of the games that got us on the right track.”

From that game against the Falcons until the Minutemen’s matchup with Ball State five weeks later – when Frohnapfel’s season was ended with a leg injury – Sharpe averaged 9.5 receptions a game as part of UMass’ high-powered offense.

With a full season together now under their belt, Spencer Whipple said he’s excited to see the relationship between Sharpe and Frohnapfel further progress in 2015.

“Now that they’ve had that season and a spring and now training camp, (their chemistry) is definitely elevated,” Whipple said. “We’re all excited to see it flourish.”

Collegian File Photo
(Collegian File Photo)

Chasing milestones

Entering his final season with the Minutemen, Sharpe ranks third in receptions and fourth in receiving yards in program history.

Barring injury or any other unexpected circumstances, he’s primed to take over both records handily by the end of the year – Sharpe needs 21 catches and 725 yards to surpass Adrian Zullo in both categories.

Sharpe said achieving these numbers is definitely on his radar and would hold special meaning to him to be placed among UMass’ all-time greats.

“We’ve had a lot of great players come out of this university and it’d definitely mean a lot to pass one of those milestones and have my name in the history books,” Sharpe said.

Without missing a beat, however, he then quickly reverted back to his modest nature, returning the focus to the team.

“But at the same time, I don’t focus on those things, I just want to go out and continue to be a leader for my team,” Sharpe said. “At the end of the day, it’s great to have those stats and everything, but you really want the win.”

Mark Whipple added: “I think he’s a guy who would rather go to a bowl game than lead the country in receiving.”

Pro dreams

With a mix of good size (6-foot-3) and speed, Sharpe appears to be a respectable NFL prospect once his senior season comes to a close. He’s even drawn comparisons to Kevin White, the No. 7 overall pick out of West Virginia in the 2014 NFL draft, from Sports Illustrated.

Sharpe acknowledged that while he doesn’t openly bring up questions about the NFL to Whipple – who’s had stints on four NFL coaching staffs – Sharpe closely listens to Whipple’s stories about his own experiences.

But Sharpe said his foremost concentration for now is on his senior year as the Minutemen try to build on last season’s three-win benchmark and attempt to earn their first bowl bid in the FBS era.

“Personally, one-on-one I don’t get into any NFL stuff because at the end of the day, I’ve still got my senior year in college,” Sharpe said. “That’s the main thing I’m focusing on and I can’t look at anything past that.”

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.

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