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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 28 Digital 6

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the middle in which he leaped to snag the pass with two hands and then held on despite a jarring hit from a defensive back. Later in the season, Sparks took advantage of An- thony Mahoungou's benching, posting a career-high 11 catches for a career-high 130 yards at Northwest- ern. But the next week on a carry at Iowa, Sparks' leg bent awkwardly when he was tackled by multiple de- fenders. He said he's fortunate his leg didn't snap, and that didn't happen only because he was able to release some of his body weight just before impact. Still, the injury was serious and, essentially, ended Sparks' sea- son. Technically, he played and caught a pass in the bowl game, but his mobility was incredibly limited and he only came in when, again, an outside receiver got benched. He had microscopic surgery after the season to re- pair a chipped bone and loose fragments and missed a pivotal opportunity to dive into the nuance of the position during spring ball, to gain more familiarity with Brohm's offense and to try to separate from an intensely competitive battle for two starting spots on the outside. Still, Sparks did enough in the moments he was on the field — and in practices — to boost expectations for what he can do in a full-time role. "We think Jared has a bright future," Coach Jeff Brohm said. Sparks' offseason still served him well, even with the recovery, he said in June. He added 10 pounds of muscle, pushing him up to 215 pounds, felt stronger and more powerful and in- creased conditioning to build up stamina. He's not only physically more prepared for an ex- panded role, though. Sparks' mentality seems to be shaping up, too, final- ly fully accepting the transition to receiver and getting closer to erasing any doubt he can perform in a new role. "I am feeling more confident," he said. "I know, in the back of my mind, I have a lot of time to grow, but I'm going to work as if I'm leaving tomorrow, as if my pro day is tomorrow. Because I feel like that's how I'm going to reach my full potential." Sparks' dad, Kenyatta, played receiver in college, so it's often the father and son talk about the nuances of the position. Position coach JaMarcus Shephard of- fers plenty of insight, too, and Sparks' experience at quarterback has helped, also. "I think something he understands more than oth- er receivers do is the spacing of the routes because he's seen it through both sets of eyes," Barron said. "Me playing guard and then playing center, I can un- derstand what the guard is thinking now because I've played guard. So I can tell with Jared that when he runs his routes, they're a little bit crisper because he knows what the quarterback wants." Sparks knows it'll be key to take leaps in camp, showcasing an ability to get in and out of breaks ef- ficiently and quickly without much wasted motion, as well as using his added strength to come off the line clean against any man coverage and beat defenders in 50-50 situations. But he's eager to show he can do it all. "I have trust in my hands enough to believe I'm go- ing to catch every ball. I just want to have consistency. That's probably the key word for this year," he said. "Being consistent in whatever I do. Being a consis- tent playmaker, being more consistent in getting yards after the catch. Being that top-notch guy, being that every-down guy for this offense so that they can rely on somebody." — Stacy Clardie GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 28, ISSUE 6 25

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