The most important receiver on the team, Demaryius Thomas, returns for another season after leading the Yellow Jackets in every receiving category in 2008. There really wasn't anyone who compared to "Bebe" statistically. He led in the following areas – receptions (36), yards (595), touchdowns (3), and longest reception (a fourth quarter 88-yard TD catch from Jaybo Shaw in the 27-0 route of Duke). Bebe had some memorable drops this past season, but when he's on, he's one of the best receivers in the conference. He has great size and knows how to use his body to his advantage in getting better poisoning versus smaller corners. It will be interesting to see if he can expand his role even further in this offense in 2009. The team would be wise in creating more ways of getting him involved. He works so well in this offense though because he's a devastating blocker – a trait that goes unsung mostly, and when left in single coverage, he presents a considerable mismatch even against opponents' best cover corners.
Finally, Bebe threw his name in the hat for the NFL draft this past year to get a feel for where he'd be drafted. Rumors are that he was told he could be drafted as high as the third round. Nevertheless, he withdrew his name for consideration but it does bring up the thought that this could be his last season since he's had it in his thoughts since his sophomore season to enter "the League." I certainly think he was right in returning for next season because he could improve his draft position in comparison to where I suspect he realistically would have been selected this year. He does have NFL talent, but I think the scouts would like another year to see who he really is as a receiver. His blocking skills at a minimum will increase his value with any team.
Tyler Melton is another potential big piece of the puzzle at WR. He's capable of so much more than his five catches for 53 yards last season. Additionally, he was beset by injuries throughout most of the second half of the season. We've seen him make spectacular catches in practice and display soft hands. Melton committed to GT in summer of 2006, but didn't enroll right away in order to maintain freshman eligibility another year after a leg injury in his senior season of high school. So, he was actually playing as a true freshman last season. Even though it seems he's been around a while, I think he's still picking things up. He has good size and toughness, which is a plus to have at receiver in this offense. I think Tyler has enough ability to hold off challenges from last year's other true freshmen who redshirted, but it's not going to be a sure thing.
Quentin Sims and Daniel McKayhan, both coming off redshirt seasons, will immediately mount challenges to Melton as the starter opposite Bebe. Like Melton, both guys were kind of under-the-radar guys in terms of recruiting hype when they became Yellow Jackets. Sims and McKayhan have similar frames to Bebe and Melton respectively, with one big difference – weight. Sims is listed at a mere 40 pounds lighter than Bebe and McKayhan was about 20 pounds south of Melton. Hopefully the redshirt year and off-season workouts have made to duo stouter and more ready for the rigors of playing receiver in this offense. Both guys flashed some good ability to catch the ball and get separation in early practices last season, so I think both have the potential to move up the depth chart.
Another interesting player in the mix is former-receiver-turned-defensive-back-turned-back-to-receiver Willie White. Willie has the body that coaches seem to like at the position – he's pushing 6'4" and is between 190 and 195 pounds. Willie's position changes and injuries have stunted his contributions so far at WR, but he certainly has the ability and work ethic to overcome both. Willie had a knee procedure done early on last season but he was able to return fully from it in time to play by the end of the season. By then he had moved to receiver. He was working his way back into shape and suffered a rib injury thanks to a bone-thumping hit in pre-bowl practice courtesy of Sedric Griffin. In his favor is the fact that he's starting out on relative even ground with Sims and McKayhan in the sense that neither guy has played any live game snaps, though the two freshmen saw many more reps last year in practice.
The final names in the mix this spring is the walk-on gang of Zach Fisher, R.B. Clyburn, and Kevin Cone. It's a testament to the walk-on program that GT has three solid players of this caliber in the program. The 6-foot-6 Clyburn actually was Bebe's replacement as starter when he couldn't go for the Virginia Tech game. In that same game, Fisher had catches of 21 and 16 yards. It will be interesting to see how their reps are distributed in spring, but the coaches never hesitated to insert Fisher or Clyburn at times last season when you might have expected them to turn to a scholarship player instead.
Overall, the bigger story in spring for the receivers could be seeing if their usage in the passing game expands. In the final three games of last season, receivers accounted for seven total catches. Tech won six games this year in which they threw three or less completed passes to receivers. I suspect things will become a little more balanced next season in that respect, but the offense in its current form is leading to successful results on the field. In other words, coaches at times will say, ‘stop our running game first then we'll think about making adjustments.' I also feel that developing a consistent alternative to Bebe – in the game against Duke he made all nine catches – could help free up some more action in the passing game.
Current Depth Chart:
WR: Tyler Melton, Kevin Cone, Quentin Sims, Stephen Hill
WR: Demaryius Thomas, Zach Fisher, Daniel McKayhan, Jeremy Moore
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
Wide receiver for Georgia Tech is kind of the forgotten position. It doesn't generate nearly the conversation that the backs (running or quarter) do. Even the normally unsung offensive line positions seem to get more "love" when talking about what makes this system work. Yet wide receiver has some strange incongruities that are actually interesting to note.
The 99.2 receiving yards per game ranks GT 117 out of 120 NCAA Division I-A teams. At the same time, Tech's top receiver, Demaryius Thomas, is a sure NFL prospect and 1st team pre-season All-ACC selection whose status doesn't seem to hurt much, if at all, by playing in this system. Bebe is not only going to garner interest in the eyes of scouts, he also is second on Tech's all-time list of single-game performances with a 230-yard receiving day against Duke last October.
Coach Paul Johnson said, "If we throw the ball for 140-150 yards per game, we'll be pretty good." But this offense was pretty good without approaching those numbers last year. To hit those stats, it would have to be a big jump from last year when that was done only three times. Bebe's 230-yard game, in which he had all of the receiving yards, was the biggest passing attack of the season. The other two occasions barely cracked that threshold in games against Boston College (142) and LSU (150).
