Kenny Higgins was in the Eastern time zone for more than a year before he got noticed. Essentially, he was the invisible man.
The slender wide receiver from Long Beach, Calif., came to the University of Toledo intending to take an active role in the Rockets' spread offense. He saw that UT had passed for more than 3,600 yards in 2002, and thrown close to 450 passes. He wanted in on that action.
"This is the kind of offense any receiver would want to play on," the 6-1, 184-pound transfer from Long Beach City College said. "I didn't get the chance to catch a lot of balls in junior college, so I came here because this was a place where they threw the ball a lot and I'd have the opportunity to make some plays."
That is what Toledo coach Tom Amstutz thought, too. When he signed Higgins, Amstutz sung the praises of the swift and athletic player. Then he waited.
"He came here with the skills," Amstutz said. "And we told him that there is always room for talented players. If a young man can play, then we'll find a way to get him the ball."
Last year, in his first season with the Rockets, Higgins played in seven games and had just four receptions for a very modest 48 yards. That would hardly make the trip all the way from the West Coast seem worthwhile.
Toledo was still throwing the ball - the Rockets passed 423 times in 12 games in 2003 - but other guys were doing most of the catching. Amstutz remained patient while nobody around the Mid-American Conference ever noticed Kenny Higgins.
"To get comfortable in our system, it takes a little bit of time," Amstutz said. "It takes time and discipline and effort to make sure you are ready to fit in to where our offense can really use you. Kenny stuck with it, and he learned the system."
After an extensive acclimation period, Higgins emerged from spring football as a starter, and was back on the "A" list with Amstutz.
"He made a lot of improvement and started to emerge as someone we should get the ball to, and give him a chance to make a play," Amstutz said. "We knew when we recruited him that he had all of the tools. That part wasn't in question. We had to wait for his development to catch up with those skills."
Higgins had three receptions in this season's opener at Minnesota, and five more against Kansas. He caught just one pass in UT's first win of the year at Eastern Michigan, but took it for a 47-yard gain. He had two receptions in the rout of Temple.
So when Ball State came to the Glass Bowl three weeks ago, Higgins was hardly on the radar. Like most teams, the Cardinals focused their energies on slowing UT's Lance Moore, who led the nation in 2003 with 8.58 catches per game.
That night, Kenny Higgins officially arrived at UT. He caught a 60-yard touchdown pass early in the game, slipping behind the defense and then dashing to the end zone. When Toledo got pinned back on its own 4-yard line, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski lobbed a short toss to Higgins, who made a 96-yard sprint down the UT sideline for another touchdown.
"We have a lot of talented receivers on this team, and with his speed, Kenny is able to run right by guys when he gets the ball," Gradkowski said.
"A lot of the excitement in our offense comes after the catch is made and these guys' athletic ability takes over. Kenny caught that thing and he was gone."
The reserved Higgins finished that night with 10 receptions, after having just 11 in the previous four games. He set Toledo records with his 233 yards in receptions, and his 96-yard scoring catch was the longest in school history. He added an eight-yard TD catch in the third quarter and tied another record with his three scores.
"That's the kind of game you dream about, as a receiver," Higgins said. "You want to get the ball that many times and have that many chances to make big plays. That felt good, like I really did some things to help the team win. I hadn't scored three touchdowns in a game since I was little, in a Pop Warner league."
Since that game, everyone in the MAC knows who Kenny Higgins is. He had six receptions for 72 yards in a 59-33 win at Western Michigan, and had three more catches in Saturday's win over Ohio.
"It makes us a better team when the defense has to account for a number of different players," Amstutz said. "We want to spread the ball around, and Kenny understands that on any given snap, the ball could be coming his way. For a receiver, that's the situation you want to be in."
As Higgins and the Rockets (5-2, 4-0) prepare for Central Michigan this weekend, the quiet kid from California plans to stick with what got him here.
"As a receiver, you're taught to just make the catch, then run down the field toward the end zone," Higgins said. "That's it. I came here for the chance to catch the football and make big plays. That's what I do."
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