After spending much of this season in sophomore Mario Manningham’s shadow, Steve Breaston will be thrust back into the spotlight this Saturday.
Michigan fans will be watching him, hoping the fifth-year senior can help fill the void left by Manningham’s knee injury.
The Penn State faithful will be watching him to get a glimpse of the star recruit who left his home state behind to come to Ann Arbor.
And friends and family – as many as Breaston can find tickets for – will watch their boy return to play in Pennsylvania for the first time in four-plus years.
The North Braddock, Pa., native admits he’s had this game circled on his calendar for a long time.
“It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to,” Breaston said. “I’m excited – I’m not gonna lie.”
Penn State’s defenders will be watching Breaston, too, to see if his role changes at all in Manningham’s absence.
There’s no doubt that Breaston excels in the short passing game. With his shifty moves and ability to make the first tackler miss, Breaston has turned short completions into solid gains all season long.
Three times during last Saturday’s game against Michigan State, Breaston caught the ball on third down short of the first down marker. And on each occasion, Breaston juked and beat his Spartan defenders, allowing the Wolverines to move the chains.
“Before the play, you’ve got to know where the sticks are,” Breaston said. “So you’ve got to make a move and get the first down. What it comes down to is thinking about the first down.”
But it remains unclear whether Breaston will be able – or even called upon – to help replace Manningham in the vertical passing game. Last year, Breaston was expected to into the Braylon Edward’s shoes after the superstar went to the NFL, but never established himself as a viable downfield option. And this season, Manningham’s deep-ball prowess and junior Adrian Arrington’s emergence have kept Breaston focusing mostly on short and intermediate routes.
Of course, that’s not such a bad thing. Breaston’s 23 receptions are tied for 13th in the Big Ten, and his 222 receiving yards are exactly half of his career high. Plus, even if Breaston doesn’t become a major part of Michigan’s deep passing attack, he still has the ability to open up a big play in the return game. Up to this point, Breaston’s return numbers haven’t been shabby – his 11.3 yards per punt return lead the Big Ten. But Breaston is the conference’s all-time leader in punt return yardage, and he holds himself to a higher standard.
“It’s really been kicking me so far,” Breaston said of his returns. “In the game, I try to get into that rhythm. (So far) I basically haven’t.”
Even though he hasn’t busted a monster return yet – his season-high is 29 yards – Breaston still loves to field kicks. The unstructured nature of the return game provides him the freedom that fits perfectly with his improvisational style.
“(Returns are) almost like a free play to do what you want,” Breaston said. “That’s how I feel. It’s like no structure or anything like that. Just making people miss and getting upfield.”
Off the field, Breaston likes to improvise in a completely different way. Always a fan of poetry, Breaston now battles walk-on wide receiver Landon Smith in what he calls a “literary war.”
Through instant messages, the two wideouts trade poetic verses on given topics. No winner has yet been declared, but Breaston still enjoys the process.
“It helps with writing,” Breaston said. “Just playing around with words and having fun. It’s like a workshop, so it’s a great thing.”
After Saturday’s game, Breaston should have plenty to write about. What it’s like to play in front of more than 100,000 screaming fans late-night at Beaver Stadium, for example. Or how it feels, after four-plus years in college football, to finally suit up in your home state.
And of course, if Breaston has his way, he could spend Sunday penning a few verses about the Wolverines unblemished record seven games into the season.