JONESBORO — Corey Rucker started a new season as he finished last year, with big receiving numbers in an Arkansas State victory.
Saturday’s opening game against Central Arkansas didn’t begin the way Rucker intended, though.
Rucker had only three catches for 33 yards in the first half as the Red Wolves went to the locker room trailing 7-6. With ASU’s offense struggling to click collectively, the second-year freshman from Bentonia, Miss., was pressing a bit.
“The biggest thing was I had to realize that I couldn’t make big plays all at once. I wanted everything to be a big play,” Rucker said Tuesday. “The biggest thing, like my performance anxiety, I wanted to set the tone again. Obviously the last game I had a really good game and I felt like I wasn’t doing that as much, so I started to let that get to me a little bit.”
Rucker got to the Bears in the second half, catching six passes for 105 yards and three touchdowns as ASU pulled away for a 40-21 victory. He earned Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors after finishing the game with nine receptions for 138 yards.
First-year ASU head coach Butch Jones said last Saturday’s experience will benefit Rucker.
“It was a great lesson in the infant stages of his career. He put so much stress and pressure on himself to do well, he didn’t focus on the process. He was result-oriented,” Jones said. “Like we’ve talked about every time we’ve talked, when you become result-oriented, all that does it build anxiety among everything that you do. Focus on the process.
“What that means is do the things you need to do to get the results you want. You’re not going to get 10 catches and 100 yards with your first catch. You’re going to have to run the right route, catch the football, and it builds.”
As Jones noted in his press conference Tuesday, Rucker has not played much football at the college level.
Rucker spent most of last season behind All-American Jonathan Adams Jr. on the depth chart. ASU saw glimpses of his ability with plays such as a 34-yard reception against Kansas State and a 56-yard touchdown catch against UCA.
“I knew my role was to get Jay, if he needed a breather, just come in and make plays if that was needed of me,” Rucker said. “Really when Jay came out, I needed to be the guy who could make a play in his place so it’s never like he’s missing.”
Adams was missing because of injury in ASU’s season finale against Louisiana-Monroe and Rucker attracted national attention with nine receptions for 310 yards and four touchdowns.
Jones said Rucker’s stamina, fundamentals and technique have all improved since last season.
“He’s an individual who is willing to do anything and everything it takes to be successful. He’s extremely driven,” Jones said. “We always talk about competitive character and the personality traits. The one thing with Corey is you know what you’re getting every day. He’s very, very consistent in his approach.”
Rucker’s first touchdown reception on Saturday covered 34 yards in the third quarter. He caught two more touchdown passes from Layne Hatcher in the final period, an 8-yard toss and then a 33-yard strike on the first play after a UCA turnover.
James Blackman and Hatcher combined to throw 10 passes Rucker’s way. Blackman drew the start before Hatcher entered the game for good late in the third quarter.
Both quarterbacks are again listed together on ASU’s depth chart as the possible starter for Saturday’s home game against Memphis. “We’re going to compete this week and see where it goes,” Jones said Tuesday.
Rucker said his job doesn’t change no matter who is throwing the football.
“The biggest thing as a receiver is always catch the ball. It doesn’t really matter who’s throwing it,” Rucker said. “You put an eighth-grader back there and let him throw the ball, my job is to go catch the ball so no matter who’s at quarterback, I can’t really let that affect me.”