STORYLINES TO WATCH Reliable QB WVU’s receivers struggled to find consistency a year ago due in part to having different quarterbacks rotating in and out throughout the entire season. With Clint Trickett named the Mountaineers’ starter, the receiving corps could see a rise in production if it can develop a good relationship with their signal caller. Alford stays outside After starting his junior season at one of the inside receiver spots, Mario Alford came into his own toward the end of the season once he was moved outside. With that move becoming permanent heading into 2014, Alford has the chance to emerge as one of WVU’s best playmakers. Back to form For the first time since 2005, his first year as an offensive coordinator, a Dana Holgorsen offense failed to have a receiver surpass 1,000 yards in a season. It was also just the fourth time that a receiver did not catch more than 100 passes. Which WVU receiver will step up and become the player to get that streak going again?
Not many words describe the 2013 season for the West Virginia wide receivers better than “frustration.”
With solid, consistent receivers like Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods all gone from what had become one of the most prolific passing attacks in all of college football, the Mountaineers were forced to turn to a group that returned just four players who came into the season having recorded catches at WVU. Of those four, only Ivan McCartney had more than 15 catches in a season.
Because of that, West Virginia turned to the likes of Kevin White and Mario Alford – unproven but promising junior college talents who the coaching staff was hoping could step right in and fill the voids left by the two gone for the NFL. A lot of pressure for players who were still adjusting to the school and playing major college football.
“I’m not saying we didn’t want to be leaders or didn’t want guys to look to us, but we weren’t sure of what we were supposed to do,” White said. “We were new and that was a big part of why we were inconsistent. It’s hard to be the guys when you don’t really know what you’re doing and you still aren’t totally comfortable or you don’t know what your role is.”
Fast forward to this year and things have changed. White and Alford are back and they understand their roles, ready to step up and be the leaders this group needs. While those two have progressed from the mental standpoint and have gained the understanding they need to take the next step, Daikiel Shorts – who was tied with running back Charles Sims for the team lead in receptions as a true freshman – has taken a similar leap from a physical standpoint.
No longer will he wear down like he did at times a year ago due to not being ready to play that big of a role at this level.
But most importantly, the supporting cast appears to be there. Dana Holgorsen offenses in the past have thrived when they can lean on a two or three receivers to be the steady, consistent forces to put up good numbers each week while also getting contributions from at least three other receivers. When the Mountaineers won the Orange Bowl in Holgorsen’s first season in Morgantown, players like Devon Brown, Willie Milhouse and Tyler Urban were able to provide more depth and a wealth of weapons for Geno Smith to throw to.
Now, only one receiver who was on the team at the end of last season has departed. The Mountaineers have gone from a green group that didn’t know what to expect and was having a hard time handling the expectations put on them to one that knows what to do and is ready to make that next step.
“You need options. We need more than two consistent options, obviously,” said junior inside receiver Jordan Thompson. “We don’t have to restart from scratch like we did last year. People know their roles and we can keep building the trust and the chemistry and get on the same page.
”When you and the quarterback are on the same page, you’re thinking the same things, you can connect easier and make more plays.”
More than anything, knowing they’ve been there could make all the difference. Even despite struggling mightily most of the time a year ago, there’s a new confidence around the Mountaineer receivers. As they head into the season, things seem to be working their way.
They know who their quarterback is, and they’ve been able to build a good rapport with Clint Trickett. White and Alford are ready to make the jump to becoming to go-to threats and leaders. Short and Thompson can be the solid role players who can make things happen.
Then when you factor in some unproven talent like Devonte Mathis, Shelton Gibson, Vernon Davis, Lamar Parker, Cody Clay and even running backs like Wendell Smallwood, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, there’s the potential to have a lot of weapons to look at in the passing game. More than anything, the experience of having to fight through the struggles of last season was enough to get this group to buy in, work hard and believe they can turn things around.
“The experience is the biggest key. Every day, we got out there in practice and we see us getting better and better each day,” Alford said.
“Practice makes perfect. So you just keep going out there and working hard and making big plays and treating those practice like they’re game days, and it will carry over.”
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Wide Receiver (X):
1. Mario Alford, SENIOR
2013: 27 catches for 552 yards with two touchdowns
2. Devonte Mathis, SOPHOMORE
2013: Seven catches for 82 yards
3. Shelton Gibson, FRESHMAN
2012 (at Cleveland Heights HS): 60 catches for 945 yards with 11 touchdowns
Inside Receiver (H):
1. Daikiel Shorts, SOPHOMORE
2013: 45 catches for 495 yards with two touchdowns
2. Vernon Davis, SOPHOMORE
2013: Five catches for 33 yards
1. Jordan Thompson, JUNIOR
2013: 23 catches for 178 yards
2. Lamar Parker, FRESHMAN
2013 (at Booker T. Washington HS): 43 catches for 761 yards with nine touchdowns
Wide Receiver (Z):
1. Kevin White, SENIOR
2013: 35 catches for 507 yards with five touchdowns
2. K.J. Myers, JUNIOR
2013: 11 catches for 111 yards
3. Ricky Rogers, FRESHMAN
2013 (at Gateway HS): 32 catches for 449 yards with four touchdowns
What they're saying
"To me, it seems different with guys working and holding each other accountable. It's a huge asset to have. I want to be comfortable with saying, 'Ok, Mario needs a break, get in there.' That's the thing I tell them. If you want to play, I need to feel comfortable with you and Coach Holgorsen needs to feel comfortable.”
- wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway
“When what happened with (Ronald) Carswell happened, I got my chance to do it and got the start against TCU. That's when it was the first time I really felt at home out there and I did really well. I just kept building from there and it kind of was at the top in that Iowa State game. It just motivated me to keep working hard because it showed what I could do.”
- wide receiver Mario Alford
Meet the Newcomers
With lots of bodies, but not so much proven performance, the path appeared open for a newcomer or two to carve a spot for himself on West Virginia's depth chart. As fall camp winds down, though, it's tough to see anyone climbing into the two deep.
After the qualification issues of Jacob McCrary landed him at a junior college, WVU's true freshman scholarship corps consisted of Ricky Rogers and Lamar Parker. Each had a few moments in camp, but as of now neither looks to be in the rotation, and both are likely headed for redshirts this fall.
Eligibility issues and the transfer trail land another pair of "newcomers" to watch. Shelton Gibson, who was on campus last year but could not play due to academic concerns, hoped to make a mark this fall, but a slow start and an apparent leg injury combined to slow his ascension. He is battling for backup time at an outside receiver position, and there is a lot of room for him to progress and become part of the offense as the season progresses. Darrien Bryant, who transferred in from Vanderbilt, is more of a TE\FB, but is also trying to carve out a spot in the very crowded receiver\running back area. That figures to be much more difficult than Gibson's path.
BGN publisher Kevin Kinder contributed to this report.