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Shabaj dazzles opponents with speed on short routes

September 3, 2003
Sophomore wide receiver Agim Shabaj sprints 21 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter of MSU's 26-21 win Saturday a Spartan Stadium. Shabaj had two touchdowns and 89 receiving yards in the Spartans' victory. —

When Agim Shabaj caught his second pass on Saturday, he had visions of Ronald Stanley.

Not on the field, but in his head.

As he latched onto the short pass, he looked up and saw no one in front of him. The safeties were out of sight.

So the sophomore turned on the afterburners and raced to the end zone for his first career touchdown, determined not to be caught. At least, not again.

The Spartans had run the same play, a short slant with Shabaj as the primary receiver on the left side and redshirt junior tailback Tyrell Dortch mirroring the play on the right, during a spring game.

Only that time, Spartan junior linebacker Stanley ran down Shabaj. And his teammates haven't let him forget about it since.

"We got on Agim in spring ball when he got ran down on that same play he scored on," sophomore receiver Kyle Brown said. "In the game, I think Agim had that in his head because he was flying down that field."

Shabaj, the Spartans slot receiver, caught two touchdown passes Saturday on six receptions and 89 yards. In a receiving corps without a star, Shabaj set himself apart as a threat by breaking away for long runs after short passes.

"I see a tremendous difference," senior quarterback Jeff Smoker said. "For instance, even the way he practices. He works really, really hard. I noticed it today, he's finishing plays and playing hard. I think he gained a little bit of confidence out there Saturday. If he can go out there against bigger guys and make big plays, I think you're going to see him improve.

"He's a guy that you can throw the short passes to and he can just bust one."

Not too long ago, Shabaj couldn't imagine being in a leading role for the Spartans. On the third play of last season, Shabaj was hit on his left knee by an Eastern Michigan linebacker on a quick screen, tearing his posterior cruciate ligament and leaving him ineffective for the season.

"I was so angry with myself and so frustrated that I didn't know what to do with myself," Shabaj said. "I wanted to go out and play more than anything, but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't run. I couldn't move. It hurt me a lot and I knew that if I took some time off, it would be better.

"I was mad at myself because I never wanted to get hurt. I was mad that I couldn't play on the team when they needed my help."

At that point, combined with the implosion of the MSU program, Shabaj considered transferring. In fact, he considered never coming to MSU in the first place.

After orally committing to play with the Spartans along with Farmington Hills Harrison teammate Drew Stanton, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Stanton unseated Shabaj at the quarterback position before their junior year of high school, but that made Shabaj a more attractive recruit.

But after a recruiting visit with coach Mark Richt at Georgia, he nearly had a change of heart. In the end, what kept Shabaj around was his close relationships with redshirt freshman quarterback Stanton and backup left tackle Gordon Niebylski.

Niebylski has been a good friend since middle school and Stanton transferred in as a high school junior.

"It's good to see him play well because last year he struggled through the injury," Stanton said. "It's good to see him play well and have success."

Although Shabaj is listed as 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 194 pounds, assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Jim McElwain doesn't agree.

"He's 5-6," McElwain said. "If he's 5-10, I'm 6-8."

His height doesn't seem to be a problem very often, except when pulling down the projection screen in the receivers' room. He is the only receiver who has to jump to reach it, so he takes a lot of grief from teammates.

But, on the field, his height can be an asset. He can slip past defenders into an opening without anybody noticing. And he can open up on screens undetected.

"We ask him to do a little bit of everything," McElwain said. "That spot is a difficult spot. He plays both inside and outside, carries a lot of motions, responsible to block linebackers and corners. It's kind of a utility infielder and he does a good job at it."

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