When you think of Penn State football, you think of linebackers. When you think of USC, you think running backs. Or maybe quarterbacks. But when you think of Michigan State, you think of … what?
Try wide receivers, and the envelope, please. The Spartans have had a run of them, from Andre Rison … to Plaxico Burress … to Derrick Mason … to Mark Ingram … to College Hall-of-Famers Kirk Gibson and Gene Washington.
So now the question: When did Michigan State become Wide Receiver U?
“Are you kidding me?” said Muhsin Muhammad, another NFL star from East Lansing, on this week’s Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “From Day One.
“It’s funny, guys, but when you think about Michigan State and playing in the Big Ten, playing in the cold weather, pro-style offense and conditions that I think test the spirit and character of players … historically, you think of a run-first offense that’s primarily predicated on the defensive prowess of guys like (former coach) George Perles, the author of the “Steel Curtain,” Hank Bullough and guys like that.
“And you scratch your head and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve got wide receivers that go to this school?’ I call us the Black-and-Blue Wide Receivers. We’re really built to last. We’re kind of Motor City bad boys, but we’re made out of steel frames. We’re built to last.”
Muhammad was. He went from Michigan State to Carolina, where he scored an 85-yard reception in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the longest touchdown catch in Super Bowl history. Then, three years later, he scored again, this time for the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
With an NFL career that lasted 14 years, Muhammad caught 860 yards for 11,438 yards and 62 touchdowns, was a two-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro and led the league once in touchdown catches (2004), once in receiving yards (2004) and once in receptions (2000).
Yet he might never have made it to the NFL as a wide receiver … or, frankly, anything … were it not for his father’s advice and the arrival his senior year of Nick Saban as the Spartans’ head coach.
First of all, his Dad put him in the right position. Then Saban put him to work. Under Michigan State coach George Perles in his first three seasons with the Spartans, Muhammad did little in what was then a run-first offense. But all that changed when Saban arrived prior to the 1995 season, and … well, let Muhammad tell the story.
“I took some of the best advice that was ever given to me from my Dad,” he said. “When I was in high school I was an all-state linebacker and running back, and my father told me, ‘Man, you know, son, the NFL is going to these prototypical big, wide receivers that can jump and catch.’ I was a basketball player, too, when I was in high school. And, so, I made the conversion in college … and it was not an easy one.
“It was hard. And I had my bumps and bruises along the way in school and kind of got in the dog house because I was a tough kind of kid. I never really got that opportunity to become a starter under George. It was actually Nick Saban. When Nick came in, we had a change of regimen. I got this opportunity when Nick came in, and really that was my first year of starting as a wide receiver was my senior year.
“I really started to learn the position and really started to develop when I got to the next level as an NFL receiver. My career really started when I got to the NFL. My senior year was my breakout party. But then I really became a pro as I studied the game in the National Football League.”