All-WAC pick Spencer brings Pack ‘home’ for the holidays
The Nevada receiver will be getting a lot of attention at the Hawaii Bowl next week
RENO, Nev. » About a quarter-mile east of Mackay Stadium, the University of Nevada football practice field serves as a funnel for the northerly winds and is noticeably chillier than other parts of Reno farther south.
Wolf Pack receiver Caleb Spencer, his hands buried under his practice jersey, trotted out onto the field last week in the 35-degree weather as he and his team began its preparation to meet Central Florida in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl this Saturday at Aloha Stadium.
"It's kinda freezing now," Spencer said with a grin. "But that's what you get for playing here. It's an advantage, too."
The 20-year-old junior -- an Oahu native who played quarterback at Kamehameha -- has become an expert at turning negatives into positives.
Spencer went unrecruited out of high school by the University of Hawaii and spent a year at Palomar College in Southern California, where he was named a second-team, all-conference player after switching to receiver.
Having transferred to Nevada after one year at Palomar, the 6-foot, 180-pound Spencer became an integral part of Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault's rebuilding effort and was the team's second-leading receiver in 2004, hauling in 67 passes for 761 yards and seven touchdowns.
"I think one of his biggest assets is that he used to be a quarterback," said Ault, in the second year of his third stint as Nevada's coach. "He knows what we're trying to do and how to do it."
With fellow wideout Nichiren Flowers slowed this year by Crohn's disease, the team increasingly looked to Spencer to step up his play. And he responded by leading Nevada with 56 receptions for 775 yards and seven touchdowns, earning first-team all-conference honors and helping the Pack finish 8-3 and tie with Boise State for its first Western Athletic Conference championship.
"Caleb had a great season," Ault said. "He's very deserving of the first-team all-conference selection and he's our best receiver. And he'll become a better receiver. He's a good leader and he's established his presence in the locker room."
Neither an in-your-face type of leader nor a flamboyant player on the field, Spencer goes about his job in a cool-but-effective way. Take his five-catch, 114-yard performance in a 48-24 victory over New Mexico State on Nov. 12, for instance.
All Spencer did was catch a 64-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Rowe -- Nevada's longest play from scrimmage this season -- and with that win, the Wolf Pack became bowl-eligible and notched their first winning season since 1996.
"He's superathletic and has great hands," Rowe said of Spencer. "As (an ex-)quarterback he has a good feeling for where to be when I throw him the ball. He runs tough routes and makes it easy on me as a quarterback."
Spencer takes his success in stride.
"I'm kinda happy with my season," he said. "All I did was execute the game plan and did what the coaches said. Even though Nichiren was going through that (Crohn's disease), they (the opposing teams) were giving him a lot of attention, so it left me out there to make plays."
Rowe said that kind of deference is what makes Spencer "cool" off the field.
"He's a Hawaii-type guy, he's laid-back," Rowe said. "He's an amazing person and one of my best friends. He has a fun-loving personality with a great attitude for football and life."
Which is no doubt why he'll have more than a few people coming to see him play on Christmas Eve.
"My entire family, half the island and friends from high school," Spencer said of who he expects to show up. "In Hawaii, football is the main deal. They go out ... it's a family event. Before games they'll have potluck and picnics. They have fun before the game and they love football."
Spencer said the Pack should match up well in their first meeting against UCF. Under first-year coach George O'Leary, the Golden Knights finished 8-4 after an 0-11 season last year.
"They're a good ballclub," Spencer said. "They're like us. They bounced back from a losing season (Nevada finished 5-7 last year). I caught UCF-Tulsa (a 44-27 loss to the Golden Hurricane in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 3). We're doing it (preparing) little by little. (This week) we'll be coming up with our game plan."
Spencer didn't offer any predictions, choosing instead to let the team's play speak for itself.
"In bouncing back from last year, we jelled as a team this year," Spencer said. "Whenever we're on the field, we give it all we've got. We got off to a rough start (beginning the season 1-2), but we stuck it out and won the WAC."
Spencer ticked off three things he's looking forward to in returning to Honolulu (the team arrives today).
"First, the bowl there. Second, see my family. Third, play football in front of my hometown," he said. "It's gonna be fun. You don't get a lot of opportunities like that."