MARSHALL - Standing on the turf at the Regional Event Center at Southwest Minnesota State University following a midweek practice, Anthony Dean is unfazed by the brisk temperatures and chilly winds typical of an autumn afternoon in the Upper Midwest.
The Southwest Minnesota State wide receiver is a long way from his home of Tampa, Fla., where 80-degree October days are the norm. But the fall Saturdays Dean has spent on the field while traveling to play teams from around the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference have helped his skin toughen.
"I've sort of adapted. This is my fourth year now, so it's not too bad anymore," Dean said while flashing what seems to be an ever-present smile.
As Dean has been gradually building up a tolerance to the cold, he's also been increasing the frequency with which he burns defensive secondaries. Seven games into his junior season, the 6-foot, 199-pound wideout has a team-high four touchdown receptions and 291 yards receiving on 15 catches. His 19.4 yards per catch leads the team by far, as he has developed into one the most dynamic playmakers in SMSU's deep corps of pass catchers.
SMSU head coach Cory Sauter said it's taken some polishing to get Dean to this point, but the work is really starting to show.
"When we first got him he struggled just running routes and just being a complete receiver," Sauter said. "Each year he's continually been getting more and more reps, and just being in the system has helped. He's matured physically, as well. He really was pretty underdeveloped coming out of high school and he's worked at it to get bigger and stronger and faster, so he's definitely come a long ways and we're excited about what he can do."
In the Mustangs' 34-31 double-overtime loss to 10th-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato last week, Dean jump-started the SMSU offense and helped propel his team to a near upset.
SMSU went three-and-out in its first two possessions and was facing a third-and-15 on its third possession when quarterback Tyler Peschong threw the ball to Dean at midfield along the left sideline. Dean jumped up to grab it along with a Maverick defender, hauled it in and raced down the sideline into the end zone.
He finished the game with three catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's got speed that most people in the conference can't match," Peschong said. "He's got that Florida speed that us Midwesterners don't really relate to that well.
"He's got the ability to make those big plays. I've talked to him for years now about finding ways to dominate a game by only catching maybe three or four balls, and that's what he's starting to do. You look at some of the best deep-threat receivers and they don't necessarily get 10 to 15 catches a game like those little slots do, but they can impact a game."
Dean had a big hand in SMSU's first win of the season on Sept. 8 against Northern State. With the Mustangs down a point and the ball on their on 22-yard line, the offense had 1 minute, 4 seconds to claw back.
Peschong hit Dean for a 25-yard pass on the first play, but after two incompletions and a five-yard loss, SMSU faced a fourth-and-15 from its own 42. Needing a big play, Peschong again went to Dean for a 49-yard completion that put the Mustangs at the nine-yard line with five seconds left. The play set up a game-winning field goal by Lance Schuveiller.
In those critical moments, Dean said he relishes the opportunity to make a play.
"My quarterback, Peschong, he's told me that in situations like that, I'm who he's looking for," Dean said. "I just want to be there for him and make the catch when I have to.
"The receiver has to be there when the time comes. It's a frustrating position at times, but you just got to be patient and do your thing when the time comes."
Dean and the Mustangs just got through a brutal portion of their schedule in which they faced a ranked Sioux Falls team, Wayne State and No. 10 MSU-Mankato.
They went 1-2 during the span, but have played three of their best games of the season since an embarrassing loss to Minnesota-Crookston.
Today at 5 p.m., SMSU will play host to an Upper Iowa squad that sports an identical 2-5 record and is coming off an ugly 66-20 loss to Augustana. It's one of three remaining home games the Mustangs will have over their final four contests and they hope to use it as a springboard for the rest of the season.
"Taking out Wayne like we did that past weekend for homecoming, the team, we're finally starting to jell towards the end of the season," Dean said. "It's a shame it took that long for it to happen, but we're starting to play some real good football here towards the end of the season and looking for some big things in these last four games."