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X-(Receiver) Factor: Aaron Burbridge's Predictable Emergence

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A top priority for MSU's offense coming into this season was finding a new #1 WR, but it quickly turned out the answer was hiding in plain sight.

Aaron Burbridge has always had potential; the former 4-star recruit played without benefit of a redshirt, and despite the dysfunctionality of MSU's offense in 2012, he showed moments of legitimate stardom. He would also, by the way, acknowledge that in 2012, he didn't really know the playbook at all, but got by on pure athleticism. He became the first true freshman in school history to record a 100-yard receiving game as he and Le'Veon Bell rescued MSU from a road loss to Indiana.

However, when the rest of the receiving corps got its act together in 2013 and 2014, Burbridge receded into a secondary role. Despite playing consistently and amassing a total of 916 yards on 80 receptions over his first three years, Burbridge fell well short of expectations created by his freshman season. First Bennie Fowler and then Tony Lippett stepped into the limelight as Connor Cook's top option. Even before Cook's turn as MSU's starting quarterback, Dantonio's playbook has always (at its best) featured a single primary receiver; Kirk Cousins threw to B.J. Cunningham, and even before Dantonio had his own players, Brian Hoyer heavily targeted Blair White.

But this year, in an offense that badly needed a premiere receiving threat with Lippett and Keith Mumphrey off to the NFL, Burbridge has stepped seamlessly into that role. Burbridge has gone over 100 yards receiving in 5 of 7 games so far this season, and in the two games he hasn't, MSU's offense has struggled somewhat despite playing inferior competition.

Opponent Receptions YPC Rec Yards Tds
WMU 4 29.25 117 0
Oregon 8 12.63 101 1
Air Force 8 19.5 156 3
CMU 4 7.75 31 0
Purdue 1 9 9 0
Rutgers 10 15.6 156 0
Michigan 9 14.67 132 0

Most recently, against Michigan, Burbridge went toe-to-toe with Jourdan Lewis on national TV. Cook fired the ball Burbridge's way relentlessly, and though Lewis won his fair share of the battles, Burbridge also made enough acrobatic catches to prove that his numbers aren't just a function of playing against overmatched defenders. When Cook has looked Burbridge's way, no one has really had a solution. The only games where Burbridge's impact was minimized were the two where MSU collapsed its playbook into a game of Ask Bollman.

With at least 6 games left in the season, it would take an injury or suspension to keep Burbridge under 1,000 receiving yards and off the All-B1G team. Like his predecessors, an NFL career beckons. And, despite having spent most of his career in the periphery, MSU's history with starters at this position should have made that easy to see coming.