Tyrell Shavers committed to the Aztecs without setting foot in San Diego.
The only time he had ever been to California was as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide to compete in the National Championship Game in Santa Clara. He came to America’s Finest City because SDSU coaches Brady Hoke, Jeff Hecklinski, and Hunkie Cooper reached out to him, and he believed their message. Coach Cooper, in particular, made a lasting impression on the Lewisville, Texas, native.
“Honestly, Coach Cooper is the best position coach I have ever had,” Shavers told EVT as part of an upcoming episode of the SDSU Football Podcast. “He keeps it real with you. When you’re doing bad, you’re going to know. When you’re doing good, he’s going to let you know.”
Early in Shavers’ time on the Mesa, Cooper risked everything by giving his transfer receiver the full truth. “If that’s the best you can give, I got to find better,” Cooper told the former SEC receiver early in spring camp last season. Like honesty often does, it presented Shavers with an opportunity for freedom.
He now had an authentic choice: remain the kind of player he was and never see his potential actualized or grow and become who everyone has always envisioned.
“That day the conversation happened, he told me that,” Shavers said. “I went home and was like, ‘man, so I just came from the SEC to San Diego State. Things are different. They aren’t how they were, how I expected them to be, honestly. My receiver coach just told me he’s going to have to find better. It’s either I am going to have to step it up, or he’s going to have to find better.’ I know that this is going on my third school. I don’t really have many more chances, so I’m going to have to step it up. I really want to make it happen. I really want to make it to the next level, so I had to step it up. And that’s what I did from that day forward.”
When the talented wide receiver returned to practice, he was a different person and a better player. A young man of high character, Shavers’ message to Cooper the next day was, “I needed that.”
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Shavers was on the field for 478 snaps. Nearly half of those (231) he was called on to block. For the 247 reps, when the Aztecs passed the ball, he showed decent production. He made a reception on 7% of his opportunities. By comparison, Jesse Matthews caught a pass on 17% of his chances.
Herein lies the hope for Shavers’ final season of college football. SDSU lost BJ Busbee, Kobe Smith, Elijah Kothe, and Daniel Bellinger to graduation. Their departure leaves a sizeable gap in production. The four combined for 88 receptions and 1,115 yards. If the passing game in the final six games of 2022 shows up in every contest in 2023, it would not be surprising to see Matthews, Shavers, and first-year starter TJ Sullivan make up their former teammates’ numbers by themselves.
Adding to the optimism that Shavers’ extra Covid season will be his best is the addition of Braxton Burmeister to the program. PFF graded the Virginia Tech transfer the 98th best QB in the country a season ago with a 78.1 grade. Lucas Johnson (71.7) and Jordon Brookshire (70.8) were rated the 158th and 168th players, respectively. Despite playing with broken ribs for more than half the season, Burmeister threw for 1,960 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. Though he has only been on campus a short time, it has been enough to impress Shavers.
“He brings experience, (number) one,” Shavers explained. “He has like 25 starts. Leadership, his athletic ability is crazy. He has an amazing arm. His knowledge and just what he can do with his legs. He extends plays out of the pocket. It just makes the game more fun, honestly, because that’s when the exciting plays happen.”
Matthews and Shavers are the leaders of the receiving group. The hometown hero leads by example, while the Texas transplant brings others along more vocally. Shavers’ leadership is perhaps the best example of his embrace of the program’s culture. Coming into last season, he chose to sit back and learn from the established players at SDSU. This year he is applying those lessons.
“One of the goals of the group … is (turning) 50/50 balls into 90/10,” Shavers said. “We should make all plays. Be ready at all times. Honestly, in my opinion, we are one of the hardest working groups on the team, and honestly, in the places I have been in the country. We are always on the field early, always on the field late. We know that when the opportunity comes, we will be ready, and we will make the plays.”
Tyrell Shavers paces SDSU Two-Deep
Last week, San Diego State released a post-spring depth chart. Shavers (X), Matthews (Z), and Sullivan (H) are listed as the starters. Brionne Penny (X), Mekhi Shaw (Z), and Darius De Los Reyes (H) are their primary backups. Below is a scouting report of those receivers, excluding Shavers, who was covered above. Each entry includes quotes from Shavers and coach Cooper.
Perhaps a little lost in the struggle of the passing game the past few seasons has been the terrific career Jesse Matthews has had for his hometown school. He is already, without question, one of the best wide receivers to ever put on an Aztec uniform. His 129 career receptions rank 15th all-time. His 1,601 career-receiving yards are 640 yards short of the top 10. As Matthews enters his senior season, Aztec Nation is on record-book watch.
It should also be mentioned that Matthews is 133 receptions away from tying JR Tolver for the most in program history. With eligibility remaining after this year due to the Covid season, there is a chance Matthews leaves SDSU as the program’s all-time receptions leader.
“When I came to San Diego State, one of the first things I did was look at the record book to see who were statistically the best receivers in the history of the school,” Tolver told EVT when asked his thoughts on the possibility of Matthews passing him in the record books. “Will Blackwell was the king with 197 career catches. I remember saying to myself, ‘I want to break that record!’ My thoughts are, ‘records are made to be broken. Go get it four-five!”
Coach Cooper: “Jesse was a guy that came in and just worked. … He’s a nice guy, well-groomed, he’s articulate, he’s smart, has a great football IQ, and he has a drive in him that people don’t understand to be successful and succeed. But you get guys like him, and that’s a blessing and a bonus because nobody knew he was going to be as good as he was. I saw him working. I saw his potential. I saw his transition. I saw his focus. And you get those guys, and they change your culture. … Jesse is an amazing man. Academically, athletically socially, he is what you want.”
