Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Miami receivers coach Aubrey Hill always keeps a stash of old-school Payday candy bars in his office, but it's not to feed a habit. Instead, it's a reward for his players when they make what he considers to be a big play -- the kind of game-changing play that could one day lead to a big "payday" in the NFL.
With what could be the deepest, most talented group of receivers in the ACC this year, Hill has had to keep his desk drawer stocked with mini treats. He's got Paydays. Snickers. Twix. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. More often than not this spring, he's had players approaching him asking, 'Hey, coach, where's my candy bar?'
"It's interesting how you can use the symbolism of a candy bar to say a kid has done a good job," Hill said. "You're talking about a quarter candy bar, but what it symbolizes is, 'Hey coach, I'm trying to do exactly what you want me to do. It matters to me, it's important to me.' They want to earn it."
They are, and it could pay dividends for Miami this fall.
Seven freshmen receivers were introduced to Miami football last season, and five of them -- Travis Benjamin, LaRon Byrd, Aldarius Johnson, Thearon Collier and Davon Johnson -- scored touchdowns. The other two? They were injured. Both Tommy Streeter (wrist surgery) and Kendall Thompkins (shoulder surgery) redshirted last year but have worked their way into the rotation this spring. Leonard Hankerson, a junior, is the veteran of the group.
They bring versatility to Miami's offense, as Byrd, Aldarius Johnson, Hankerson and Streeter each weigh over 200 pounds and are big, tall, targets, while Benjamin, Davon Johnson, Collier and Thompkins are the smaller, speedy, deep threats. Together they provide options in the return game, and the potential for reverses, short passes or deep passes.
"We have such a mixture in our group," said Byrd, who caught four touchdown passes last year. "... A team can't just say, 'All they've got is fast guys, we're just going to play them deep.' You've got to look for the underneath route, the deep route, and that helps us out a lot. We are very confident. We're going to bring swagger back this year. I think -- I know -- we have the best receiving corps in the ACC."
They set the bar high last year as true freshmen, accounting for 42.6 percent of the team's receptions, 44.8 percent of its total receiving yards, and 59 percent -- 13 of 22 -- touchdowns. This year, they're older, wiser, and expectations have been raised.
"We'll be real good," said Byrd. "The only thing stopping us is us. Last year, coming in as freshmen, we were eager to get on the field and get those stripes. Now we're here, no more freshman errors. The standards were high last year, but sometimes if we messed up, people would say, 'OK, it's because they're freshmen.' Now it's something they're expecting. They're expecting touchdowns, they're expecting big catches, they're expecting big plays. The standards are definitely real high."
The group also has the benefit of familiarity. Six of the sophomores are from South Florida, and three -- Aldarius Johnson, Thompkins and Streeter -- played with quarterback Jacory Harris at Northwestern high school. Byrd, who didn't start playing football until his freshman year in high school, is the lone out-of-stater from Louisiana, but he came to Miami's football camp and said it was a dream school for him.
He's a smart player whose grade point average hovered around a 3.0 as a freshman, and is very focused. He is regarded by the staff as one of the Canes' hardest working players. He said he catches an extra 50 balls from the Jugs machine every day after practice, runs extra routes with the quarterbacks and drills by himself on the weekends, and watches extra film sessions.
Aldarius Johnson is the class clown, who is talented and has a good feel for the game. He and Harris seem to have a particularly good connection. Benjamin is a multiple threat with big-play capabilities who started to develop a niche for himself as a return specialist last year. Hankerson is starting to find some consistency, and Thompkins can make defenders miss and is working his way into the starting slot position this spring.
"Truly the kid has done a phenomenal job of learning multiple positions, slot receiver and outside," Hill said. "But more than anything, this kid, you can't tackle him in a phone booth."
Streeter played football at Northwestern, but went to a different high school because of his high academics. Hill said Streeter's GPA was around a 4.1 or 3.9. He has all the tools to be a good player, but needs to get in the weight room to add some bulk he lost after the surgery. Still, Hill said Streeter made plays this spring that show he's got big-play potential.
Because there were so many talented, young receivers to choose from last year, coach Randy Shannon rotated them in an unusual way -- switching every four to eight plays. It allowed the players to get some rest, see the game unfold from the sideline, and hear the coaches from the sideline and in the booth. Now that they're going into their sophomore year, there could be a similar rotation, or, a few players could finally start to emerge from the pack and prove "too valuable to take off the field," Hill said.
"I don't think we really need to address it now," Hill said. "We're still learning a new offensive system. ... At the same time, I do still think multiple guys deserve a chance to get on the football field. When you get your chance on that field, now it's up to you to keep your reps."
And earn their Paydays.