West Virginia Spring Football 2016 Wide Receiver Preview

West Virginia hopes to build on the bowl performances of several wide receivers to form the foundation of its 2016 corps, but there is also hope for a pair of highly regarded freshmen as well as some 2015 backups looking to make their marks. Add in a position coaching change, though, and there are more questions than might first appear for the pass catchers.

DEPARTURES

Jordan Thompson was an overlooked and often-underutilized performer at receiver. While he didn’t have the breakaway speed to get deep or run away from defenders, he was West Virginia’s most reliable pass catcher in 2015, despite starting fewer than half of the games. After playing alongside Kevin While and Mario Alford in 2014, when he had 49 catches for 598 yards and two scores, Thompson ceded playing time and attention to others in 2015, despite catching the ball far more consistently. Still, he managed 509 yards on 32 receptions, and will be missed more than most might expect in 2016. 

K.J. Myers was a career backup who played in 47 games, but produced just 18 catches for 142 yards and one score, which came on his very first reception as a Mountaineer. He was never able to come close to the promise he showed in high school, and while he apparently was a solid teammate, his on-field production won’t be something that is difficult to replace.

REDSHIRTS RISING

With no scholarship redshirt freshmen on this year’s roster, we look at Ricky Rogers, who is entering his third year in the program. Rogers enrolled in the spring of 2014 with the thought that he might have a chance to contribute early on, but his on-field time has been limited until a nice showing against Kansas last year in which he grabbed two passes for 51 yards. (Granted, that was Kansas.) With a number of sophomores and freshmen competing with him, this is a crucial spring for the Pennsylvania native, who showed the ability in high school to beat defenders in traffic and score in the red zone. He needs to improve his separation skills (something that many WVU wide receivers also have on their improvement list) and show that he can get open to become a reliable target.

NEWCOMERS

Steven Smothers has garnered most of the off-season attention among receiver recruits, and it’s not unwarranted. He has the ability to make people miss and the speed to separate once he gets the ball, but continuing that will be the key for him, just as it is for most wideouts making the transition to college. In high school, they often aren’t challenged on receptions, but in Division I the coverage tightens down dramatically. At WVU, his route-running and hands will be challenged, but if he can overcome those hurdles he has a chance to help early as WVU looks for more dynamic play from its receivers.

Marcus Simms, who has already enrolled, has probably been overlooked while signing in Smothers’ shadow, but he has plenty of potential in his own right. At six feet, he has a little more height to work with, and he shows a great deal of athletic talent. He bursts out of cuts well and gets upfield quickly after receptions. Is that good enough to make an impact as a freshman? There are technique issues to work on, but with a good spring he can’t be counted out of the potential contributor category.

This was a very good two-man class for WVU, but perhaps an even more important newcomer will be the eventual replacement for position coach Lonnie Galloway. How will Smothers and Simms, who were recruited by Galloway, sync up with his replacement? That extends to the rest of the corps as well, and as each practice day of the spring goes by, that’s one less day to help build that rapport. It’s not a killer concern, but it certainly is an item to watch over the remainder of the spring session, and into the fall when practices resume.

HOW IT ALL FITS

On the surface, it looks good. The loss of Thompson is significant, but West Virginia returns Daikiel ShortsShelton GibsonKa'Raun White and Jovon Durante, not to mention the wild card of QB\WRs William Crest and David Sills. Shorts, Gibson and Durante combined for 106 receptions, 1,793 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2015, which should be plenty to build on, right? However, there's one monkey wrench in the works – the lack of consistency – that hovers over the returnees and their potential in 2016.

Too many times last year, West Virginia receivers got open, only to drop perfectly catchable passes. They also failed, at times, to get separation and give Skyler Howard a target. That's certainly not to blame the wideouts entirely for the problems in the passing game, because there were definitely issues with Howard's accuracy, as well as with pass protection. However, these wide receiver issues will impact WVU's success or failure through the air this fall.

