Donnie Corley makes a big early impression at Michigan State

Mark Dantonio expects big things from freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley. Leon Halip/Getty Images

There has yet to appear a sliver of doubt at Michigan State about the immediate impact freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley might have. Head coach Mark Dantonio introduced the four-star prospect in January, the week he arrived in East Lansing, by saying he was expected to help the offense right away and that tune hasn’t changed through the majority of spring practice.

Corley’s early reviews from teammates and coaches read like the book jacket of a best seller. “An exceptional athlete,” Dantonio says.

“You can definitely tell he’s a playmaker,” says linebacker Riley Bullough.

“You think, ‘Wow, he could still be in high school.’ It’s really exciting. I’m going to wish I had more with him, for sure,” says fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor.

Corley, along with fellow early enrollee Cam Chambers, bring a level of ready-upon-arrival talent that the Spartans aren’t used to at the receiver position. Despite churning out the last two Big Ten receivers of the year, the influx of freshmen who are going to have to replace those guys have created a new kind of buzz on campus.

“I don’t see these guys having the growing pains,” receivers coach Terry Samuel said. “…This feels different.”

Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge, the aforementioned award winners, both set records during their careers at Michigan State. They struggled, though, as underclassmen during a 2012 season when Michigan State’s passing game finished 86th nationally in yards per game. Samuel had arrived the year before and said it took some time to build up trust with the new group. Corley and Chambers have been eager to pick his brain about techniques and concepts in the playbook.

That’s a good sign for the Spartans, who have to replace Burbridge along with a starting quarterback and three offensive linemen this season. Dantonio said he wants the team to work harder to get to the ball the perimeter of opposing defenses. Senior R.J. Shelton provides an experienced option on the outside, but Corley and company will bring depth and speed to that equation.

Corley said he caught six or seven passes in Michigan State’s first scrimmage of the spring last Friday. He also took a reverse handoff 60 yards down one sideline before being dragged down by a safety. The softspoken Detroit native said he think he’s starting to digest the offense after three weeks on the field.

“At first, it was a lot but we’re throwing in 30 plays every day so you’ve just got to know it,” Corley said. “I’m learning now, so the concepts are easier. It’s slowing down. I’ve pretty much got it.”

Samuel said the rookies have a higher football IQ than he’s used to when it comes to breaking down the concepts behind passing patterns and understanding not only where they need to be but why they need to be there. He thinks part of that change might be because they’ve been exposed to more with 7-on-7 passing leagues becoming more prominent. Part of it is also due to Chambers and Corley pushing each other because both have high expectations for their first year in college.

“It’s fun to see these guys compete a little bit,” Samuel said. “When one doesn’t know, the other one will question him to make sure he does know. There’s that give and take. They’re really trying to make each other better because they want to play early.”

Corley’s biggest challenge, it seems, may be making sure that all the early praise doesn’t get to his head. His coaches at Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School say Corley (a skinny 6-foot-2) doesn’t jump out at most as a gamebreaker physically, but it’s his work ethic has earned him all the early attention thus far.

Corley seem nonplussed or even slightly unaware when asked what he thought about the first impressions he was making in East Lansing. Chambers said they are too busy sticking their heads in the playbook to make time for puffing out their chests. Samuel is doing what he can to make sure it stays that way.

“It’s too early to let all these praises sink down in,” he said. “It’s too early for that.”

Sinking in or not, the praise doesn’t sound like it will be slowing down anytime soon.