Entering last season, before the emergence of star wide receiver Rondale Moore, one player that was raved about was then-sophomore wide receiver Jared Sparks. His performance in camp had coaches predicting a break-out year. While Sparks performed consistently on the practice field, it usually didn’t translate on game day.
“(Sparks) has always done tremendous in practice, I’ve never had an issue with his effort, his motivation or his ability to compete in practice,” said JaMarcus Shephard, the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. “When we get into live situations, when it’s scrimmages, those are the ones when I want to put as much pressure on him as possible.”
His willingness to leave it all on the field is one reason why the coaches continue to believe in Sparks. With the departure of senior receivers Terry Wright and Isaac Zico, there’s a spot in the wide receiver group for whoever steps up.
“The coaches have faith in me, as much as they shouldn’t if you look at the numbers,” Sparks said. “It’s important that I live up to their expectations and my expectations and go out there and ball.”
However, that’s not the only pressure Sparks will have looming over him this spring and summer. Purdue is bringing in one of its best recruiting classes in recent times, the first top-25 recruiting class since 2005, and there are some talented wide receivers on the way in: David Bell, Milton Wright and T.J. Sheffield.
Sparks has the advantage of being at spring practice, understanding the playbook and having Big Ten experience. However, that won’t stop the freshmen from trying to take that spot.
“There will be a learning curve certainly when those guys get here and it’s pretty steep,” Shephard said. “A guy like (Sparks) who has started a number of games for us here at Purdue University, I told him they’re gunning for you, they’re coming for you.
“They did not sign here to come watch you; they came here to come play.”
Sparks understands the young guys are coming in, but he welcomes the challenge of holding onto his spot. He expects to be a leader of the group, is excited to have talented teammates coming in and is anxious to get on the field with them.
“I understand we got some pieces that left, we got some young guys coming in,” Sparks said. “I got to be that guy to keep us pushing and moving forward as a group. We have a lot of talent. Staying on top of the game and showing the young boys how to go how to grind, how to push, is one of the things I’m working on.”
Sparks came to Purdue with the intention to play quarterback; however, he converted to the receiver unit early in his Boilermaker career. Although he has only been playing the position for a very short time, he is not willing to use the transition as an excuse. He compares his game most to Jarvis Landry, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.
“I like the way he plays. I like the way he carries himself,” Sparks said. “How aggressive he is, and our style is kind of the same.”
He knows he still has a ways to go in order to be on the same level as Landry, but in his second year as a receiver, he is now more comfortable. Now, he is able to understand more nuances of the position and the game has begun to slow down for him.
“That’s something you have to learn through the process. I learned through the hard way (of) trial and error,” Sparks said. “I learned it on the field, game day underneath the lights in front of everybody. I learned what not to do and what to do.”