Burbridge emerges as Michigan State's top receiving target

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Aaron Burbridge's impressive start this season comes as no surprise to his coach.

''He's just had the ball thrown to him a little bit more, but he's had outstanding ability from day one,'' Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said. ''Great hands, great vision, great body control, good run after catch, great speed.''

Burbridge has had a chance to showcase all of that so far in 2015, and through the first three games of his senior season, he's been perhaps the Big Ten's best wide receiver. The Spartans entered the year with some uncertainty at the position, but with 20 catches already, Burbridge is on pace to challenge some of the school's top receiving marks.

''He's awesome,'' quarterback Connor Cook said. ''I really don't think it's any surprise to anyone. Back when I was a redshirt freshman and (Burbridge) was a true freshman, I was running with the twos and so was he, and there were times when he would just make amazing catches, making me look good, making circus catches.''

Burbridge was an immediate contributor as a freshman, catching 29 passes in 2012, but he's never surpassed that total since. Instead, receivers like Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett earned most of the spotlight. Last season, Lippett caught 65 passes for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior.

Michigan State entered this season with a senior quarterback in Cook and an experienced offensive line, but it wasn't clear if the Spartans would be able to replace Lippett's production. There was plenty of speculation about who might be the top receiver on this year's team.

''Of course I heard it, but I didn't really think about it,'' Burbridge said. ''I was just out there trying to just make plays for this team. I feel like all of us, the entire receiver corps, can make plays.''

Burbridge was limited last summer after breaking his foot, but he was ready when the season started, and he's surpassed 100 yards in each of Michigan State's first three games. Nobody else on the team has more than nine receptions.

''He had an outstanding freshman season. He was really thought to be, coming into the 2013 season, he was going to be the premier receiver. Other guys picked up,'' Dantonio said. ''Last year, same type of thing. We had guys, so they're also sharing those responsibilities.''

There hasn't been as much sharing this season. Against Air Force last weekend, Burbridge made the game's most acrobatic catch, stretching parallel to the ground while hauling in a 28-yard touchdown pass from Cook. The play was initially ruled incomplete, but replays showed he touched his left foot down inbounds before the rest of his body landed out.

''It wasn't that spectacular to me,'' Burbridge said, taking modesty to an extreme. ''I just made a play, I caught the ball.''

That was one of three touchdowns for Burbridge on the day.

Michigan State has had its share of great receivers through the years - Andre Rison and Plaxico Burress come to mind. The school record for catches in a season is 79 by B.J. Cunningham in 2011 and Devin Thomas in 2007. The record for yards receiving is 1,470 by Charles Rogers in 2001, and the mark for touchdown catches is 14 by Rogers in that same season.

Burbridge still has a long way to go before approaching those records, but his first three games have been impressive enough that there's no longer much concern over whom Cook's top target might be.

''We've always had that chemistry ever since we both stepped into Michigan State doors,'' Burbridge said. ''I practice hard, he throws me the ball and I just go make plays for him.''