Eastern Illinois wide receiver Erik Lora hauled in more receptions than any FCS player in a season last year, but the ease with which he racked up yards after the catch led to his nickname.
In labeling him "The Astronaut," Panthers offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert noted how well Lora works in space.
The quick throws in Eastern Illinois' spread offense set up Lora to find room in opposing defenses, then exploit them. As a redshirt junior, the Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year had set the FCS single-season record for receptions by the end of the regular season, but he added another dozen in a playoff loss to finish with 136 catches for 1,664 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Miami native was at his best against Murray State, catching 21 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime.
His success caught more than opposing defenses off-guard. He missed the entire 2011 season because of a hip injury, less than half a year after he had injured his back.
Undersized at 5-foot-10, all the sure-handed wideout does is come up big for Eastern Illinois. He joined his teammate and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as a Walter Payton Award finalist and finished fourth in the national voting for FCS player of the year.
"The Astronaut" wasn't alone in soaring to new heights in 2012. Eastern Illinois, coming off back-to-back 2-9 campaigns, won the OVC championship behind first-year coach Dino Babers.
Lora's goal this year is not to go through the stratosphere with more receptions, but to help the Panthers win back-to-back titles and return to the FCS playoffs.
In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Lora discusses his record- breaking season and the work ahead.
TSN: You went from missing the 2011 season to catching an FCS record for receptions in 2012. How does that happen?
EL: There was a lot of preparation and hard work put into it, a lot of hours on the field and in the rehabilitation center. I give a lot of thanks to my family and the athletic trainers and the doctors who helped me do that because there was a point where I thought I would never be able to play at the level I played at before. So after this injury, I really put it in my mind to work harder and get better and come back stronger from being injured, and with the help of everybody it really worked out.
TSN: Can you talk about some of those doubts you had along the way?
EL: It was more of a health issue because before the hip (injury), at the end of the 2010 season I had injured my back in the last game. So I had kind of like a back procedure. It wasn't real surgical, but it was a time where I needed to take a month to two months off. And then spring football came up and I got injured. It was two semi-serious injuries back-to-back, and that really put it in perspective. I could (never) be able to walk or ever play football again.
TSN: Do you still look back on 136 receptions and just go, "Wow"?
EL: I literally laugh at it every time I think about it. Recently, we've been working on some videos and highlights and stuff, and I look back at it and every play still just wows me. Every game does. Just looking back at the season that EIU had and I had is just incredible.
TSN: Can you talk about your preparation during the offseason?
EL: With a season like this, it kind of puts it in perspective of the next level. So it just gives me that much more motivation to work harder and advance in everything I can advance in, marks and reading defenses, and also physically with my speed, my strength and my jumping ability.
TSN: It would seem hard for you to top last season statistically. Can you talk about dealing with high expectations from others and the pressure to kind of produce in a similar way?
EL: It's kind of funny because no one really knew who I was before the season. I sat out a year, I had an OK sophomore year, but no one really knew who I was. When I came out with this (past season), people had low expectations, so it kind of shot up so high and so quickly ... I don't go for expectations, I just go and play the game how I think it should be played, and I just have fun doing it right. And I work for my team, I don't really worry about the yards and the receptions and all this, I just want the team winning and I want to help the team as much as I can.