PULLMAN – When Jared Karstetter was playing youth football, one of his coaches told him he would play in the NFL some day.
It seemed sort of funny for Karstetter, who was in love with basketball at the time.
Now, as a junior wide receiver for a Washington State University football team that’s struggling to find its offensive identity, Karstetter is showing some skills NFL teams covet.
Size, strength, the ability to go get a pass and make a big play.
“The NFL is a dream in the back of my head that I would love to go accomplish and I’m working toward it,” Karstetter said.
The 6-foot-4 Karstetter, a power forward in basketball for Ferris High School, showed flashes of those abilities last season as a sophomore, catching a team-high six touchdown passes, including two against Notre Dame and one that covered 64 yards against Arizona.
But those skills have started to really emerge this year, despite an offseason in which he was unable to lift weights and his workouts were limited by injury. His 18 receptions are second to Marquess Wilson (20), but his four touchdowns are double Wilson’s total and 40 percent of the Cougars’.
Against SMU, Karstetter scored after carving out some room on a fade route, two plays after using a size advantage to earn a pass interference penalty in the end zone.
Last week against USC, the Cougars’ first score came on a 29-yard pass from wide receiver Jeffrey Solomon. It was a play from Karstetter’s basketball roots, as he kept 5-9 cornerback Nickell Robey screened off the ball before separating and grabbing it.
A quarter later, Karstetter won another jump ball in the end zone on a 6-yard Jeff Tuel pass.
This week when the Cougars (1-3, 0-1 Pac-10) venture into the Rose Bowl to face UCLA (2-2, 1-1), Karstetter will be challenged by cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, at 6-2 and 6-1, respectively, two of the bigger corners in the Pac-10.
“It’s something I’ve worked very hard on,” Karstetter said of winning red-zone battles. “Watching Brandon (Gibson) and learning from (receivers coach Mike Levenseller), how to move my body and how to calm myself down and just be patient down there, because things take more time to develop because there isn’t a lot of space to move.”
He may be patient, but Tuel isn’t. When the Cougars get near the goal line, he’s looking for Karstetter.
“He’s proved game in and game out that he can go get the ball – he’s good at it,” Tuel said. “He’s a big body, a tough guy to defend. He brings a physical presence to our receiving corps.”
When Karstetter was a freshman, he had an opportunity to learn from Gibson, the Cougars’ leading receiver and now a member of the St. Louis Rams.
“We’re different players, so it’s hard to compare,” Karstetter said. “Brandon, when he was here, he worked so hard to be complete.”
It’s that help-the-next-generation mentality that Karstetter – along with seniors Solomon and Daniel Blackledge – models every day in practice.
“Looking at Marquess and Kristoff (Williams) and Bobby (Ratliff) and those young guys, I try to teach them everything I know,” Karstetter said. “The more they know the better they are. That’s the way Brandon treated me.”
There was one freshman he taught a lot last season.
“He made me way better,” said WSU cornerback Nolan Washington, who covered Karstetter often last year as a member of the scout team. “He’s 6-4, he’s physical. He got me ready for Pac-10 receivers. He works hard every practice.
“Honestly, I haven’t gone up against a receiver who is better.”
But will all of that add up to a professional career?
Karstetter knows he is dealing with some physical liabilities, especially in speed, but believes over the next season and a half he can improve all his weaknesses through hard work.
“I’m really excited for this offseason,” Karstetter said. “I need to improve my strength, speed, just movement, loosening my body.”
“That’s a hard one to answer,” coach Paul Wulff said when asked about Karstetter’s NFL chances. “I couldn’t answer that. I think there’s always a chance, because he’s still young. Every year he’s getting better.
“He’s still got this whole year and next year. He’s got a lot of college football in front of him.”