TAMPA — Jerreth Sterns wasn’t drafted, because he was just a playbook taller than 5-foot-7. But that never stopped him from standing out.
The bigger the game, the bigger he plays.
The Western Kentucky star is one of only three players in the last two decades to lead the country in receptions (150), yards received (1,902) and touchdowns (17). Others are Michael Crabtree, who did it for Texas Tech in 2007; and DeVonta Smith of Alabama, who did it two years ago for Alabama to win the Heisman Cup.
But some of Sterns’ best play came against non-Conference USA opponents. He had 17 catches for 186 yards and a goal in a 48-31 loss at Michigan State and added nine receipts for 171 yards and three scores vs. Army (38-35 losses).
“I’ve done it at every level,” said Sterns, one of three free agent receivers signed by the Bucs at minicamp Saturday. “There’s always the question of, ‘How big is he? How fast is he?’ They always doubted me. But in my opinion, all I do is earn at each level. In the end, not catching a cold just added fuel to the fire and made me hungrier.”
Sterns joins two other diminutive baiters in the rookie minicamp: Deven Thompkins of Utah State (5-7) and Kaylon Geiger of Texas Tech (5-9). Sterns ran just 4.58 on his pro day on the 40-yard dash. But his 40-inch vertical jump allowed him to compete for the ball against bigger defenders.
Bucs coach Todd Bowles impressed with Sterns in practice Friday and Saturday.
“He’s fast. He caught a lot of balls in college,” said Bowles. “…He has really good hands, so he blinks in practice.”
The Bucs had a packed receiving room before adding Falcons free agent Russell Gage in the off-season. But Chris Godwin could miss the first month of the season recovering from a torn ACL.
Breshad Perriman, who was out of work when he re-signed with Bucs midway through the season, and training player Cyril Grayson each earned last season’s match-winning TD reception.
Scotty Miller fell behind with a foot injury, while Tyler Johnson struggled to duplicate his rookie season. The Bucs also got very little from Jaelon Darden, a fourth-round pick from North Texas, as a receiver or kick return.
Sterns had another NFL club looking to sign him as a free agent, but he saw an opportunity with the Bucs.
“Tampa is a great situation for me,” he said. “I know the receiving room is deep, but there are a lot of people I can learn from and improve my game by watching those people. I’m just blessed to be here and excited for this opportunity.”
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A two-star recruit from Waxahachie High School in Texas, Stern was initially committed to the Army but later chose the Houston Baptist. He played 11 games with four touchdowns as a freshman, then increased to 10 TD and 867 received yards in 12 games as a sophomore.
It was then that Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley was hired in Western Kentucky and ended up bringing quarterbacks Bailey Zappe and Sterns with him as transfers.
Zappe was drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots after setting an NCAA record with 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns last season.
“The foul runs while the quarterback is running, and any foul, for sure,” Sterns said. “Bailey is a huge reason for my success, and I’m grateful to have a quarterback like that in college.”
Sterns didn’t set out to achieve a triple collegiate football crown for the recipient, but that speaks to his consistency.
“Going into the season, I’m definitely not thinking about that,” he said. “But in playing on offense like that, you know you have chances to put up big numbers. I’m not thinking like, let’s win a triple crown. Towards the end of the season when I realized it was possible, it was, let’s take it.”
While Sterns is short, she weighs 183 pounds, mostly distributed in her lower half. While not as fast, he reminded former Panthers All-Pro Steve Smith, who he worked with in the off-season.
“He’s one of those guys that you look up to as a smaller guy, but he played like he was 6-4,” Sterns said of Smith. “It was great to see the guy, and I got the chance to practice a bit with him in my pre-draft process. I was a bit blown away when I first met him. ”
The Bucs have a history of finding some really solid NFL players who weren’t drafted, especially the pass catcher. Adam Humphries was signed from rookie test camp and has 320 career receptions in the NFL. Tight late Cam Brate, not made from Harvard, is third in Bucs history with 33 career touchdown receptions.
“Some of those guys are a bit smaller and you don’t like having a team full of little guys, but at the end of the day, if they can play, they can play,” said Bucs receiver coach Kevin Garver.
The final test will be how much trust Sterns can build with quarterback Tom Brady, who has had success with small slot receivers.
“Tom Brady is one of those guys who just wants a football player, and if you look at his track record he’s got guys like (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola, smaller receivers who just make games and are just footballers. ball,” said Stern. “So, hopefully, I can come here and get his stamp of approval.”
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