Eric McAlister could trash talk. He chooses silence instead. Sometimes the silence drives his opponents mad, pushes them to the brink, makes them contemplate whether football is really for them.
Under the Texas sun one day during his senior year, McAlister turned Azle High’s practice into his own clinic. Covering him that day was a junior cornerback at Azle who’s now playing Division I football.
“Eric just throttled the kid at practice,” said Devon Dorris, McAlister’s coach at Azle.
The outside receivers coach at Azle, Derek Dorris (Devon’s brother), spent years teaching McAlister how to set up a defensive back. Show them one thing then do something different. Toy with kids. Derek refers to that art form as candy. “Dangle that candy in front of them and more often than not, that kid will take it,” said Derek, who played wide out at Texas Tech and in the NFL.
This ain’t Halloween. Candy is bad. When defenders take that first piece, then can’t resist the second then look at a bucket full of sweets, they fume.
And on that day at Azle practice, a young cornerback blew a gasket.
“He ended up throwing his helmet down and walking off the field,” Devon Dorris said, “and saying he was quitting and was never going to play football again. All because of how bad and how dirty (Eric) did him in practice.”
Now a redshirt freshman wide receiver at Boise State, McAlister has begun to dangle candy in front of a larger audience. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound curly-haired youngster jumped up the depth chart and emerged as perhaps quarterback Taylen Green’s favorite deep-ball threat.
He had a pair of 35-yard receptions against Nevada on Saturday. The week before, Green chucked a goal-line fade to his fellow redshirt freshman from Texas and McAlister contorted his body, spun around and reeled in a touchdown while tip-toeing in bounds.
It was his first collegiate score — which now leaves him a mere 47 short of his high-school total.
“You watched his highlight film,” said BSU receivers coach Matt Miller, who recruited McAlister, “and it’s just like touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. The you’re like, ‘OK, the next play can’t be a touchdown,” and it’s a touchdown. And they’re all explosive touchdowns.”
Chris Lee threw 21 of them to McAlister. Azle’s quarterback during the star receiver’s senior season, Lee put up gaudy stats behind center in the Hornets’ spread offense. He was a Top-25 passer in the most football-crazed state, a feat aided by his safety blanket wearing No. 88.
“If some things started happening with the line and I had to break out, I was just looking for No. 88 down the field and just threw it in that direction,” Lee said. “If you throw it high enough, he’s going to jump over everyone and catch it.”
Everyone who watches McAlister comes back to the same thing. His greatest strength is the most important trait of the wide receiver position: Actually catching the ball. At Azle, they tried to instill in their players that 50-50 balls should be 100-0 balls. If you can touch it, Derek Dorris tells his guy, you should catch it.
No one did that better than McAlister. As a sophomore in high school, he cleared a 5-10 bar in the high jump. Lee never saw his buddy measured with an official vertical jump, but he played basketball with him enough and saw him dunk enough times to think it’s over 40 inches.
“There were times in games where we’d just throw the fade ball to him and they would have two or three guys actually covering him,” Devon Dorris said, “and he would still go out and get it. His ball skills are outstanding.”
They were always outstanding. What wasn’t always so remarkable was everything else. As a sophomore at Azle, McAlister was a backup on varsity. He was a solid player, but didn’t seem to have a burning desire to be anything more than a solid player.
Then something happened towards the end of the season. Devon Dorris isn’t sure what transpired other than “a lightbulb clicked.” His focus was dialed. His want-to grew. He became Azle’s best practice player. He trained on his own. And the results came. He scored a couple touchdowns in the final few games and hasn’t regressed since.
Boise State won’t allow freshman or redshirt freshmen to speak to the media, so McAlister was unavailable for this story. But asked why he thought McAlister flipped his mentality, Devon Dorris speculated.
“Because we didn’t give it to him,” he said. “Maybe because it was something he earned. It took time to figure it out. He was extremely talented but I think he had to earn it.”
He’s beginning to do that at Boise State, too. Coaches are thrilled about his progress but hope more experience brings more consistency.
“Some of it is being a freshman. He’s making a lot of freshman mistakes at times,” Miller said. “In fall camp, he was making a lot of mistakes. Now it’s less mistakes. He’s going to get a lot more confident and comfortable within the system the more reps he gets.”
And the ceiling of McAlister’s potential is still a ways away. Just go watch his high-school tape. Beyond the uncanny athleticism and kangaroo hops and the billion touchdowns was a great blocker, a great route runner and a high schooler who ran the back-shoulder fade like a pro.
His arsenal is deep, so vast that when asked to cite their most-memorable play of McAlister’s Azle career, everyone said something different.
Derek Dorris thought back to a play that didn’t even include a McAlister catch.
“He blocked for a receiver screen to his initial guy,” he said, “put him to the ground and then worked his way up to the next level and put the next guy down as well. We ended up scoring a touchdown from midfield.”
Lee remembers an actual highlight. Azle was playing area-juggernaut Wichita Falls during McAlister’s junior year. The quarterback caught the snap, rolled left and threw a short jump ball to McAlister, who snatched it out of the air as his defender dropped to the turf.
He stepped over that defensive back, juked another, bulldozed through another then outran the entire Wichita Falls secondary 65 yards to the end zone.
“That’s when everyone knew this kid was kind of different,” Lee said.
And Devon Dorris’ favorite play of McAlister was just a short catch over the middle. In a game against Crowley High for the 2019 district title, Azle got the ball with a minute left and needed a field goal for the victory. Which led to a deep slant to McAlister.
He caught the pass and was instantly obliterated by Crowley’s 6-1, 200-pound safety Bryson Bonds, who’s now playing at Indiana. The Hornets ran up to the line, spiked the ball and kicked a 49-yard field goal to win the game.
“He’s made a lot of tremendous plays,” Devon said. “But just being able to hold onto that ball when everyone in the whole stadium knew that’s who we were probably throwing to … that was pretty cool.”
Perhaps in a few years, it’ll be Boise State in a pressure-packed spot, needing a big play and all of Albertsons Stadium watching Eric McAlister.