By Rob Gray
AMES — Tad Ecby felt like an after-thought.
Buried on the Iowa State depth chart behind Josh Lenz and Chris Young last season, the 6-0, 195-pound wide receiver from Houston viewed practice more as a tedious exercise than a springboard out of obscurity.
“Sometimes younger players get caught in the process of not being able to take the game-like reps in practice,” said Ecby, who has emerged as the Cyclones’ premier first- down catcher entering Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. Big 12 season-opening home game against Texas. “So there were a lot of times where I’d take one rep then sit five out.”
Instead of sitting, Ecby’s stretching out to move the chains.
He’s caught 14 passes this season.
Ten have been for first downs.
“Been fun to see his maturity and growth — finally getting himself out on the field and being productive,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads, whose team (1-2, 0-0) seeks its second win against the Longhorns (2-2, 1-0) in his five-year tenure. “He was close to earning that opportunity a year ago but couldn’t consistently show accountability on the practice field.”
Now he’s showing up when needed most, while helping spur a passing game that’s rolled out three straight 240-plus yard efforts for the first time since the first three games of 2012.
“I’m really happy with Tad,” offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. “We always felt that Tad had the ability. We’ve got to get five or six guys that make plays at the wide receiver position, so (a defense) can’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s just go over there and shut this guy down.’ No, let’s have five or six guys that can make things happen and hopefully we can get to that place.”
It’s happening, but not yet firmly established
Quenton Bundrage’s ability to stretch defenses — he had three big-play touchdowns in the Iowa loss — has opened up opportunities.
Bundrage drew added attention in last week’s Tulsa win and was limited to three catches for nine yards.
That’s good news.
Ten different Cyclones caught passes from quarterback Sam Richardson, including Ecby and Jarvis West with a team-leading six apiece.
Redshirt freshmen P.J. Harris (two catches, 24 yards) and Dondre Daley (one catch, 14 yards) also benefitted from the space created by a diverse group of pass catchers that includes tight end E.J. Bibbs (four catches, 49 yards).
“You just don’t even really think of it,” Richardson said of his array of targets. “Just put it where it needs to go and they’re going to catch it.”
Pass coverage is the closest thing to a strength the beleaguered Texas defense can hang its hat on.
The Longhorns are allowing 205.8 yards per game, which ranks 42nd nationally.
“They like to go a lot of man and get physical and try to put their hands on us,” said Ecby, a Longhorns fan until ninth grade who knows defensive backs Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom particularly well. “So we just have to do whatever we can and make sure we win that initial one-on-one battle.”
Ecby did that already just by seeing the field consistently.
He made one catch last season — against his former favorite team in Austin.
He missed a good chunk of spring with a hamstring injury, but remained atop the depth chart at “x” receiver throughout.
“It was tough, a long time coming, but I’m happy I’m here now,” Ecby said.
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