When Marken Michel scanned through the list of recruits the University of Massachusetts hauled in four years ago and saw that the Minutemen tapped a 6-foot-2-inch, 175-pound receiver from Piscataway, N.J., named Tajae Sharpe, he did what any millennial would do.
He went sifting through social media for more information.
Sharpe’s résumé spoke for itself. In high school, he was the MSG Varsity athlete of the year, second-team all-state, first-team all-area, and a two-time state title winner.
But Michel, a UMass receiver himself, wanted to go beyond the bio.
“When you have freshmen coming in, you find out their social media names and stuff like that and you go on their page and you see stuff that they’re doing,” Michel said. “It kind of gives you a sense of what kind of person they are.”
Michel had been in the Minutemen program for a year, catching three passes in three games for 31 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman in 2011.
He had gotten to know Sharpe, briefly, when Sharpe made his visits to Amherst. Michel was one of the players who showed Sharpe around campus and gave him an idea of what to expect at the college level. He noticed that Sharpe listened far more than he talked. He had all the success of a typical high school recruit, minus the ego.
“He wasn’t shy by any means, but he wasn’t all outspoken,” said Michel. “He just kind of sat back and took it all in. He was humble. It showed me that me and him were eventually going to build a great bond together.”
But Michel wanted to see what type of player was joining the receiving corps, and social media told him everything he needed to know.
“Going on Tajae’s pages on Instagram and Twitter, you could see he was a guy that was hard-working,” Michel said. “He took no days off. He was always out there trying to master his craft, and when we saw that, we knew he was going to be a guy that was going to come out here and have a big impact.”
Since Sharpe stepped on the field, he has done just that, rewriting UMass’s record book in the process.
In 39 games, Sharpe has become the Minutemen’s career leader in receptions. He needs just 190 yards to pass Adrian Zullo for the most in school history. He is two receiving touchdowns shy of the school record.
Sharpe’s 15 catches last week against Florida International helped push the Minutemen to their first win of the season. It was the third time in four games that he’s made at least 10 grabs.
“Just going out every week, preparing and practicing and just kind of getting in a groove with my quarterbacks and being on the same page,” said Sharpe, whose Minutemen will go for their second win on Saturday at Bowling Green. “Once you get rolling during the game, it kind of just turns into clockwork. You don’t really think about it too much.”
What he noticed, though, was the way the wealth spread. Minutemen quarterback Blake Frohnapfel completed a season-high 32 passes to eight receivers. His No. 2 weapon behind Sharpe was Michel, who caught seven passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
“When I first came here as a freshman, Marken was one of the guys I looked up to,” Sharpe said. “Just watching him and certain things he used to do on and off the field and just how he worked and just introduced me to the collegiate level, he definitely played a big part in where I am today.
“Being on the other end of the spectrum, watching a great player make great plays, it’s a great feeling spreading around the success and having fun as a team and going out and getting the victory.”
Defenses might shift their coverage to contain Sharpe, but Michel said that only opens things up for the rest of the receivers.
“When you’ve got a guy like Tajae out there performing and making plays like he makes plays, they have to game-plan around him,” Michel said. “So when you go out there and you’ve got defenses shifting their coverage toward him and doubling him — because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’ve got a caliber athlete like him — when you do that, you’ve got to find these other guys on the field that are going to be open. And when those plays come your way, you’ve got to make them.”
Sharpe’s nickname in the locker room is “Showtime,” and whenever he adds a new record to his collection, his teammates make sure he hears it.
“We’ll be like, ‘Hey, superstar!’ ” Michel said.
They do it knowing that Sharpe is allergic to the attention.
“Sometimes it kind of aggravates him because he doesn’t really like to focus on that stuff,” Michel said. “But it’s all fun and games.”
For as much as Sharpe is now the focal point in the UMass passing attack, Michel said, he’s the same person Michel saw on social media years ago.
“Whenever he breaks a record, he’s humble,” Michel said. “He’s not one of those that kind of harps on his individual successes. He focuses on the team’s success.
“We kind of tease him a little bit when it first comes out, but then after a while, it’s back to football again.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.