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Jerreth Sterns could beat some tall odds to earn a job with Bucs

The Western Kentucky star won college football’s receiving triple crown but must earn Tom Brady’s trust.
Wide receiver Jerreth Sterns runs on the field during rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. The undrafted free agent out of Western Kentucky is trying to win a spot on the team.
Wide receiver Jerreth Sterns runs on the field during rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. The undrafted free agent out of Western Kentucky is trying to win a spot on the team. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 14|Updated May 14

TAMPA — Jerreth Sterns wasn’t drafted because he’s only a playbook taller than 5 feet 7. But that has never stopped the wide receiver from standing out.

The bigger the game, the bigger he plays.

The former Western Kentucky star became one of only three players in the past two decades to lead the nation in receptions (150), receiving yards (1,902) and touchdowns (17) last year. The others are Michael Crabtree, who did it for Texas Tech in 2007, and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, who did it two years ago to win the Heisman Trophy.

Some of Sterns’ best games came against non-Conference USA opponents: He had 17 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State and nine receptions for 171 yards and three scores versus Army.

“I’ve done it at every level,” said Sterns, one of three undrafted free-agent receivers signed by the Bucs at Saturday’s minicamp. “There’s always been questions about, ‘How big is he? How fast is he?’ They always put doubts on me.

“But in my opinion, all I do is produce at every level. At the end of the day, not getting drafted just added fuel to the fire and made me hungrier.”

Sterns joined two other smallish pass catchers in rookie minicamp: Utah State’s Deven Thompkins (5-7) and Texas Tech’s Kaylon Geiger (5-9). Sterns ran only 4.58 seconds at his pro day in the 40-yard dash. But his 40-inch vertical leap enables him to compete for the ball against bigger defenders.

Bucs coach Todd Bowles was impressed with Sterns in practices Friday and Saturday.

“He’s quick. He caught a lot of balls in college,” Bowles said. “He’s got very good hands, so he flashes in practice.”

The Bucs had a crowded receiver room before adding free agent Russell Gage this offseason. But Chris Godwin could miss the first month of the season recovering from a torn ACL.

Breshad Perriman, who was out of work when he re-signed with the Bucs at midseason, and practice-squad player Cyril Grayson each had winning touchdown receptions last season.

Scotty Miller fell behind due to a foot injury last season, and Tyler Johnson struggled trying to duplicate his rookie season. The Bucs also got very little from Jaelon Darden, a 2021 fourth-round draft pick.

Sterns had other teams wanting to sign him as a free agent, but he saw an opportunity with the Bucs.

“Tampa is a great situation for me,” he said. “I know the receiver room is deep, but there’s a lot of guys I can learn from and improve my game watching those guys. I’m just blessed to be here and happy for the opportunity.”

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A two-star recruit out of Waxahachie (Texas) High School, Stern originally committed to Army but then settled on Houston Baptist. He played 11 games with four touchdowns as a freshman, then improved to nine touchdowns and 833 receiving yards in 12 games as a sophomore.

That’s when Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley got hired at Western Kentucky and took quarterback Bailey Zappe and Sterns with him as transfers.

Zappe was drafted in the fourth round this year by the Patriots after setting NCAA records with 5,967 passing yards and 62 touchdowns last season.

“That (Western Kentucky) offense runs as the quarterback runs,” Sterns said. “Bailey was a big reason for my success, and I’m grateful to have a quarterback like that in college.”

Sterns didn’t set out to achieve college football’s triple crown for receivers, but it speaks to his consistency.

“Going into the season, I obviously did not have that in mind,” he said. “But in playing in an offense like that, you know you have an opportunity to put up big numbers.”

Though Sterns is short, he’s powerfully built at 183 pounds, most of it distributed in his lower half. Though not nearly as fast, he’s reminiscent of former Panthers All-Pro Steve Smith, with whom he has worked out this offseason.

“He’s one of those dudes you look up to being a smaller dude, but he played like he was 6-4,” Sterns said of Smith, who was listed at 5-9. “It’s awesome to watch that guy, and I got an opportunity to train with him a little bit in my predraft process. I was kind of starstruck when I first met him.”

The Bucs have a history of finding solid players who were not drafted, especially pass catchers. Adam Humphries was signed from a rookie tryout camp and has 320 career receptions in the NFL. Tight end Cam Brate is third in Bucs history with 33 career touchdown receptions.

“Some of those guys are a little bit smaller, and you don’t love to have a team full of small guys, but at the end of the day, if they can play, they can play,” receivers coach Kevin Garver said.

The ultimate test will be how much trust Sterns can build with quarterback Tom Brady, who has had success with diminutive slot receivers.

“Tom Brady is one of those guys that just wants football players, and if you look at his track record, he’s got dudes like (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola, those smaller receivers who just make plays and are just football players,” Sterns said. “So, hopefully, I can come out here and just earn his stamp of approval.”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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