One of Many

The statistics have been hashed out repeatedly, and it's clear that No. 20 West Virginia now possesses an offense that is throwing the football at a higher level than it has in more than a decade. Credit quarterback Geno Smith for much of that success, but the Mountaineers' deep corps of receivers has also played an integral part in the emergence of the WVU aerial attack.

Unlike WVU offenses of recent vintage, when the squad may have had one consistent, dynamic, play-making receiver -- Chris Henry or Darius Reynaud, for example -- the 2010 Mountaineers have had a cadre of pass-catchers step up in the team's first six games of the season.

In the season-opener against Coastal Carolina, receiver Tavon Austin caught five passes for 90 yards. His teammate, senior slot receiver Jock Sanders, grabbed eight balls for 71 yards and touchdown.

Having multiple threats in the passing game paid off in a big way in West Virginia's comeback win over Marshall in week two, when four Mountaineers had over 50 yards receiving, but notably, it was a more seldom-used player, tight end Will Johnson, who caught the touchdown pass in the waning moments that ultimately forced overtime.

Austin and Sanders each had big games again in week three against Maryland. The former had 106 yards receiving on seven catches and scored two touchdowns. The latter had another 86 yards on six grabs. Redshirt freshman Stedman Bailey got into the act in a big way as well, with four catches for 60 yards and another two scores. Each of the three had at least one play of over 25 yards.

Bradley Starks made a statement in his team's win over UNLV, adding a vertical element that had been missing in WVU's passing game by catching four passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns. Austin worked underneath routes to great effect, turning a short pass into a 41-yard gain on one of his three catches.

Smith, the Mountaineers' sophomore quarterback, hit seven different receivers in last week's 20-6 win over South Florida. Four of them had plays of 19 yards or more.

That's a lot of numbers under a lot of different names, but it all adds up to one thing: a headache for opposing defensive coordinators.

"Last year, I know they doubled Jock a lot," said Austin. "Now, they really can't. If somebody doubles Jock now, it's going to be hard on a defense."

"That's why I'm glad our offense is like that," the sophomore continued. "The first couple games, I had a couple big days, like 100-yard games. Recently, I've had about 50-yard games. Jock's had the same thing, but Bradley's shining right now. I'm happy all of us can do that. Each game, a different person shines. Teams can't really key on one person now. They've got to defend all of us."

The progression of the receiving corps is a credit to the talent of many of those players.

Austin, a blue-chip running back recruit out of Baltimore's Dunbar High, would have been stuck behind WVU star Noel Devine if not for his willingness to learn to play receiver. His athleticism has shined in the slot and out wide, as he has shown a penchant to catch short and intermediate passes and turn them into explosive plays.

Bailey, a redshirt freshman, is one of several talented recruits that were true receivers coming out of high school. Players like Starks, a redshirt junior, and Sanders, a senior, were moved from other positions (quarterback and running back, respectively) into their roles as pass-catchers.

Under-the-radar players like J.D. Woods have also made their presence felt at times this season.

Never has West Virginia's progress in terms of developing skilled receivers been more evident than when the offense had to deal with an injury to Devine in the aftermath of the team's loss at LSU.

Most of the questions in the two weeks leading up to the Mountaineers' next game, which came against UNLV, revolved around who might get the majority of work at running back with Devine on the sidelines.

The answer, at least initially, was one few had even considered -- no one. Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen deployed five receivers onto the field and left the backfield empty save for Smith.

The fact that WVU even has five receivers with enough skill and talent to get on the field at the same time is a testament to the work done by position coaches Chris Beatty (slot receivers/running backs) and Lonnie Galloway (wide receivers).

Their groups have developed a friendly competition among themselves, and Austin said players know that when the opportunity comes to make a play, they need to take advantage. After all, if they don't, someone else probably well.

"It just makes you hungry, you know what I mean?" Austin said.

"Hopefully, if you get a pass, you can take it the distance. If not, you've got to realize there's another six people on the field that can score at any given time, so it's good."

While having multiple players capable of making plays is a positive in itself, the fact that the WVU receivers' skills compliment each other well makes things even harder for opposing defenses.

Starks is the conventional deep threat, who has the speed and athletic ability to make defenses pay for neglecting to leave a safety in position to stop long throws.

Bailey has some of that ability as well, but tends to find himself catching more intermediate balls around the hashes. His chemistry with Smith, his quarterback and former teammate at Miramar (Fla.) High School, is an obvious benefit to the offense.

Sanders is still the same shifty threat to make plays on quick-hitters and screens to the edge of the field he always has been. He doesn't get downfield for longer passes often, but when he does, he can make plays.

Austin has found a role as a player who makes life tough for defenses in the middle of the field, often catching balls between the hashes around the second level of the defense before using his tremendous acceleration to get plenty of yards after the catch.

"They've got to defend the whole field," Austin said, summing up the unenviable task of opponents hoping to stop West Virginia's passing game. "A lot of people are playing a lot of different positions now -- outside, inside, running back. We get a lot of [favorable] match-ups and make some big plays."

While Sanders is a senior, this may be just the beginning for a burgeoning WVU aerial attack.

Smith and Austin are both only sophomores. Bailey is a redshirt freshman, and Woods is a redshirt sophomore. Starks will be back for his senior season next year. Talented true freshman Ivan McCartney could become the team's next big deep threat.

There's no lack of young talent in West Virginia's offense. And Austin said there is no reason why he and the rest of his teammates won't continue to improve as time passes.

"This is the first year I've really known how to run routes," the sophomore said, candidly.

"It's just up to us and the coaches. We can't take no days off. We've got to come to work every day. I think we can be really good."

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