Instead of an all out aerial assault, it was much more common last season to see the occasional bunker buster designed to uproot defenses from stacking the line of scrimmage. In six games last season, Tech did not crack 100 yards, including a season low passing performance in the most exciting offensive game of the year. The low marks for passing/receiving were: UNC (97), Clemson (91), Mississippi State (62), Florida State (55), Miami (46) and finally UGA (19). So, the five lowest passing games were all wins, as was the high-water mark 230-yard passing performance.
I think the best explanation is that Coach Johnson is going to take what's given from the defense. With the desire to run the ball outweighing the urge to put the ball in the air, he'll not only take what's given, he'll try and keep the tacklers honest enough to impose his will on the ground. But if something works, as it did with passes to Bebe against Duke, you can be sure that weakness will be exploited until it no longer works.
So how can a receiver continue to receive NFL attention in this offensive system? Well, besides professional scouts being paid to identify natural talent, this offense does provide some great practice for what many NFL scouts like to see – blocking. Sure they want to know if you can get separation from the defender and catch every kind of pass, but it's also important to know they can do what seems like the little things to the average fan. And when guys like Bebe do get involved in the passing game, he's often times put in a position to make a highlight reel play. Would it surprise anyone to know that Georgia Tech and Navy ranked #1 and #2 in the nation in yards per catch last season? Georgia Tech averaged 17.4 YPC while the NCAA average was 11.8 YPC and ACC averaged 11.5 YPC. Bebe just needs to not let some of those big plays get away from him in 2009 as he did last season. Those drops can make the highlight packages too.
Coaches from other schools will no doubt continue to try and downplay the role of the receiver in our offense and say how you can't showcase your talents for the next level. So how were Tech coaches able to recruit 4-star Stephen Hill here and away from other programs like Georgia? Besides the obvious answers of "Tech academics", "Program on the rise", and "Giff Smith is the man", there also seems to be a residual CJ effect. Hill told GoJackets.com recently, "I really want to work hard just like Calvin Johnson did when he was here. I've heard a lot about his working hard. That's what I really want to do."
So there's no hiding from fact that GT is nothing close to a passing team and the unknown consequences of that caused much angst from Tech fans before last season. So far, the realities haven't been unfavorable. Time will tell though if Bebe plays at the next level in spite of the offensive system, if this offense can produce another league prospect, and if Hill was just a situation of right place, right time for Tech coaches to secure his commitment. This position is anything but boring.
To finish up the position report – before spring we were looking for a compliment to Bebe on the other side of the field. Tyler Melton was that guy before and he held off the competition during spring. But what did happen to the rest of that competition in spring? Willie White and R.B. Clyburn, two who were in the mix last year, left the team. I had Quentin Sims and Daniel McKayhan as guys who could mount a challenge to Melton in spring, but they appeared to not have that affect. Both guys dropped below a couple of other walk-ons in the official GT depth chart published after spring.
Tech does a great job with the walk-on program, but it does surprise people to see both backup spots at WR taken up by non-scholarship players. It likely signals not only good performances by walk-ons Kevin Cone and Zach Fisher, but that Sims and McKayhan didn't play to expectations in spring.
Cone has received rave reviews for some time now and Fisher was trusted even last year by the staff to get on the field in games. Zach, the only one of the four spring backups with game experience, had 3 catches for 45 yards in 13 games last year. Sims and McKayhan redshirted last year so this is really their first shots at real playing time. There is plenty of time for them to pull it together and become standouts. I've seen glimpses from both that they can both contribute to the team this coming season.
As of now, depth and experience looks like legitimate concerns heading into the season at receiver. Should something happen with Thomas, how much would Melton, Cone, Fisher and crew strike fear into defenses to where they'd respect the big play potential from the passing game. That issue needs to become clearer early in camp.
With no backup looking like a sure bet to win spots yet, could a true freshman crack the rotation? "Right now, they haven't given any indication," said Hill. "They just told all the freshmen that they'd see how things go in camp." I predict Jeremy Moore will need to redshirt in order to gain some muscle to his thin frame. But the door does seem to have been left open enough for a guy like Hill to have a good camp and force his way onto the depth chart. I predict that will be the case and Stephen will put his size and talents to work on the 2-deep. Jonathan Dwyer seems to agree that Hill could make an impact. Dwyer listed him among the true freshmen who he thought could get on the field early. "There are numerous players," said Dwyer. "I think Stephen Hill, Rod Sweeting, Orwin Smith and a couple of other guys have a chance." Long-term he could be that heir apparent to Thomas, but it wouldn't be fair to expect that early on in 2009.
Overall, wide receiver in this offense doesn't receive the attention other positions do. That's not to undersell their importance. If teams stack the line and try to stop aspects of the run, the receivers will need to stretch the field and keep defenders honest. Also, downfield blocking by the receivers is the key in freeing up long runs from the backs. Depth and experience is a big concern outside of the starters. If the backups aren't ready to step in should something happen to the starters, then you may see a negative impact to the running game and overall offensive performance if defenders cannot respect the occasional air attack.
I'll give Dwyer the last word here to argue for the people who think passing could be a bigger part of the offense this season and to reiterate the importance of Bebe and Hill. "We haven't really used everything," said Dwyer. "By the end of the season we should be throwing the ball more. With the talent we have like Bebe and Stephen Hill and some of the other receivers we have, who knows what the offense can really do?"
The receivers huddle with Coach Buzz Preston following the final spring scrimmage.