Austin Collie, the former BYU wide receiver now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, is quickly becoming a star in the National Football League.
In just his second NFL season, he leads the league in receptions (27), receiving yards (359) and touchdown catches (4). Collie seemed to put an exclamation point on his arrival Sunday when he caught 12 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns to help the Colts defeat the Denver Broncos.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is this: He is the first BYU wide receiver ever to make his mark in the NFL.
BYU is legendary for producing NFL quarterbacks and prolific pass offenses for almost four decades. And yet no BYU wide receiver has done much more than win an NFL roster spot for a year or two, if that.
With some irony, the Cougars, who practically invented the college passing game, have produced NFL standouts at linebacker (Todd Shell, Kurt Gouveia, Rob Norris, Leon White), safety (Tom Holmoe), defensive and offensive line (Bart Oates, John Tait, Brett Keisel), running back (Bill Ring), tight end (Chad Lewis, Itula Mili, Todd Christensen) and of course quarterback (Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer), but never a wide receiver.
Until now. After just 19 regular-season games, Collie already has caught more passes in his NFL career than the rest of BYU's wide receivers combined, by a mile. His totals: 87 catches, 1,035 yards, 11 touchdowns.
Todd Watkins, a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, had 8 catches in two NFL seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
Mark Bellini, a seventh-round pick in 1987, caught 10 passes in two seasons with the Colts.
Danny Plater, McMahon's favorite target, was a fourth-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1982, but he had to quit the game because of health issues before he ever caught an NFL pass.
Similarly, Lloyd Jones was an eighth-round pick of the New York Jets in 1981, but didn't make the team.
Phil Odle, a fifth-round pick in 1968, caught 8 passes in three seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Glen Kozlowski, chosen in the 11th round of the 1986 draft, had the longest NFL career of any BYU wide receiver, but he endured only because of his aggressive special teams play. He had just 31 catches and 3 touchdowns in six seasons with the Chicago Bears. If not for college knee injuries, he might have fared better as a wideout.
That's pretty much the history of BYU wide receivers in the NFL. Jay Miller caught 100 passes during the 1973 season, 22 of them in a single game, and he didn't even get drafted.
Ben Cahoon had to go to the Canadian Football League to find a job in football. Now 38, he made his 1,000th career reception last week, leaving him six shy of becoming the CFL's all-time career reception leader. Only seven NFL players have surpassed 1,000 catches in a career. But Cahoon had to, in his words, "beg" for a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he also had to walk on at Ricks College and BYU).
Like so many of the others, he couldn't make an NFL roster.
"Just lack of great speed," says former BYU head coach LaVell Edwards, explaining BYU's dearth of NFL receivers. "That's who the NFL chooses. When it comes to running routes and catching the ball, our guys have been as good as any. We've just never had any burners."
Actually, there was one. Golden Richards, a graduate of Salt Lake's Granite High, was a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1973 and went on to catch 122 passes in 8 NFL seasons, but he can't really be considered a BYU product. He transferred to the University of Hawaii after his freshman season.
"It is odd that BYU has produced a fair number of pro quarterbacks, but very few wide receivers," says Holmoe, a BYU grad and former college head coach who played safety for the great San Francisco 49er teams of the '80s and now is BYU's athletic director. "My personal opinion is that the NFL is fixated with (the) measurable, (especially for) wide receivers. First, you must be able to run FAST. From there, routes, hands, running after the catch, size, height, production, strength, blocking all seem to follow somewhere depending on the team. BYU has had few 'NFL fast' receivers."
Collie, who is 6-foot, 200 pounds with respectable 4.5 speed, is a combination of all of the above. As Cahoon says, "I don't think BYU has ever had anyone who possessed all those traits. They've had guys faster than Austin, but they were smaller. He's not a blazer, but what he does is manage his speed."
Cahoon is referring to how quickly Collie, from a dead sprint, can rev down his speed enough to make a cut. As Cahoon explains it, "On a 15-yard square-in route, for instance, it will take some guys four or five steps to slow down enough to make their plant; he can do it in two or three steps; that's a big difference."
That makes it almost impossible for defenders to cover him, especially linebackers who might be forced to cover him from his slot position. In football terms, he gets separation.
"Austin has an unusual, almost innate feel for running routes, and he's physical, like Kozlowski," says Edwards. "He's also an intelligent receiver. He pays attention to the way the defense is covering him and the way the defensive back turns his shoulders and little things like that. He can get deep on you."
After churning out a dozen receivers who had 100 or more catches in their collegiate careers, BYU finally has produced an NFL-caliber wide receiver and perhaps a future star at that.
"Unfortunately," says Bellini, "there is not a strong demand in the NFL for slow white receivers with good hands, which describes the vast majority of BYU's illustrious wideouts. That, coupled with the fact there is an element of luck involved in every player's success in the NFL, precludes opportunity for most of us. Even in Austin Collie's case — while no one can doubt his talent, he caught a hell of a break by playing with one of the greatest QBs of all time and being forced into the lineup due to injuries his rookie year. So the football bounces unpredictably."
Bellini is right. Collie has had a charmed pro career so far, getting drafted by a team that features Peyton Manning at quarterback, playing in an offensive system that seems custom-made for his skills, and seeing significant playing time as a rookie because of an injury to Anthony Gonzalez. His rookie season ended with a six-catch performance in the Super Bowl. This season, both Pierre Garcon and Gonzalez have had injuries, presenting more opportunities for Collie.
So far, he has made the most of those opportunities.