When former Boston College wide receiver Rich Gunnell made the transition to the sidelines as the Eagles receivers coach three years ago, it came with a quirky caveat.
The majority of receivers who would be under Gunnell’s wing had lived past lives as quarterbacks.
Jeff Smith, Elijah Robinson, and Michael Walker all came to BC in 2015 after making names for themselves at the high school level as quarterbacks.
“My mind-set is they’re going to be an extension of me and how I played and how I attacked the game,” said Gunnell.
“They’re students of the game, they see the games through the eyes of a quarterback — which they already did anyway, which helps them in that aspect.
“But now it’s the mode of, as any receiver, ‘I can’t be stopped, nobody can cover me.’ ”
Along with Smith, Robinson, and Walker, Gunnell also has helped sophomore C.J. Lewis and redshirt sophomore Aidan Hegarty navigate the quarterback-to-wideout conversion.
While receivers are notorious for a singular — sometimes selfish — mind-set, the cerebral nature of quarterbacking can help the switch make sense.
“It happens,” Gunnell said. “The thing about quarterbacks is, especially if you find a good athlete, is because they’re so smart, you can move them around.”
The Eagles offense traditionally has been predicated on the run — and that won’t change with ACC preseason Player of the Year A.J. Dillon in the backfield.
But the progression of the receiving corps will be critical for a unit determined to take another step after churning out the most yards of offense by a BC team in a decade.
The Eagles averaged 386.7 yards of total offense last season, the most since Matt Ryan led BC to the ACC championship game in 2007. While only three teams in the ACC ran fewer pass plays than BC last year, the Eagles threw the ball more than they have in five years.
They went to the air 28.2 times per game, and eight receivers caught at least 10 passes.
“You’ve just got to embrace it,” Walker said. “We are receivers now. You’ve got to take that role, keep moving forward, keep doing our thing, because we’re going to make some plays out there.”
The obvious difference, Smith said, was going from being in the middle of every play to looking from the outside in.
“I think the hardest thing for me was running to a spot to then get the ball in the air,” he said. “At quarterback, you get the ball, you see it all, the front, who’s blitzing, all that stuff.”
There’s also the matter of going from three-step drops to 30-yard routes.
“I guess, quarterbacks, they say they’re a little bit laidback,” Walker said. “Coming into wide receiver, there’s a lot of running and it gets pretty tiring. So you’ve definitely got to fight through that.”
Robinson can remember the strange feeling of being on an island the first time he lined up at wideout.
“There was a bunch of open space and me and the guy in front of me,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, this is a little weird.’ ”
Robinson caught 11 passes for 111 yards in 2015, but went catchless over 18 games in 2016 and 2017, getting most of his snaps on special teams. But Gunnell pointed to Robinson as the receiver who’s arguably made the biggest jump this offseason.
The first step was instilling the “always open” mind-set.
“It’s different because you’ve got to teach them the knack of getting open,” Gunnell said. “When things aren’t right the way they wanted, there might be certain leverage points that they’ve got to be able to attack and understand. ‘If I don’t have leverage, how do I get leverage? If I do have it, how do I create even more separation?’
“Just little things. That all comes with film study and repetition.”
Smith, Robinson, and Walker spent the offseason on campus, getting extra reps ahead of preseason camp.
“I think we all improved a lot,” Smith said. “We worked pretty much every day trying to work on certain skills like breaks and catching the ball on certain routes we know we’re going to run in the game. Putting in all that work, that helped it become more of a natural thing.”
As one of the few receivers in the room who wasn’t converted, redshirt sophomore Kobay White said there’s value in being surrounded by former signal-callers.
“You can tell they’re really smart when we go to the drawing boards,” White said. “The mistakes that I was making as a redshirt freshman they understood, because they’re a quarterback and stuff like that was happening to them in the past — people running the wrong routes or not being in the spot they’re supposed to be and they throw the ball and it makes them look bad.”
The wide eyes that may have been on their faces three years ago are gone, Gunnell said. No longer are they quarterbacks-turned-receivers. They’re receivers.