WR: Stephen Hill, Daniel McKayhan, Jeremy Moore
Bay-Bay has pages and pages of notable stats and highlights. The ACC's top running game in 2009 also boasted the league's receiving yards/game leader in Thomas with 88.8 YPG. His astonishing 25.1 yards per reception is highest in ACC history. He had 18 receptions of 20 yards or better in 2009, including: nine for 50+ and four for 70+. Thrice in his career Thomas caught every one of his team's passes in a game, including against Miami last season when he caught all of Tech's six completions for 133 yards and a touchdown. He even caught a touchdown from kicker Scott Blair against Clemson. Bay-Bay leaves fourth on Tech's all-time list for receiving yards behind Calvin Johnson, Kelly Campbell and Kerry Watkins. Inexplicably his streak of 29 consecutive games with at least one catch ended in his last game in a GT uniform. He was shutout against Iowa and the offensive results for the Yellow Jackets showed.
In a group already short on numbers, Thomas and walk-on Zach Fisher leaving doesn't help. And it was reasonable to assume Thomas could leave during the recruiting season since he did test the waters after the 2008 season. Correy Earls is rumored to possibly move back to wide receiver but it still leaves the team light. There definitely was a need to get at least one wide receiver and certainly it was important to attempt to replace the potential lost talent of Thomas. That's in a perfect world. In reality numbers were very tight for recruiting and cutbacks had to be made somewhere. Wide receiver became the position that coaches felt they could put off until next year.
In the coming season other teams will surely want to pressure the run with even more bodies knowing they won't have to worry about Thomas beating them deep until GT can find another way to keep teams honest. It's not very realistic to assume Tech will just throw in another guy to try and do exactly what Bay-Bay did. His combination of size, strength and speed isn't easily replicable. In fact the coaches may not know exactly how they'll adjust to how they are defended against until they get into games this fall. One thing is sure though, they'll collect a lot of data this spring in determining what those options will be come fall. There will be a big opportunity this spring for receivers to show they can be counted on to contribute and to show in what ways they can add their own value.
The remaining receivers have two major factors working against them this spring. The first of those is a lack of true experience in the passing game. Sure Tyler Melton started seven games in 2008 and another ten games in 2009. Correy Earls could possibly get a look at receiver again. He started five games in 2008 when Melton went down, but things weren't working out and he was allowed move to the defense at least for 2009 and maybe this year as well. Stephen Hill, the most impressive remaining talent at receiver, started one game last year. In spite of all of the playing time that has gone to those guys and others who have contributed off of the bench, the number of total catches from receivers not named Thomas in the past two years is shockingly paltry sum. Demaryius caught 39 and 46 catches in the past two seasons; others have netted 10 and 12 catches total. That's only 21% of the catches made by receivers and 14% of the catches on the team.
The other pitfall for receivers as Tech heads into spring is the tendency for Coach Paul Johnson's offense to use the running backs in the passing game in the few times they are passing the ball. Obviously Tech doesn't throw the ball much, that's no secret. The Tech versus opponent spreads for receptions are hauntingly similar from the past two years: 74-to-246 in 2008 and 78-to-245 in 2009. And when GT is passing the ball, the backs cut heavily into the receivers' load. The number two receiver on the team in 2008 was a tie between backs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones. In 2009 I was actually surprised to see who was second in receptions and yards. It was a back but not Anthony Allen (5 for 112) or Jonathan Dwyer (5 for 37). It was Embry Peeples with 8 catches for 244 yards.
Outside of the lead receiver there has been a comfort level with throwing to the backs in a big way over the secondary receivers. This spring is a big chance for the receivers to step up their games, change that pattern and really get noticed. It's unfortunate that Josh Nesbitt now won't be available in spring to help build that rapport.
Another important part of the game that hasn't been mentioned yet is how key it is for the receivers to be good blockers. That is one area I give a lot of credit to Melton for, but this spring he really needs to show that he can expand his usefulness as a pass-catcher with all of Bay-Bay's receptions needing to be redistributed.
