On Towson's first play from scrimmage last week against North Carolina Central, a 9-yard reception by fullback Dreon Johnson was nullified by an illegal block penalty on senior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins.
Wilkins promptly got an earful from coach Rob Ambrose, but rather than take offense, the Ellicott City resident and Mount Hebron graduate found it reassuring.
"Honestly, I would take more offense if the coaches weren't yelling at me, because I would feel like they don't care," Wilkins said after a practice this week. "If they're not yelling at me to give my best in everything, then they're not caring. So I'd rather hear them yell at me than not hear anything at all."
Wilkins went on to finish the night with season highs in catches (eight) and yards (100), and he also scored a touchdown in the 31-20 victory. A similar performance would go a long way in helping the Tigers (2-2) in Saturday's Colonial Athletic Association opener against Maine (1-2) at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Ambrose acknowledged that getting the ball to Wilkins, one of just two returning starters from last year's offense, is a priority.
"He is one of the guys who can make plays with the ball in his hands and get in the end zone," Ambrose said. "So it would behoove us to plan and find a way to put him in positions to be successful."
At 5-feet-11 and 185 pounds, Wilkins isn't as physically imposing as fellow wideouts Andre Dessenberg (6-3, 190) and Arione Scott (6-2, 170). But Wilkins is such a polished receiver that senior cornerback Tye Smith filed a request with the coaching staff to match up only against Wilkins in practice.
"He's the best receiver we have," Smith said. "He's the veteran, and he's strong, fast and quick. He has real strong hands, and I feel like if I go against him, I can go against anybody."
Smith said he has tried to goad Wilkins if Smith wins a drill against him, but Wilkins doesn't give him — or any other cornerback — the satisfaction.
"That's what the defense looks for," Wilkins said. "The second you respond is the second you lose. I let them play that game. Let them focus on talking. I'm focused on getting better for the next play."
Wilkins exhibited that same maturity in his redshirt freshman year in 2011. In an intrasquad scrimmage at night, then-freshman Derrick Joseph returned a kickoff and was less than 15 yards from reaching the end zone. But Wilkins was flagged for clipping, which drew Ambrose's ire and an order for Wilkins to run the stairs in both stands at Johnny Unitas Stadium in his full gear and helmet.
After completing his punishment, Wilkins — with a sheepish smile on his face — approached Ambrose and acknowledged his error.
"I learned at a young age that Spencer likes to be challenged," Ambrose said. "There's a lot more in him, and if he can't get it himself, it frustrates him, but he loves it when you can help him get it. It raises his game."
Wilkins finished 2013 as the team's leader in receiving yards (691) and touchdown catches (four) despite missing the final seven games due to a broken ankle. He has been a comforting presence for junior quarterback Connor Frazier, who's in his first year as the full-time starter. And after catching just five balls for 56 yards in his first three games of the season, Wilkins showed signs last week that he can become the big-play receiver the offense needs.
"If they call my name, I have to be ready," Wilkins said. "I have to be mentally prepared to make a play, whether it's third down or whether it's to block. I have to make sure that I have the right assignments. That's the way I look at it. as long as I do my part, I'm happy. It doesn't matter how many catches I have."
MAINE (1-2) @ TOWSON (2-2)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Site: Johnny Unitas Stadium
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Audio: 1300 AM, TowsonTigers.com
Series: Maine leads, 6-5
What's at stake: The Tigers managed to get back to .500 with a 31-20 victory over North Carolina Central on Saturday. They can now concentrate on the quest for a Colonial Athletic Association championship, which earns the winner automatic entry into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. That mission starts against the Black Bears, who captured last year's conference title but have dropped their past two games. Towson has won the past two meetings, has won three consecutive league openers and boasts a 19-5 record in CAA play over the past three seasons.
Key matchup: Sophomore running back Darius Victor powered the Tigers' victory over North Carolina Central, rushing for a career-best 194 yards and three touchdowns. With 457 yards, he ranks 12th in the FCS in rushing and leads the CAA in yards, yards per carry (6.1) and rushing touchdowns (four). The Black Bears defense has surrendered an average of 169.7 yards rushing per game. That unit is led by sophomore middle linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, who ranks eighth in the nation in tackles per game (12).
Players to watch: Neither quarterback — Towson junior Connor Frazier nor Maine sophomore Dan Collins — have lit up the air with their passing. Frazier is averaging just 107.2 passing yards and has thrown for two touchdowns, while Collins has averaged 118.7 yards and three scores. But both passers have protected the ball, with Frazier throwing just one interception and Collins none.