Shavers: “Jesse, everybody knows Jesse, great receiver. Honestly, he’s a receiver that I look up to in the room, even me being an older guy. Him being here all four years, just the way he does things, the way he works. Jesse is a great receiver. I take things from his bag just like I’m sure he takes things from mine. Honestly, I love working with Jesse every day because he pushes me more than he actually knows.”
The idea of being a hometown hero is great until a player does not succeed at SDSU.
Injury and skilled players ahead of him have limited Sullivan’s production as an Aztec until this offseason. At the end of the Spring Game, Burmeister spoke of not having his three primary receivers, Matthews, Shavers, and Sullivan, as the reason for his slow start in the contest. 2023 looks to be the year the hometown kid finally becomes a hero.
Coach Cooper: “TJ has shown some things. He’s a 10.5, 10.6 100m guy. Probably has a 38-40 inch vertical. And as humble as he could be, just like Jesse Matthews. Quiet but very smart, very intelligent. High academic kid. High football IQ. Plays inside plays outside, and he’s going to give us an opportunity to stretch the football field. He’s on special teams as well, but I’m looking for TJ to have a really good year.”
Shavers: “TJ is really good. He has experience. He has crazy speed. You don’t really see too many guys with the ability to run with him. When he gets the ball, can’t nobody tackle him. He has the ability to make somebody miss and take it 90 at any time.
At every practice EVT attended, Brionne Penny made plays.
No corner could win a 50/50 ball against the junior receiver. The unquestioned MVP of the Spring Game, Penny continued to dominate in the air but also caught slants, using his body well to screen defenders. Penny looks poised for a breakout season.
Coach Cooper: “He’s big, fast, strong. The only thing that can stop Brionne is Brionne. He’s a vertical threat. He can run the football. He’s good with the football in his hands. He’s going to be on special teams, punt, and kick return. I’m not putting him back as a punt returner yet because I don’t quite trust him in that area yet, but catching the kick, running through arm tackles, hitting the sideline, hitting the seam, that’s why I think he’ll flourish.”
Shavers: “What I like to say is, ‘Brionne is a big play waiting to happen.’ Honestly, he’s improved since I’ve got here. He’s continued working. He’s one of the hardest workers. He wants to get better, and you can tell. He’s made leaps and strides, and he continues to get better. He makes great catches in traffic. He had a great Spring Game, as you all saw. That was nothing compared to what he did all spring.”
Darius De Los Reyes
Another wide receiver, another San Diego product.
It is remarkable that four of the six players in the two-deep hail from America’s Finest City. Even more amazing is three of those four started their careers as walk-ons. Tough, quick, and competitive, Darius De Los Reyes has passed multiple scholarship players on his rise up the depth chart.
Coach Cooper: “Darius, if you look at his size and his quickness, his power, his explosion. When the ball is in his hand, just look out for him to make big plays. The more opportunities he gets, the better football team we become. He’s tough. He’s 5’8 and a half, 5’9. He’s 185 pounds. He’s durable. He’s physical. He’s fast. He’s a Christian, and he loves football. He loves people. He loves being in that room. Those are the ones that love the game that make you a good coach.”
Shavers: Darius De Los Reyes is a little quick guy. He’s a little sly. He’s one of the hardest workers too. Little quick-twitch guy. He’s a sly guy, but you can put him anywhere. He’s very smart, very knowledgeable. He plays fast and has good hands. He always makes the plays. He’s a guy you can count on, honestly.”
Matthews’ imprint on the program shows itself with Mehki Shaw. Here is another local product making a name for himself as a walk-on. Among the coaches, Shaw is one of the more talked about players on the roster. His reputation as an athletic, hard-working player was not unfounded. The coaching staff rewarded him with a backup spot on the depth chart.
Coach Cooper: “Mekhi Shaw, he has all biology and math classes, all labs, and then the kid goes and works at Home Depot. He was a corner when he first got here, came into the offense, learned the offense that quick, and he’s productive. So I can tell you those two guys (Shaw and De Los Reyes) right there are high output, high productivity guys, low maintenance.”
Shavers: Mekhi is honestly a sleeper. He’s a big play waiting to happen too. He plays big, but he’s not that big. He plays really big. He has the ability to play small. He can play anywhere on the field. You can put him at any position. He’ll do it. He’s ready to go. He’s a worker, one of the first guys out like Jesse.”
When asking for a scouting report of some of the players in the room, Cooper and Shavers both mentioned Nicholson without being prompted.
Speed was the young receiver’s calling card. He is listed third on the depth chart behind Sullivan and De Los Reyes. He will need considerable growth this offseason to show his world-class speed on the field in 2022, but imagine the pressure on the defense with game-changing speed from the slot position.
Coach Cooper: “Josh Nicholson is another 10.2, 10.3 100m guy. It’s just like having a new car, but you haven’t put it on the freeway yet. You just drive stop and go with her at the light and stop signs and neighborhood, but when we get them on the freeway, that means they’re ready.”
Shavers: “Josh Nicholson, he’s a speedster. Crazy speed. He has world-class speed, honestly. I have been a lot of places, and you don’t really see the speed that he has. He makes a lot of plays in the slot too. He’s young, but he’s going to be really good.”