It will be interesting to see who the new lead receiver for Tech becomes. Most assume the uber-talented Stephen Hill will be that guy while Melton remains the complimentary receiver who quietly does his job on the opposite side of the field. And I think that's probably a fair assumption to make. There will be some pretty big expectations for Hill this year and that sense will only grow as we move from spring and into fall, I suspect. He showed his explosiveness last season on a number of big plays not only as a receiver but also running the ball on reverses and end-arounds. The coaches will continue to find ways to get him the ball. The one knock I've heard on Hill though is that he needs to do a better job of catching the ball with his hands and away from his body. Though Bay-Bay didn't catch every ball thrown his way either, it would be unreasonable to expect as many big deep plays from Hill as Thomas was good for. And nobody on the 2010 team at receiver, including Hill, has the strength of Thomas to shed tacklers like he did when fighting for extra yards. Someone like Hill though can find other ways of getting separation before the catch and will do a good job of using his speed and ability to run with the ball to get separation after the catch.
Beyond the spring starters, we really don't know what we can expect from the rest of the depth chart. Daniel McKayhan battled injuries all season in 2009 and only was able to contribute a single reception on the year. Quentin Sims is a good athlete and has a big, powerful body to fit the big receiver role on this team but wasn't able to make much of a splash to date. Another player who looked like an interesting piece to the puzzle in fall practice last year was Kevin Cone. The walk-on actually started the first three games of the season. Injuries caused Cone to miss the final eight games but he didn't make a lot of noise in the time he did play, ending the season with zero catches. Those three will battle it out for the two spots on the two-deep this spring, but there is one other in the mix who I find as interesting as anyone not currently penciled in to start this spring.
Jeremy Moore could just be another one of these over-hyped redshirt freshmen who no one got to actually see much of in year one but everyone expects big things from there after. But a big difference in this hype from some others in the past is that while we have heard some good hype on Moore from his efforts on the practice field in year one, it's not coming from the fans and rumors of great exploits as the story typically goes. Sure coaches themselves have helped propagate such rumors like when Coach George O'Leary worked fans up into a lather over the potential of linebacker Kelvin Hughley, but typically they stay pretty even keel when talking about guys who have yet to contribute on the field.
Another interesting note on Moore is that he's not particularly impressive physically like others who would tend to get a lot of hype. I admit I was a little surprise to hear on a number of occasions that he looks like a really good player. The first time I saw him I thought no way this guy will play for a few years, he's way too skinny and doesn't really seem to have a frame that will support much more. But one thing that has been repeated is that knows how to catch. Where Hill gets knocks for catching with his body, Jeremy always reaches out and gets it with his hands. From his build and purported ability to catch the ball, he's starting to sound to me like a guy who used to play at Tech LaKeldrick Bridges.
Some may not know much about Bridges since his stay at GT was way too brief. He was lost in the "Flunk-gate" mess years ago and we really didn't get to see what he was going to do on the field. He had earned a starting role for the coming season in spite of his small, wiry frame. He just ran great routes and caught everything. Maybe this time fans will be treated to such a player and the ending will be much better. Perhaps Moore will bring something to the table this spring and push the other contenders out of the way in the process. Having a dependable hands guy at WR could mean more looks at that position on third and long plays, for example. I will be interested though to see if he's muscled up some and gauge his level of toughness on the field. As for the full package – color me intrigued.
The Tech coaches set out to not address the wide receiver position this year with the small numbers projected for the class. They followed that path as planned. But once the numbers opened up late with four declaring for the NFL and other attrition, Tech looked around late to see if anyone could possibly be pursued late in the game. One name that came up was Alpharetta High's Brandon Terry (Wake Forest). The 6'5", 195-pound receiver seemed to fit the tall receiver mold that Tech coaches seem to like. I don't believe an actual offer was ever extended to Terry but likely would have been had he decided to take a late official visit to GT. In the end Tech was not overly concerned with addressing the receiver position and that's how it played out with none being signed.