Gibson and Durante have the speed to get deep, which they have displayed. They must improve their techniques in creating space and shielding the ball from defenders, but first and foremost their consistency in catching the rock must improve. Drops against TCU removed any chance the Mountaineers had for winning last year's game, and they must be eliminated. Shorts, who thrived after a move to the slot last year, will be counted on for even more production this year. If all three play to their potential, WVU could have an excellent group – maybe not the best in the league, but certainly closer to the top than the bottom. Durante will have to show he can do it in the classroom too, as he was suspended for the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State due to academic deficiencies.

West Virginia fans will also be hoping for the sort of leap from White that his brother Kevin showed between year one and year two in the program, and that's certainly within his grasp. He could provide a great complement to the deep threats of Gibson and Durante, and he'll get a ton of reps this spring to see just how far he can go after coming up with 15 catches for 275 yards in 2015. Gary Jennings (seven receptions for 116 yards and 1 TD) will also be in the hunt for time, but again, consistency in all aspects of the game is his key for more time on the field.

Sills, who will be in the quarterback meeting room during the spring, will continue to dabble at wideout during workouts, and the hope here is that the two-way play continues. He adjusts to the ball very well in the air and is a big target. The latter is also true of Crest, who is still working to find a role in the passing attack. WVU tried to swing him out into space at times last year, but he might be a better downfield target, where he can use his size and strength against smaller defensive backs. Their use, as well as the number of snaps they get at QB vs. WR in practice, is something to be tracked during the open spring sessions to come. It's important to note, though, that for all the discussion of their play at receiver, they combined for just 11 catches, 160 yards and two scores in 2015. Granted, one of those was big, as Sills' last grab of the season provided the winning score in the Cactus Bowl, but does that translate to more impact this season?

Behind this quintet is a group that has to make improvements in order to get on the field. Devonte Mathis (six catches, 47 yards in 2015) has followed the career path of Myers to date, and if he wants to have an impact on the program, now is the time. This spring is absolutely crucial for him to show that he can be counted on play in and play out – and if that doesn't happen, he's likely to finish his career on the bench. As noted previously, Ricky Rogers will be under the microscope this spring as well. Time isn't as crucial of a factor in his development as it is for Mathis, but it's clearly a spring of importance for his development.

The development of all of these players will have a significant determination on how much playing time the freshmen, Simms and Smothers, might gather, but at this point neither can be ruled out. Both have abilities that should at least give them a shot to avoid a redshirt this fall. Simms will benefit from the spring work, while Smothers' talents as a return man could also serve to help get him on the field.

NEWCOMER BIOS

Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … two-year starter and team captain for coach Chris Grier at Sherwood High … Maryland Consensus All-State first-team pick in 2015 … Maryland Big School All-State first team in 2015 … Maryland Big School All-State honorable mention in 2014 … USA TODAY American Family Insurance All-USA Maryland second team in 2015 … helped the Warriors to a 10-2 record in 2015, falling in the state quarterfinals … recorded 43 receptions for 1,020 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 … hauled in 36 receptions for 712 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 … fits WVU’s system from both a pass catching and a blocking perspective … should add some bulk and muscle now that he’s in a college strength and conditioning program … played two years at DeMatha before transferring to Sherwood High prior to his junior season … “Simms is a downfield threat who does a good job of running through the ball. On short patterns, he catches the ball and turns up the field and pierces the defense quickly,” Scout.com Eastern recruiting coordinator Brian Dohn said in his analysis. “He high-points the ball and uses his length and speed well. Simms is a willing blocker and while he needs to learn how to remain engaged, he is physical and tenacious. He has the ability to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic.”... committed since March 15 … Washington Post All-Met first team in 2015 … Montgomery County Class 4A Player of the Year for 2015 … a three-star prospect, according Scout.com, which also rated him as the No. 5 wide receiver in Maryland and the 19th best in the East region … “I get that there’s all these local commits going Maryland, but I still feel like West Virginia is a better fit because of their offense and just the love they’ve shown me,” Simms said after his commitment. “WVU is a lock. I’m 100 percent committed to West Virginia, and I do feel like WVU is the best fit.” … was the fourth commit to the class … also offered by Boston College, Maryland, Pitt, Rutgers and Wake Forest.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Marcus Simms – “Marcus runs really well. He’s already enrolled, and I’m anxious to see what he can do this spring. He’s excited to learn, and that’s a big part of it.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Marcus Simms – “Marcus is a fast, raw talent. He made a lot of big plays in high school. He’s still a bit raw with his routes and all that, but he has a lot of pure, natural talent. Getting him enrolled early helped, because we’ll be able to refine some of the details.”

