There's no doubt that the Mountaineers have a number of candidates to catch passes in Dana Holgorsen's version of the Air Raid offense in 2013. However, potential – once defined as a French word meaning 'hasn't done a damn thing yet' – might be an apt descriptor for WVU's group of wideouts in 2013. The ability and talent appears to be there, as most of WVU's pass catchers have been stars on their previous levels of competition. A couple have also shown the ability, at least in stretches, to produce in Division 1. But only one member of the 2013 receiving corps has been productive over the course of an entire college season, and that came two years ago.
UP: In the best case scenario, the Mountaineers could end up with six or seven receivers to draw upon. While a 100-catch performer might not be in the mix, there doesn't necessarily have to be one (or more) to make Holgorsen's attack a success. The most likely path to production might include three or four 50-60 catch guys, with a varied rotation providing a mix of skills as well as the problem of defensive match-ups.
While there isn't a lot of proven experience on the roster, the return of Ivan McCartney, who had a good season in 2011 (49 catches, 585 yards), could be the anchor around which to build. If he can show consistent daily work ethic, he has the talent to be a primary target. Jordan Thompson, he of the big spring game performances, will get the chance to show if he can carry this year's showing onto the real fields of combat this fall, while Connor Arlia, who had a couple of solid showings last year, will also have the chance to contribute. If his leadership can rub off on McCartney and others, WVU might be in position to surprise with its passing attack.
The rest of the group is even shorter on experience, but the odds might be in favor of at least two to three others moving into supporting, if not starring roles. Dante Campbell and K.J. Myers, both redshirt sophomores, are at the point in their careers where they can be expected to show their abilities more fully. Devonte Mathis and Will Johnson, both redshirt freshmen, will get their first real chances at making some noise. A crop of newcomers, including Ronald Carswell, Shelton Gibson, Kevin White, Daikiel Shorts and Jacky Marcellus, is expected to produce at least a couple of players who will be on the field on Aug. 31 against William & Mary.
The nice thing about this situation is that not every player is being counted on to play right off the bat – and from a team perspective, it doesn't really matter which ones do make it into the rotation. Assuming that McCartney can match his 2011 stats, and either Thompson or Arlia can amp up their roles, WVU only needs three of the nine other receivers to become dependable performers. Odds are that should happen, at least in our view of the upside for this group.
The match-up issue might be something the Mountaineers can also play to their advantage. A year ago, it was Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey who drew the greatest portion of defensive attention, and teams that could at least minimize their impact had a good chance of winning games. This year, especially early on, foes won't be able to slant their defenses toward one or two marquee players, and that could allow WVU to work some match-ups to its advantage.
Finally, there's Dana Holgorsen's track record in developing replacements at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions in his offense. He has shown, time and again over his career, that he can plug in new players and not miss a beat in the Air Raid. Conventional thinking says that he hasn't lost that talent, and that from this group a solid rotation of four or five receivers is likely to emerge.
DOWN: The numbers have been listed often, so there's no need to dwell on them. WVU returnees at receiver combined for all of 262 yards in 2012, so it's difficult to predict great success for any one performer in 2013. And while the odds do say that the Mountaineers should expect to find at least a few stalwarts among its deep group of receivers, that's not a guarantee of success. Sometimes the odds don't play out as expected, so what happens if West Virginia receiving corps hasn't improved as hoped, or if the newcomers aren't ready to play at a Big 12 level?
A year ago, the passing game depended on the trio of Bailey, Austin and J.D. Woods to make plays. There's no guarantee that replacements will be found – especially ones that can catch the ball time and again and convert completions into first downs. While many of the receivers on the roster have discernible talents – there's speed, size and strength spread across the position – that's no guarantee of success. Prior to the Austin\Bailey\Woods triumvirate, WVU often had an apparent deep roster full of receivers that never reached the production levels predicted for them.
McCartney's performance will also be critical. If he shows the right attitude, he can be a linchpin. However, a return to the issues that plagued him over stretches of his previous career at WVU could be a disaster for a mostly inexperienced group that is looking for leadership.
KEY ITEM: In order to make the Air Raid work, receivers have to get off the line cleanly and get into their routes quickly to make themselves available for quick strikes from the quarterback. The offensive system itself helps some in that regard, as receivers often have an option to read the defense and run a route that finds open space. However, it's also on the receivers to break jams and press coverage to get those good releases off the line, and to make the right reads to make themselves available to the quarterback as quickly as possible.
The second, and corollary skill, will be the ability of the wideouts to add yardage after the catch. It's one thing to find open grass and catch the ball, but it's another to be able to turn upfield and add yardage to the play. That ability was missing among many of the returning receivers in 2012, which saw them often get tackled immediately after their catches.
Development of these two items go hand in hand, and it bears close watching during fall practice and the early games of the year. Receivers that can create a bit of space in their routes, and then either break a tackle or make defenders miss, are often key in piling up big receiving totals and big plays. If the Mountaineers can find two or three such playmakers, they will have completed at least part of the puzzle in assembling another solid passing attack. However, if most completions result in quick tackles and minimal yards after the catch, WVU will have problems moving the ball consistently through the air.