SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Three games into his final season in college, Syracuse wideout Marcus Sales is on a roll that no other receiver in America can match. He has four straight 100-yard games for the Orange — over a span of more than 20 months.
"I feel pretty good right now. I've got to keep it going," said Sales, who leads the Orange with 25 catches and four touchdowns. "I've just got to do what I've got to do. I'm not surprised. I know I can play."
Sales has returned to the field with a vengeance after being suspended for all of 2011, picking up right where he left off in leading Syracuse to a victory in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl in December 2010.
His last four games? Five catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl win over Kansas State; 12 catches for 129 yards and one score in a season-opening loss to Northwestern; eight catches for 104 yards and two TDs in a loss to then-No. 2 Southern California; and five receptions for 117 yards and one touchdown in Saturday's win over Stony Brook.
"We call him the old Saturday Sales. He shows up and makes great plays," Orange offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "He's got a knack for catching the ball, a great knack for the game. It's hard to explain. He's not a super-fast guy, he's not a super-aggressive guy, he just has this feel for getting open. That's a big security blanket for a quarterback because he always knows right where that guy's going to be. He knows he's going to make a big catch."
Sales and senior quarterback Ryan Nassib have developed a special relationship in Syracuse's fast-paced offense and it shows on the stat sheet. Sales' total of 350 receiving yards ranks fourth nationally, while his 116.7 receiving yards and 8.3 receptions per game leads the Big East.
All of that has landed him on the Biletnikoff Award watch list.
"Marcus really worked hard this offseason," Syracuse receivers coach Rob Moore said. "He's really matured a lot, really learned from some of his past mistakes. All the time he's put in and the hard work that he's put in is starting to show up."
Much was expected from the 6-foot, 195-pound Sales, a Syracuse native who starred in high school at Christian Brothers Academy. He was rated a top-50 prospect nationally after catching 39 passes for 700 yards and five touchdowns while serving as a team captain his senior year at the Catholic school, located about a mile from the football complex at the university.
In his first three years, Sales played in every game and had 68 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns, breaking out in a big way in the Pinstripe Bowl.
That sudden success was short-lived. Sales and his older brother were pulled over in late July 2011 for running a red light. Syracuse police found an open container of alcohol, several bags of marijuana, a bag of painkilling pills, and several digital scales.
Coach Doug Marrone suspended Sales last August.
"During the offseason, I worked out, ran routes, did what I could control," Sales said. "My initial reaction was, what's next? I had to get it taken care of. It is what it is. It's a mistake I learned from and it won't ever happen again."
Sales, 22, credited family, friends and former CBA coaches for getting him through the most difficult moments of his young life.
"I didn't really know what was going to happen (legally)," Sales said, "because it wasn't in my hands."
Drug charges against Sales were investigated, then dropped last October, and Marrone gave him another chance.
"Marcus comes from a good family, so I'm not surprised that he's been able to rebound from this," Moore said. "I know his family really rallied around him. Coach Marrone really supported him throughout his absence as well. We all just welcomed him back with open arms, and he came in with the right attitude and the right mindset, and now he's performing well for us."
Sales returned to the field for the spring scrimmage in April and caught two passes for 68 yards, a sign he was ready to pick up where he left off.Comment on this story
Of course, Syracuse's faster-paced attack this year has been a perfect fit for Sales and that's helped. If he continues on the pace he's at, he'll surpass school single-season records for catches (68, set last year by teammate Alec Lemon), receiving yards (1,131, set in 1995 by Marvin Harrison), and touchdowns (14, set in 1987 by Tommy Kane).
"He's got a pretty good feel for what we're trying to do offensively," Moore said. "What we do in this system really helps him, really kind of accentuates his strong suit, which is being able to work in the slot and be able to get man coverages. He does a great job of winning those 1-on-1 situations."
Even after all that time away.
"To see where he's come after taking a whole year off," Hackett said, "I'm not going to lie: I'm a little bit shocked that he's done what he's done."