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Facing third-and-long during Saturday’s scrimmage, junior Austin Shanks lined up as the slot receiver and burst off the line of scrimmage, ran past two Lumberjack defensive backs and found himself wide open with no one in front of him.
Senior quarterback Michael Herrick saw Shanks and a lofted a pass beyond the reach of the defenders and hit him almost perfectly in stride. Shanks was tackled just outside the 10-yard line for a gain of about 50 yards and would have scored had the ball not been slightly under-thrown.
“He’s very fast,” wide receivers coach Francis St. Paul said. “I never say somebody’s faster than me, but he’s probably the only guy with us that’s faster. He can really blaze.”
Shanks’ big plays are a common sight at NAU football practices this spring. On Thursday, in one-on-one drills, Shanks faked right and cut left so sharply that the defender covering him got his legs crossed and fell down. Again, Shanks was wide open for Herrick. This time, it was a touchdown.
“He’s such an explosive football player. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the fall,” head coach Jerome Souers said.
After spending the past two seasons as a reserve wide receiver and running back, along with being the team’s main return man, Shanks is looking to increase his role after the graduation of the three main receivers: Ed Berry, Conrad Meadows and Curt Sweeney. The three combined for 177 catches for 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Of course, Shanks won’t be replacing those numbers single-handedly, but with his speed and agility he can fill several roles on the offense. He was a track star (he ran the 100-meter in 10.58 seconds) and running back in high school and his transition to being mostly a receiver is still a work-in-progress.
“(I’m trying to) get better at this receiving thing,” Shanks said about what he needs to work on this spring. He caught 19 balls last season for 160 yards and a touchdown.
The coaches rave about Shanks’ natural running ability but feel he needs to work on the more technical aspects of the passing game, from route running to developing better hands. Still, they’re excited about getting the ball to him on a more frequent basis.
“He’s a playmaker,” St. Paul said. “He has a big role this year. He was behind Conrad Meadows last year and now that he’s out of his shadow, we get to really see what he can do.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, at times, is torn about how to best use the 5-foot-8, 175-pound dynamo.
“It’s been really tempting to move him back to running back. I think we might give him some snaps there every now and then. We want to do a lot of stuff with him,” Lindgren said.
In fact, the coaches have been studying game film of another particular football player, whose size and skill set is similar to Shanks’.
“He’s a lot like Percy Harvin was in college,” Herrick said about the former Florida Gator and current Minnesota Viking. “He opens up the field and it’s a big advantage for us.”
Shanks doesn’t have a preference on where the ball’s handed to him. He’s happy to just have the rock tucked tightly between his arm and chest. After two years playing a small role, Shanks is hoping to make a name for himself in the Big Sky Conference.
“Wherever I can get the ball: Kick return, punt return, receiver, running back,” he said. “I still have a lot to prove.”
One thing he doesn’t have to prove is his speed. He’s shown that much during spring drills thus far.
“I definitely consider myself the fastest,” Shanks said before correcting himself. “I know I’m the fastest on the team.”
Judging by the number of Jacks’ defenders he’s burned this spring, it’s tough to say otherwise.
By Jacob May
Arizona Daily Sun