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Hopes are downfield for Bills receiver Holley

Caleb Holley studies depth charts around the NFL. He has to. As a second-year receiver on the bubble, his football livelihood depends on it.

And after sifting through all these stables of wide receivers, he’s convinced the Buffalo Bills’ group is the best.

“I don’t see another receiving corps as good as this one,” Holley said. “This receiving corps is tough.”

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound hopeful from East Central (Okla.) doesn’t stop there. He thinks he can fit into the plans, too.

Here in Buffalo are a fourth overall pick (Sammy Watkins), a productive No. 2 (Robert Woods) and a new weapon in the slot (Percy Harvin).

It’ll be a fight to make the 53-man roster, let alone earn snaps from scrimmage.

Yet after spending last season on the practice squad, Holley sees a niche for himself. On a team stocked with small, quick receivers – ones that do damage on screens, underneath the secondary – Holley views himself as the one who could stretch the defense.

A best-kept secret of sorts.

“That’s what I take pride in,” Holley said. “I like going down the field, jumping and making big plays.”

Of course, much of it has to do with the quarterback play but 2014 was another dink-and-dunk season in Buffalo. The unit’s 6.7 yards per pass attempt ranked 28th in the NFL.

At Division II East Central, Holley said “90 percent” of his routes were at least 15 yards downfield. He didn’t run slants and bubble screens – he went downtown. He burned cornerbacks on go routes, post-corners, dagger routes, up the seam and, as he said, “made-up routes” to catch 55 passes for 970 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior in 2013.

Granted, he wasn’t exactly facing SEC cornerbacks. East Central plays in the Great American Conference. His 40-yard dash time of 4.62 seconds at his pro day wasn’t pretty, either.

But Holley is a deep threat by trade. He uses a 38½-inch vertical leap to his advantage.

“That’s what I did best,” said Holley, an Anchorage, Alaska native. “My vertical’s through the roof. I like to get the ball at its highest point. I don’t let the ball come down and wait. I make the play on the ball. … I might not be the fastest in the room or on the field but I get down the field and make big plays. I’m a big target.”

Holley defends the competition level, too, insisting the cornerbacks were not “just a bunch of scrubs.”

Said Holley, “We’re all trying to prove something. Everybody’s always trying to prove something. Everybody’s competing.”

Take his 224-yard, three-touchdown explosion against Northwestern (Okla.).

That day, Holley felt disrespected. Northwestern left him alone in 1-on-1 coverage, feeling their top cornerback – Traveon Kelly – could handle his own. With a punch of swagger, Holley says he didn’t even know who this player was until game day. On one play, he ran a post route, slipping and falling on the Northwestern sideline.

“He said ‘Welcome to my island’ or something like that,” Holley said, “and I started laughing. I got up and it was over after that.”

As he remembers, Holley scored a touchdown on a corner route the next play. He didn’t even play in the fourth quarter of this 64-14 rout, a substitution that still irks him. At this rate, he could’ve gone for 300-350 yards.

“I don’t remember his name,” Holley said. “I know he used to wear No. 5.”

So back to a cold NFL reality: Holley faces long odds.

Last summer, he grew increasingly frustrated with a lack of 11-on-11 reps in practice. As his snaps dwindled, the dark thoughts of “What am I doing wrong?” that can drown pro careers set in. The team stashed him on the practice squad and he developed. Through organized team activities this spring, Holley played plenty, a trend he hopes continues.

“Now,” he said, “my confidence is through the roof.”

Mentally, he feels like that dominant force back at college again.

The Bills sure wouldn’t mind a downfield threat.

“I’m a patient person,” Holley said. “When my time comes, it’ll come.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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