Former Firebird Deans ready for next step as wide receiver

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GREENVILLE — In what has become a crowded room of wide receivers at East Carolina, Tahj Deans has quickly transformed into a model of consistency.

Although the leader of the Pirates wideouts — senior Trevon Brown — wears the No. 88 jersey, Deans, owning the same No. 8 jersey he adorned as a performer at Southern Nash High, has garnered the respect of teammates and coaches. So much so that Deans, after a redshirt freshman season that saw him haul in 16 receptions for 177 yards and a pair of TDs, enters the 2018 season as the projected starter for the Pirates at the ‘Z,’ or outside receiver position.

“When I look out there, I see No. 8 (Deans) or No. 88 (Brown), running back Keyshawn Canady said. “He’s been making some amazing catches. He’s been making amazing strides.”

Those strides have been progressive even though an injury in the spring kept Deans out of any scrimmage action during that period. As a wide receiver with the Firebirds, Deans was asked to primarily be a run blocker with Southern’s vaunted double-wing ground game. Once signing with the Pirates, the 6-foot-2, 184-pounder began to display the potential to be a capable wide receiver at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level. That included route running at all three levels of the defense, something that wasn’t fully explored until Deans came to Greenville.

“Route running was the biggest one,” Deans said of his collegiate adjustments. “Having to be able to run a short route, an intermediate route a long route, and having to be efficient at it. Having to be able to get in and out of your cuts and being able to read a defense. In high school, you really didn’t have to worry about a lot of that. But at this level, you’ve really got to be able to study and work to know what you’re doing.”

Even though ECU struggled through its second straight 3-9 season on the field, Deans started to come on at the end of the year. In the season finale at Memphis, Deans pulled in five passes for 59 yards, both season highs.

Wide receivers coach Keith Gaither raved in no uncertain terms about Deans’ potential, even casting the expectation for him to be an all-conference performer in the American Athletic Conference for 2018. His catch radius and ability to bring the ball in from multiple angles makes Deans a tough matchup in single coverage.

“The first thing you can say about Tahj Deans is he’s got length, he’s long and he’s quick to the top,” Gaither said. “He’s got great ball skills. His better days are ahead of him. He’s had a great offseason getting stronger with (strength coach Jeff Connors). I expect him to be an all-conference performer. That’s what kind of ability he has. It’s all about him up here — mentally consistent. Knowing like Trevon knows, he’s a great player. He thinks like that. I’ve got to get — that’s my job — to coach Tahj Deans, to make him believe that he’s got that ability, because he does. I’ll be disappointed if he’s not an elite player before he leaves ECU.”

Deans did have a head up on his contemporaries coming out of Southern Nash in one key area — blocking on the perimeter. With opposing defenses selling out to stop the run, Deans saw ample chances to be physical with opposing corners in one-on-one coverage.

“I think a lot of receivers coming out of high school, that’s what they have a hard time in,” he said. “I feel like coming out of high school, I was already developed in blocking. I wasn’t the best route runner, but it wasn’t too shabby either.

Having Brown as a sounding board hasn’t hampered the development of Deans or the other ECU receivers.

“Trevon does a lot for us,” Deans assured. “We can learn a lot from him. He knows offense, he knows the wide receiver position. Any of the young guys, if we ever need anything, Trevon is always there for us. He keeps us motivated.

Deans assured that he still keeps tabs on the progress of Southern Nash on Friday nights, particularly the progress of players receiving recruiting interest. He doesn’t see the Firebirds taking a step back in large part due to the man at the top.

“If they’ve got Brian Foster, they’ll be good!” Deans said.