The primary theme heard time and again from defenders was the Mountaineers’ offensive speed, both in relation to the ability to get a series of plays off in rapid order, and the overall burst and acceleration of the receiving unit. WVU has a series of fleet-footed targets like Shelton Gibson, Daikiel Shorts and KJ Myers, and those mix in well with the slot play of Jordan Thompson – described as a sneaky player by some – and Wendell Smallwood when the back lines up as a receiver.
“The most difficult portion I’d say is the speed,” corner Daryl Worley said. “They have some guys over there who can really run. It seems like they are getting faster every year they come in here. It’s crazy. By working with our scheme and our techniques, we have the ability to slow them down. Sometimes the quarterbacks and the receivers tell us we have them a little bit confused as long as we keep it moving, keep everything in motion so we are doing that when the ball is snapped.”
Making it more difficult to read the alignment as a whole, or where the blitz might originate. It also forces Skyler Howard to make some adjustments at the line, along with on the fly during the play – an aspect the quarterback excelled at last season. The relationships between the wideouts and Howard have deepened, to the point where Howard said he is reading the body language of players like Gibson, and gaining a greater understanding of when and how they will come out of breaks. That takes time and repetitions to discover, and the duo has had sufficient numbers of both to this point.
That and the timing and rhythm of play will be a key to fully hone against Georgia Southern and Liberty over the ensuing weeks and into mid-September before 10 consecutive Power Five foes finish the regular season schedule. Howard and Gibson look to be the favorites to at least begin to replicate some phases of the Clint Trickett-Kevin White tandem, and the defenders say they’ve seen some flashes of higher end potential.
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“Shelton is a different type of guy,” Worley said. “He’s a special type of player. He’s going to be special in the Big 12 and he’s a player everybody should look out for.”
That’s not to say Howard is a lock to top the 3,500-yard mark, or that Gibson, who has been clocked in the lower ends of the 4.4 40-yard dash range, will come anywhere near White’s prolific productivity at 109 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 scores. But Gibson, combined with Shorts and Myers and Smallwood and the emergence of others, can fill the void as a whole. Safety K.J. Dillon said Gibson was “impossible to defend on the goal line. He’s too fast.” He also said Thompson, especially, was difficult to control out of the slot.
“Squirt, any cheatin’ way to get open, he is gonna find a way,” Dillon said of the 5-7, 176-pounder. “He’s quick off the ball, and when you think he is going to speed release you, he’ll slow it down. When you think he’ll slow release, he will speed up. It’s really hard to gather what he is going to do because he has so many tools in his belt right now. He’s small, and so short, he can find those open holes and sit it down. He has some for-sure hands, too.”
Howard named Thompson as one of his favorite targets during the spring because of the senior’s ability to find those openings in a defense. Dillon says part of that credit could go to familiarity, as West Virginia’s offense “knows our defense so well that they can really find the holes that we have. When you play against other teams, they only have a week to prepare, maybe a couple days to figure out the whole defense. Well, we go against them every day, so they’ve found some niches.”
But not all of it. Thompson has gained a knack for exploiting any weakness he can find, and it’d be surprising if he doesn’t top his 49 catches for 598 yards last season. Dillon also named Myers and Ka’Raun White, the younger brother of Kevin, as players who have given the defense difficulties. He then gave some praise to the newcomer in Jovon Durante, already a media splash and a player expected to contribute in the return game as well as seeing time at receiver.
“Jovon Durante, that boy is too fast. Way too fast,” Dillon said. “Jovon and Shelton, you gotta line that one up (for a race). Mario (Alford) beats them both, but those two would be a good race. I’d like to see that one.”