The only person who wasn’t flipping through the pages of the University of Massachusetts record book after Tajae Sharpe’s 13-catch, 179-yard, two-touchdown outburst against Bowling Green last week was Sharpe.
Sharpe joined Victor Cruz, J.J. Moore, and Brandon London as the only Minutemen to grab 13 passes in a game. Sharpe cracked 1,000 receiving yards for his career, leaving him 84 shy of the school’s top 10. He ran his career reception total to 113, eighth on the all-time list. With eight touchdown catches, he’s four from cracking the top 10 on that last, too.
And he insisted he had no idea.
“I didn’t even have a clue about any of that stuff until after the game when guys brought it to my attention,” Sharpe said.
Coach Mark Whipple was one of the first to bring up all the numbers.
He’s been around football long enough to know that receivers, more than most players, are likely to have their statistics memorized.
Whipple told him, “You’re not a typical receiver.” But Whipple knew that long before Sharpe’s statistics started bursting at the seams.
Before the Minutemen played their first game, Whipple said Sharpe had the potential to go down as one the best receivers in school history. In his first two seasons, Sharpe hauled in 81 passes for 886 yards and four touchdowns, and when Whipple took over as coach, he started thinking of ways to utilize Sharpe as one of the primary weapons in his offense.
“He put a lot of confidence in me,” Sharpe said. “He showed me that early, which also gave me a lot of confidence in myself, knowing the type of coach that he is and the type of players he’s been around. So for him to put his trust in me and have confidence in me really boosted my confidence level a lot. It just made me want to work that much harder and get that much better.”
One of the first things Whipple did when he arrived in Amherst was sit down to get on the same page with Sharpe.
“Just coming in, having an understanding, getting to know each other,” Sharpe said. “He told me to step up and be one of the leaders for this offense and for the team in general.”
They set individual and team goals. Sharpe all but tuned out the individual goals. He spent the offseason keying on the small things. Hands and eyes on the ball. Crisp route running. He pored over film, studied defenders. He hit the weight room, looking to add muscle to his 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound frame.
“I just wanted to go out and play hard and make plays when my number’s called for my team,” he said. “I just wanted to come in and be a leader for this team. That was really my main mind-set. So anything my team needed me to do, my coach needed me to do, I just wanted to be there to do those things for the team. So that was really my mind-set coming in.”
Sharpe made it a point to get on the same wavelength as transfer quarterback Blake Frohnapfel as quickly as possible. They hit the film room together and worked on routes by themselves. Sharpe got a feel for where Frohnapfel likes the put the ball. Frohnapfel got a feel for where Sharpe would be on certain routes.
“As soon as Blake got on campus, he wanted to get out there on the field and throw the ball immediately,” Sharpe said. “I could tell as soon as he got here that he was eager to play, eager to win. He wanted to come in and compete and that’s a great thing to have in a quarterback.”
It didn’t take long for the results to show. In the opener against Boston College, Sharpe and Frohnapfel hooked up for a 77-yard touchdown, the ninth-longest connection in school history. The next week against Colorado, Sharpe reeled in five passes for 83 yards. The next week against Vanderbilt, six of the eight passes Sharpe caught went for first downs. A week later against Penn State, he caught another 77-yard strike for a touchdown on the way to a four-catch, 99-yard day.
“In a short period of time he’s made a lot of progress,” Whipple said. “I think it’s because of his work habits and his maturity. He’s a talented guy that works hard and those guys that do those things, we tend to give them the ball. I saw his numbers last year in two years and I think he’s right on target.
“We geared some things to him and he accepted that challenge. He’s worked hard in practice and he’s gotten better and better, and I think he’s really good at the top of his routes. He competes really well in practice and all those guys that have done that have had success in our offense. I think he’s accepted all the challenges and made some big catches for us.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.