Buffalo's Roosevelt inspired by Crabtree
Naaman Roosevelt remembers exactly when his 2008 season started to become extraordinary.
He was sitting with his fellow Buffalo receivers in the home of receivers coach Juan Taylor. They were watching the Texas-Texas Tech game. Roosevelt had become a big fan of Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, and when Crabtree made his final catch and broke his final tackle for the winning score, Roosevelt was in awe.
He and his teammates nearly leaped off the couch cheering, marveling at the play, watching it over and over on replay.
Then Taylor made a comment Roosevelt will never forget.
"I wish I had a Crabtree on my team," he said.
Some of the receivers laughed and jokingly groaned, but Roosevelt looked at his position coach and took the comment as a challenge.
The following Tuesday, the Bulls hosted Miami (Ohio) in the Election Night game. Quarterback Drew Willy threw a 34-yard pass to the back of the end zone that Roosevelt hauled in on a diving catch. When Roosevelt returned to the sideline, he found Taylor and started yelling, "Crabtree, who? Crabtree, who?"
"He started laughing," Roosevelt said of Taylor.
Roosevelt finished the game with 148 yards, the first of five consecutive 100-yard games to end his Mid-American Conference season. He scored in each of those contests, including three touchdowns in the upset of Ball State in the MAC championship.
Roosevelt set single-season school records for receptions (104), receiving yards (1,402) and receiving touchdowns (13) in 2008. He ranked ninth in the country in receiving yards per game and fourth in total receiving yards. Both national numbers were better than Crabtree's.
"I knew he was going to have a chance to have a pretty decent year if he stayed healthy, but I did not expect what he did last year," Taylor said. "But it didn't surprise me at the same time. The kid has deceptive speed. He can run by people. He knows how to run routes now, getting in and out of breaks. Just the intricate things of being a receiver he's gotten pretty good at."
It's ironic that Roosevelt picked Crabtree to idolize considering both come from similar football backgrounds. Roosevelt didn't play receiver in high school, just like Crabtree. Both players were quarterbacks.
Bulls coach Turner Gill recruited Roosevelt out of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Buffalo. According to legend, Gill accepted the job at Buffalo in late 2005, held a news conference and immediately went to St. Joseph's to offer Roosevelt an opportunity to play for his hometown team. Roosevelt agreed on the condition that he'd get an opportunity to try to win the starting quarterback job.
"We knew we had an athlete that may be able to do other things," Taylor said. "When we first moved him to receiver, he couldn't get into the stance. He couldn't do some of the footwork that comes naturally to some receivers or guys who have played the position."
Roosevelt had good hands from always touching the ball as a quarterback, but his route running and blocking left something to be desired. He came early to practice and stayed late just to perfect things that were rudimentary for most natural receivers. It was as if he was learning football for the first time.
"I had my butt in the air," Roosevelt said of his stance. "My first year was pretty crazy because it seemed like every day I got blown up by a safety. That was a big thing, just learning to keep your head on a swivel pretty much because people are out there taking shots at your head."
It wasn't until the second game of his freshman season when Roosevelt started to realize his athletic potential. On his first touch of the first quarter, Roosevelt ran back a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. Although he had just one catch for 12 yards in the game, he started to feel he could play with some of the other athletes on the field.
By the end of that season, he became a steady target for Willy, and the connection that eventually would lead the two to the school's first conference title in 2008 was formed.
"I think he kind of liked the feeling of scoring touchdowns, being on that other end, catching the ball and jumping over guys and making a great catch," Taylor said. "I think he kind of started relishing that opportunity."
Roosevelt spent the following summer, and every summer since, perfecting his craft. He watched film of other receivers, worked with older players on his route running and blocking and started to see results. He went from 429 yards his freshman season to 766 in his sophomore campaign.
"He was very coachable," Taylor said. "That's one of the positives he had. He's a very coachable kid. And he has the 'want-to' to get better. He has a fire in him that he wants to be the best receiver in the country. And he's on track to do that."
But when Roosevelt came into his junior season last year, no one could have predicted that he'd burst onto the scene the way he did. Roosevelt opened the season against UTEP with 154 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with seven 100-yard games and had a touchdown in all but four contests.
With his senior season on the horizon, Roosevelt said he knows it's easy to get complacent or succumb to the pressure of being better than he was in 2008.
It helps, Taylor said, that not much fanfare surrounds Roosevelt. Taylor said he has yet to field a call from an NFL scout about Roosevelt, which probably has to do with the fact that the star receiver is just 6 feet, 187 pounds. The only questions Taylor said he received came when scouts were looking at other players.
"They'd ask what kind of kid Naaman was. That's about it," Taylor said.
Despite the numbers, Roosevelt didn't bother to ask the NFL underclassman advisory committee about his potential draft status. And although he has had conversations about the NFL with his father and Taylor, Roosevelt said he's still a long way away from being ready for the pros.
"I just try not to think about it," Roosevelt said of the NFL. "If it happens, it happens. That would be a dream come true. But right now, I'm just focusing on doing the college thing and wanting another championship."
In the meantime, Roosevelt continues to study Crabtree on YouTube. He has downloaded almost every clip he can find of the NFL first-round draft pick. Roosevelt gets so inspired while watching Crabtree play that he often leaves his computer and heads to the stadium to practice Crabtree's moves and find ways to work them into his game.
Roosevelt has never been too proud to learn from others, especially if it can make him a better player in the future.
"We sit and talk about where he was, where he came from to where he is now," Taylor said. "Very humble kid. He just goes out there and has fun. You wouldn't know Naaman Roosevelt is the guy he is by just meeting him. He's just a normal guy working hard. He knows it's a privilege for him to play football. He's very humble.
"I don't even think he knows how good he is or how good he can be."
Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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