There's an old Chinese proverb that says 'the longest journey begins with a single step.' That aphorism definitely applies to the transition many players face as they begin to work at wide receiver.
For Mountaineer wide receiver coach Steve Bird, that first step is learning how to see and pick up the ball.
"The first thing they have to learn is how to see the ball. They have to see where it's going to be thrown," Bird explained. "A lot of players turn around and look at the quarterback first. Instead, we have to teach them to see the flight of the ball.
"Good players see the ball and are able to pick the ball out of the air no matter when they break out of a route. That's the first fundamental thing you have to teach new guys."
To achieve that goal, Bird uses a football pitching machine, (commonly called a Jugs gun) to sling passes at his receivers. The machine, which spits balls out at 55 miles per hour, lets receivers work on turning, picking up the flight of the ball and catching it quickly.
Of course, that's just the first step in a lengthy road. A fomer defensive back might have to adjust to a different way of using his hands, while an ex-running back may have to modify his running style.
"You also have to teach them that you run differently as a wide receiver," Bird said. "You have to learn to skim a defensive back rather than running around him. It takes time to adjust to that for some kids. They have to learn when they run a pass route that the fastest way between two points is a striaght line, and that defensive backs can't take that away from them."
Of this spring's transferees, Bird says that he's pleased with the work they've done, and notes that one player has made a good deal of early progress.
"Milo Austin is one of those kids that catches on quickly -- you don't have to tell him anything twice. He sees the ball now, and knows where it's coming from and knows how to find the ball in the air."
As has been the case since he arrived at WVU, Bird continues to preach toughness as well.
"I look for kids that are going to be tough. You have to be able to play physical if you want to be any good at receiver. You're going to get contact at receiver - it's not all just going out and catching the ball against air."
In his quest to mold a deeper and stronger group of wide receivers, Bird has implemented some new drills and pre-practice routines. One of those is the use of track hurdles, which his players alternately step over and duck under to develop flexibility.
"A receiver has to worry about hip flexors. Getting their hips loose is very important, especially when they are warming up before practice. Since we've been doing this we haven't had any hip flexor problems or pulled groins. I got that from a track coach and we got it implemented, and it's been really helpful so far."
Bird is also working with closely Director of Skill Development Jim Nowell in order to ensure that the drills Bird has been teaching on the field are reflected in summer workouts. While players can't work with the football coaches during those summer sessions, they can work with specific exercises that help them develop skills that can be employed on the field in August.
"Jim has really brought a lot of things to our program," Bird said of his colleague. "We'll be working together to implement some of the things that I do in my drills into his program. He will be able to carry many of the things that we do in drills, like footwork and separation, into the things he'll be doing this summer."