WVU wide receiver coach Lonnie Galloway on Marcus Simms – “Freshman who’s already here. Talented kid and one of the best receivers from Maryland. He can come in and help us. Great ball skills and ultra fast. Biggest thing for him is going to be strength. The best thing is that he’s already here.”

Played for coach Anthony Burgos at Franklin High … two-time Maryland Consensus All-State first team (2014-15) … two-time Maryland Big School All-State first team (2014-15) … selected for Under Armour All-Star Game … three-time All-Baltimore Metro first team … helped team to a 10-2 record as a senior and advance to the regional finals of the state playoffs … triple threat as a receiver, returner and rusher … finished career with more than 2,700 yards receiving, 44 touchdowns receiving, 65 total touchdowns and 20.3 yards per catch … registered 1,164 all-purpose yards as a senior … also rushed for 192 yards and three scores in final year … as a senior totaled 556 yards receiving, 15 touchdowns receiving, averaged 17.4 yards per catch and had 19 total touchdowns … prior to senior season, had three-year statistical totals of 2,190 yards and 46 touchdowns … junior season totals showed 696 yards receiving, 143 rushing, 437 returns yards and 22 total touchdowns … four-year career all-purpose totals stand at 987 yards as a freshman, 1,816 as a sophomore, 1,440 as a junior and 1,164 yards in his final season … averaged 23.1 yards on punt returns and 21.5 yards on kickoff returns for his career … Scout ranks him as the No. 27 best wide receiver prospect nationally, No. 3 receiver in the East and No. 1 receiver in state of Maryland … also excelled in track … committed to WVU on Aug. 5, just after a visit … major elusiveness after the catch … great straight line speed … needs to work on his blocking ability and strength … “Smothers is not the biggest player in stature, but he is special with the ball in his hands,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Dohn said. “He has great acceleration, and the speed to score from anywhere on the field. Smothers has good hands, and he gets into and out of breaks well. He can also impact the kick and punt return game because of his breakaway ability. Smothers needs to get stronger so he can break tackles and absorb hits. He is versatile.” … final two schools were West Virginia and Nebraska … also offered by Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State, Penn State and Tennessee … two of his former Franklin High teammates, Jordan and Jacquez Adams, are on the Mountaineer football team.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Steven Smothers – “Steven Smothers has a lot of start/stop qualities. He is a bigger version of Tavon (Austin) coming out of high school. There have been a lot of comparisons between the two. They have known each other for a long time, and Tavon is a big reason why Steven came here. He has a lot of start/stop qualities. He is a fantastic returner, and we have a need for a guy like that.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Steven Smothers – “Steven Smothers is a dynamic playmaker. He helps us right now from a kick returner and punt returner perspective. He’s a guy who dangerous with the ball in his hands and can make people miss in space. He’s got the qualities people associate with an inside receiver. He’s twitchy and definitely electric when he has the ball.”

WVU wide receiver coach Lonnie Galloway on Steven Smothers – “Highly-recruited kid out of the Baltimore area. He can come in and help us in the slot and also do some punt and kick return things. He’s a good player, and in my opinion, he was the best player in the state of Maryland this past year.”

Previously In The Series:

Defensive Line

Linebackers

Safeties

Cornerbacks

Specialists

Offensive Line


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