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Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Updated: August 25, 4:27 PM ET
THE SPACE BETWEEN

By Bruce Feldman

Michael Crabtree looks overmatched. It is July 31, 2006, and Crabtree is getting posted up in the Texas High School Coaches Association all-star basketball game. In a few days he'll begin his football career at Texas Tech, but tonight the 6'3", 200-pound kid is locked up with Dexter Pittman, a 6'10", 320-pounder with a backside as broad as a Buick. Pittman wants position, and Crabtree isn't about to give it to him.

Crabtree started the game on the bench and watched Pittman, a nationally ranked recruit bound for Texas, stake the South squad to an early large lead. Pittman would be a load for some NBA bigs, but Crabtree loves this challenge. All season he banged with big men as the brawniest player in Dallas Carter High's five-guard lineup.

Crabtree's dad, Michael Sr., isn't worried either. He knows this is the same kid who, as a high school freshman, persuaded the varsity football coach to let him play lockdown corner. This is the same kid who, in second grade, used to fight sixth-grade bullies. And it's the same kid who, as a 5-year-old, was hospitalized with an infection in his leg that forced him to miss all but the last game of the flag football season—then, the first time he touched the ball, Li'l Crab ran up the middle, over a defender and 80 yards downfield for a touchdown.

On this night, Crabtree's 16 points and seven boards aren't enough to lead a comeback. But the media still vote him the North's MVP. "My kid," Crabtree Sr. says proudly, "has heart!"

Perhaps the best receiver in college football right here.

And hands. And smarts. In fact, ask anyone who knows Crabtree how a redshirt freshman who never played wideout can catch 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 TDs, and each will give you a different answer. We know—we did just that. But all the answers led to this ultimate truth: Michael Crabtree is college football's premier receiver.

"A GREAT SENSE OF SPACE"

Prod Texas Tech coach Mike Leach to say what makes Crabtree such a prodigious receiving talent, and he responds with a curious answer for a football coach: "He has a great sense of space." Usually you'll hear coaches wax on about a pass-catcher's blazing speed or soft hands or quick feet coming out of breaks. But Leach explains that maneuvering in space is essential to route-running. Or, as it should be called in Tech's four-wide, no-huddle, shotgun attack, route-adjusting.

Leach explains that Crabtree, like former Tech and current Patriots star Wes Welker, has an uncanny knack for reading coverages and adjusting his routes "without breaking the integrity of the combination of the other routes." In layman's terms: Crabtree doesn't run into teammates or flood spots designed to be opened up by the play.

Once the ball is snapped, Red Raiders QB Graham Harrell and his receivers quickly recalculate, reading coverages and scouting downfield for holes instead of automatically running a precise route. "We coach it. We encourage it. We insist on it," Leach says of improvisation. "You show the player on film: 'You're standing here covered by this guy, but there's a big hole right here. Why is that?' " The coach rubs his eyes in mock frustration before continuing. " 'If you take three steps over here, you're wide open.' "

Leach has no such problems with Crabtree, and the coach thinks the player developed his keen sense of surroundings on the basketball court. But Crabtree says he just puts in a lot of time studying film and getting reps with his QB. But Mike, don't all receivers know to do those things? "It's one thing to know it," Crabtree says, "and it's another thing to do it."

"FIGURE OUT HOW TO COUNTER EVERYTHING"

Crabtree's cousin David Wells believes the receiver's greatness is rooted not in hoops but in boxing. Sparring taught Crabtree what his body could do. Wells knows what he's talking about: He trained former WBC middleweight champ Quincy Taylor. And when his cousin was in junior high, the two worked out together for three hours several nights a week. "Training like a boxer really worked on Michael's reflexes," Wells says. "He worked on his hand-eye coordination and was constantly working with his body, always having to figure out how to counter everything, how to change angles." And although Wells says Crabtree "looked like a scared rat" the first time he got into the ring, the kid was slick enough to win the respect of the older guys in the gym.

Boxing taught Crabtree something else, too: about the solitude of sports, about how to hardwire your mind to adjust to your environment. In late summer 2006, before Crabtree's freshman year, he was put in academic limbo by the NCAA because his high school had lost some of his paperwork before finally sending it to the NCAA clearinghouse. Crabtree waited while Tech appealed. Weeks passed. No updates. "I was like, Man, what am I gonna do?" he says. "I was so lost."

Crabtree hurt too much even to go to the stadium and watch his team play. By the time he found out he was eligible—after Tech's third game that season—coaches had decided to redshirt him. He was still too upset to attend games in person, so he sat in his apartment and listened to them on the radio.

Allen Wilson, the coach at Carter High, says the year off was a blessing for Crabtree, giving him time to learn the nuances of playing receiver. Better still, it fueled him, adding to the hunger that Wilson believes makes the receiver special: "Not getting to play that year was the best thing that could have happened to him."

Crabtree hauls one in during Tech's big win over OU last season.

"JUST PLAY FASTER"

Remember that little kid with the leg infection who went 80 yards to score in a flag football game? He grew up to be the Wing-T high school QB who, when Texas recruiters asked him about playing defense for the Longhorns, waved them off and said, "I want to score touchdowns." He grew up to be the kid who, when Bobby Knight asked him about playing hoops for the Red Raiders, said no thanks but claimed he'd be All-Big 12 if he did play.

Sound boastful? Well, Tech's football coaches have learned not to doubt him. Receivers coach Lincoln Riley says Crabtree has looked polished from his first day playing the position. "Welker and Crabtree are definitely the smartest wide receivers we've ever had here," Riley says. "And not just by a little. And whether they run a 4.4 or a 4.7, they never get confused, so they just play faster. "WELKER AND CRABTREE ARE THE SMARTEST RECEIVERS WE'VE HAD," SAYS ONE TECH COACH. "AND NOT BY A LITTLE." "Michael knows where the holes are gonna be, especially in those scramble situations," Riley continues. "And you can tell him things that may screw up other guys. He just gets it. "

Welker, whom Tech coaches dubbed The Natural, says Crabtree's burst is what separates him on the field, although neither player has ever been called a burner. Leach likes to say, "If the NFL were one-hand touch, Welker would be out of a job."

When Crabtree's teammates hear the same things about their superstar, they have a standard response: For not being very fast, Crabtree sure runs past a lot of former track stars.

"HE GOES UP AND FIGHTS FOR THE BALL"

No matter how well Crabtree does on the field this season, there will always be skeptics who say that his greatness is merely a result of the Tech system. They'll say he's a step slow. They'll predict he'll be exposed if he goes pro a year from now and faces real defenses. And they'll be wrong.

This summer, Wells, who says he has worked security for some of the Dallas Cowboys, arranged for Crabtree to work out at Deion Sanders' football camp in Dallas. For two days, Crabtree ran routes against Pacman Jones and other NFL defensive backs while Sanders and his pal Michael Irvin gave him pointers. Crabtree says Irvin showed him how to beat press coverage and maneuver through a defensive backfield. The NFL players say Crabtree showed them a few things too. "Man, he's a helluva player," says Omar Stoutmire, an 11-year NFL vet. "The way he goes up and fights for the ball—you won't find many receivers who can do it like that. I saw him make three catches against some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. That's all about attitude."

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