This spring, there’s a different voice in Aaron Peck’s ear.
It belongs to Joe Wade, Peck’s new position coach. The tone is calm but firm. Urging him. Prodding him. Reminding him.
The Fresno State receiver hears it on the practice field and in the film room. Peck hears it when he does something right, which is often. And when he does something wrong, which is often.
Good play, bad play, the voice in Peck’s ear stays consistent. So does the message it conveys.
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“It’s just about playing the same way on every snap,” Wade says following a recent practice. “So that I can’t tell the difference between Play 3 and Play 7 on that drive.
“Because on Play 3, he could be really, really good. But on Play 7, the defense is in cover 4 and the safety runs down and makes the tackle. Well, that should’ve been you blocking that guy.”
Peck stands 6 foot 3 and weighs 215 pounds. He has sticky hands, springy legs and speed to get open deep. In the estimation of coach Tim DeRuyter, there’s enough talent to be “among the better receivers” in the Mountain West Conference.
Except Peck’s production hasn’t come close to matching his potential. Why? It boils down to consistency. In one moment he looks like an all-conference receiver. In the next he vanishes.
That’s not my blunt assessment. It’s Peck being brutally honest with himself.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve had ups and I’ve had downs,” Peck says. “I’m working on getting through the downs, but even last season there were times where it’s like, ‘That’s Aaron Peck.’ And others where it’s like, ‘Where is that guy?’
“I know that.”
From that quote alone, you’ve probably already realized a few things about Peck: He’s thoughtful, intelligent (twice named academic all-conference in pre-business) and also plenty self-aware.
Aware enough to know he hasn’t gotten the most out of his ability. And to realize next season represents his last chance to do so.
“This is the year,” the senior-to-be says. “This is my year.”
Peck’s coaches are counting on it.
“When guys get toward the end of their careers and can see the curtain start going down, a lot of times that sense of urgency helps propel them,” DeRuyter says. “We’re hoping that’s the case this spring with Aaron.”
Wade puts it even more bluntly: “We need him to be the guy.”
At one time, Peck was the thought to be the Bulldogs’ next 1,000-yard outside receiver, following in the footsteps of Davante Adams and Josh Harper.
The billing seemed justified during the final two games of 2013, when Peck had five catches in the MW championship against Utah State and six in the Las Vegas Bowl against USC while filling in for an injured Harper.
But spotty play plagued Peck throughout his junior year. He’d post solid numbers for a game or two, then disappear. And just when it seemed like Fresno State could no longer count on No. 7, he’d return — such as his two touchdown catches against Nevada — just to remind everyone of his ability.
“We need Aaron to be the same guy every day instead of being a guy who flashes one day and you can’t find him on others,” DeRuyter says.
Wade adds, “It’s a matter of getting that light to be on all the time.”
Despite his flickering career, Peck remains the Bulldogs’ most proven receiving threat. Especially with Delvon Hardaway expected to miss the opening weeks of the regular season after undergoing knee surgery.
The flashes continue. During Monday’s scrimmage, Peck got behind cornerback Jamal Ellis deep down the sideline and hauled in a 53-yard bomb from quarterback Zack Greenlee.
The question has never been whether Peck can make those kinds of plays. It’s if he can make them as a course of habit.
What’s been stopping him? Peck’s coaches point to certain mental barriers.
“Even if you have a bad play, then make it up on the next one,” Wade says. “You can’t let what you did wrong on the last play affect the next play, or else you get beat twice.
“He’s a smart, conscientious kid. So I think sometimes he’s doing that. Dwelling on things that already happened.”
DeRuyter wants to see the Moreno Valley native play with “a mental edge.”
“You can’t let yourself get into lulls, and I think that’s what’s happening with him,” the coach says. “He just gets into a comfort zone, and we’ve got to snap him out of that.”
Snapping Peck out of his comfort zone isn’t the reason Wade and fellow assistant Ron Antoine switched jobs over the winter.
But if things click under the new arrangement, the payoff could be immense.
“I expect a lot out of him,” Wade says, “and I think he expects a lot out of himself.”
Peck isn’t Wade’s sole focus this spring. The Bulldogs have a group of talented young receivers also requiring his attention. The senior is Wade’s special project. During practice, the two are rarely apart, constantly engaged in discussion.
“I think he gets after me a little more than the other guys, which I need,” Peck says. “I need someone like him in my ear all the time critiquing me and telling me what I need to do better.”
There’s a new voice in Peck’s ear this spring. Now it’s a matter of listening.