From his time as an assistant and offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, where he had a hand in producing household names like Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree, to his days tutoring Justin Blackmon at Oklahoma State, Holgorsen made a name for himself as a wide receiver guru before coming to West Virginia. That reputation has only been strengthened in Morgantown, as he built a system that allowed Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to shine in the program’s first year in the Big 12, while producing two more top flight talents in Kevin White and Mario Alford the last two seasons.
What has made Holgorsen and wide receiver coach Lonnie Galloway so successful in shaping some of the best receivers in college football? According to their players, a lot of it comes from attention to detail, but half of the equation is still left in the player’s hands.
“They’re hard on you,” said Shelton Gibson, a redshirt sophomore . “All you have to do is be coachable. If you let them coach you, and you can take that coaching, and you put that on the field then it will help. When they’re yelling at me about squeezing a route, stacking a route, it becomes muscle memory.”
Some players might not take that kind of coaching well. It takes the right mind set to understand that the coach is there to help you get better, even when he’s getting on you for what you’ve done wrong. Gibson said he got some experience in dealing with that before he came to WVU, which has made his transition to the college game a bit smoother.
“Out of high school I had a coach, my head coach, was very, very tough. I had to deal with that until my senior year, so I had already got yelled at. I already went through all that stuff, so I was just ready to come in and ready to be coached,” he said.
Despite all the history of wide receivers in Holgorsen’s system, the buzz around this team over the offseason and heading into fall camp has been about how WVU will struggle to produce from the receiver position after White and Alford’s departure, which has served as a motivator for a young receiving corps ready to make a name for itself.
“It’s definitely a motivator,” Gibson said. “Sometimes we don’t pay attention to it, because we know we’re going to work hard. We’re going to have ups-and-downs in practice but we know we’re going to work very hard.”
With the majority of balls going to White and Alford last year, combined with his early struggles, Gibson had to fight to find his way onto the field as a freshman. Now, heading into his sophomore season, his teammates have seen a difference in his preparedness and say he has fine-tuned his game to be about more than just pure speed.
“He’s improved a lot. His routes have gotten a lot better. He’s always been fast, but now he’s able to control his speed, and that’s pretty scary,” said junior receiver Daikiel Shorts.
Improving your own game is only the beginning however, as having a rapport with the starting quarterback is necessary for any receiver to have success. That’s something Gibson says he has down pat with starter Skyler Howard. The two have spent plenty of time together since coming to Morgantown, and Gibson has even gone back to Howard’s home in Texas to get addition work in.
“I went home with him like twice. We’ve been working out and everything so our timing is perfect,” Gibson said.
While football is the same no matter where you play it, working out in the Texas heat was a bit of a shock for Gibson, who hails from Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
“It was hot. He had me out there running go-balls all day. I was like ‘Skyler, I’m from Cleveland, I can’t do this,’” he said.
Gibson and Howard have developed a good chemistry over the course of the last year, as both of them had to stand by the wayside and wait for their turn to contribute. Howard said that experience has brought them, as well as receiver Jacky Marcellus closer together.
“When I was on scout team and Shelton was struggling, and Jacky was also struggling with his knee, we were all in kind of a time of need. I think we actually came together as brothers and brought each other out of that. I think it worked, looking at it now,” Howard said.
Gibson and Howard aren’t the only ones who walked through the wilderness last year, though. Redshirt freshman William Crest, who was the most talked about prospect in fall camp last season, saw limited game action before hurting his shoulder against Towson and eventually taking a medical redshirt. He spent most of the season on the sidelines, but still had an opportunity to learn Holgorsen’s offense from a front row point of view, and figures to play a big role in that offense this season, no matter where he lines up. Officially listed as a quarterback on the team roster, Crest has been working with the wide receivers, in the run game and with special teams as well. Being one of the top athletes on the team, the coaching staff is working to get him on the field in any way they can, much like they did with running back Wendell Smallwood last season.
Smallwood got plenty of work out of a crowded backfield that included Rushel Shell and Dreamius Smith in 2014, but where he made a big difference was in the passing game. A similar role could be cast for Crest this season, and Smallwood says he has been working with him to fine tune his knowledge of WVU’s route tree.
“I just coach him up on his route running stuff. He’s getting it pretty well because he pays quarterback. He knows what’s going on with the offense, so he gets it pretty well. I just try to teach him the ins-and-outs of some of the routes, how to run them and which tempo to run them at,” he said.