BOISE, Idaho -- Boise State senior wide receiver Austin Pettis has made it difficult to imagine anyone replacing him.
He also has made it easier for his teammates to do just that.
Pettis, who has broken school records for career receptions, career touchdown catches and single-season touchdown catches, changed the way the Broncos utilize their wide receivers.
And the young players behind him have taken note.
Pettis will make his final appearance at Bronco Stadium on Saturday when No. 9 Boise State faces Utah State.
"He has really opened up the amount of things we've been able to do and the variety we've been able to do since he's been here," offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. "Because of him, we've gotten into more concepts or plays because of his abilities that we'll continue to have that we didn't have in the past. It says a lot about him as a player and how smart he is."
Pettis' gift -- besides his magnetic hands and voluminous range -- is his ability to find his way through whatever coverage the defense concocts to reach the play's prescribed location.
On the game-winning touchdown at Virginia Tech, Harsin said, many players would have run into one of the Hokies' two defenders and stopped. Pettis "wiggled" between them and into an open spot in the end zone.
"That guy is lights out when it comes to football knowledge," Harsin said. "That's a huge part of our success -- his ability to dissect a defense out there."
And, Harsin hopes, a part of the Broncos' future success.
"When you have somebody at a position that's an exceptional player, the guys behind him get to continually watch him," Harsin said. "You can just see that those guys have gotten better."
'Wait and see'
Pettis (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) was known more as the nephew of former major-leaguer Gary Pettis than as a future star when he arrived at Boise State in 2007 out of Anaheim, Calif.
Football was even a surprise choice for him.
He walked away from baseball -- the family sport -- after his freshman year of high school because he didn't enjoy it anymore. His mother cried when he told her.
His first love was basketball -- and still is -- but he missed all sports during his junior year of high school because of a knee injury.
That left football as his ticket to college -- and only three schools recruited him. Boise State beat out Utah and Utah State.
"I didn't know much besides they won and the field was blue," Pettis said. "The winning part was a major factor."
The transition to college wasn't easy for him. He's a self-described momma's boy and he's a Californian at heart. He misses the warm weather and the Lakers, among other comforts. He's moving back as soon as the season ends -- planning to finish his communications degree online and prepare for a likely career in the NFL.
"The first time I had ever seen snow was here," Pettis said. "It's a lot more slowed down. It's a real college town -- I've never been around people liking football so much. But it's been a good experience." Harsin remembers meeting Pettis on his recruiting visit to Boise. He didn't know much about him then. "You could tell he thought he could play -- and he's right," Harsin said. "... It was that attitude of, 'Just you wait and see."'
From the first day of fall camp in 2007, Pettis stood out. It took half a season before his talent showed up in games -- he made 39 of his 46 catches in the final seven games -- but his ability to make difficult grabs appear routine was on display every day in practice.
He snatches the ball with his hands -- and the pass only needs to be in his vicinity.
"The thing that's always amazed me about him is his range where he can make a catch," wide receivers coach Brent Pease said. "It's so far wide and so far high, way down low, on the run." Coaches credit his athletic background -- a life spent playing baseball (he was a center fielder), basketball and football. He serves as the Broncos' holder, runs the swinging-gate two-point conversions, has thrown two touchdown passes and has drilled a 45-yard field goal in practice.
"He is our most versatile player," coach Chris Petersen said.
Mr. Clutch Pettis likely will be remembered for that 13-yard, game-winning touchdown catch against Virginia Tech. He had two TD catches that day -- and he blocked a punt, too.
Even before that game, he had a nickname at Boise State: "Clutch." "If there's a true money/clutch situation, there's been nobody better around here than him since I've been here," Petersen said. "... The bigger the stakes, the better he's going to play."
It's always been that way, Pettis said. He attended small schools -- his eighth-grade class had 10 kids -- and was a multi-sport star.
"I was always the main guy," he said. "I was put in that situation a lot." He has an intense competitive streak, too.
He has lost just seven football games in the past seven years -- two in high school, five in college -- and had to overcome a tendency to get overly frustrated when he made a mistake or the ball didn't go in his direction.
"I always get worried he's mad at something else, but I think he's always just mad at himself," Pease said. "He's definitely got to just take a deep breath. Sometimes I've seen him almost to the point of being in tears. That's how hard he competes."
Next year, Pease will need to find someone to fill Pettis' spot -- his production and his leadership.
It's not a pleasant thought.
"Oh God," he said. "I honestly don't know if you can replace him."