In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. In this edition, the wide receivers take their turn in the spotlight.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
To the excitement of many, high profile recruit Steven Smothers enrolled over the summer, bringing visions of darting moves and grasping tacklers dancing in the heads of Mountaineer fans. While that's quite possible, it might not come this year, although it can't be ruled out either. Smothers simply outclassed most defenders with his speed and cuts in high school, and he'll have to show that he still holds that edge against faster, more mobile defenders in college. He'll also be battling a deep corps of receivers already on the roster, including fellow freshman Marcus Simms, who was present for part of spring drills. This is probably the best situation for the long term development of Smothers -- he won't have undo pressure to perform early, but if he does blossom quickly, that will give WVU yet another weapon to call on in the passing game.
Given the depth of the group, the transfer loss of David Sills will be overlooked by most. While that's not a devastating blow, it also does leave a mark. Sills was showing promise as he learned the ins and outs of the receiving game, and the Cactus Bowl might have turned out differently had he not been on the field to post up for the winning touchdown reception. His departure opens the chance for others to jump into the mix, but his loss removes a developing threat in the Mountaineer attack.
It's a new day for this group, as Tyron Carrier makes his debut as a full position coach on the Division I level. There's no doubt that Carrier knows what it takes to succeed as a wideout, given his outstanding productivity as a college pass catcher at Houston, but will that translate to coaching? There's a big difference in doing it on the field and teaching others how to do it, and that's often based on the individual's innate ability. Talented performers sometimes can't articulate what they do that makes them great – they “just do it”.
Carrier did it, setting an NCAA record by catching at least two passes in all 53 games of his collegiate career on the way to 320 receptions, 3,459 yards and 22 touchdown receptions. Add his seven scores on kick returns, and he could be a factor in multiple areas for WVU.
Carrier's challenge, like the other newcomers on the Mountaineer staff, is twofold. First, he had to get familiar with the players in his meeting room, and that's a process that is still ongoing. While coaches will often say publicly that the familiarization process is a quick one, in reality it takes time to get to know the individuals they are coaching. In addition to just identifying strengths and weaknesses, coaches must understand the personalities of their players, how they respond to coaching, and determine the best approach and improvement plan for each.
Second, there's the fact that Carrier is still a relative newcomer to coaching himself. He has to develop his own style and figure out what works for him, and also determine how to meld that with the teaching of WVU's offensive system. It will help that the Mountaineer passing attack has similarities to that of Baylor, where he last worked, but there are enough differences to have him hitting the playbook as well.
The experience factor in coaching can't be overlooked, and it was apparent during media sessions in the spring. For example, Joe Wickline, a veteran of many years' experience, handled questions with aplomb. Carrier, somewhat new to the spotlight from the coaching angle, was clearly still figuring things out. This wasn't a signal of any problems, but it was an indicator of yet another hurdle the new wide receiver coach will have to clear in getting comfortable in his job. And along the way, he has to project an air of confidence to his players, and build a trust level that what he is telling them will work.
None of this is insurmountable, but his development as an assistant is certainly still a work in progress, and an item to track during practice and over the course of the season.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
A little more consistency, and a little more depth, and this group of receivers could be very, very good. We're not talking individual numbers on the order of Tavon Austin or new student assistant Stedman Bailey, but that's not important. What could vault this group to the next level, though, is steady production from five or six players, so that opposing defenses can't concentrate on shutting one or two players down, or count on a break when the starters get a rest, or when WVU elects to go to four or five receivers in the formation.
That last has been missing from West Virginia's attack the past few seasons, and while some of the absence is due to the emergence of the running game, it's also attributable in part to a lack of productive pass catchers. When the Mountaineers did throw extra receivers onto the field, they didn't draw much defensive attention, and were easily contained by a single defender or limited by zone coverages. That could change this year, but there's still the matter of familiarity vs. productivity.
In any evaluation, West Virginia's expected starting trio of Ka'Raun White, Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts meets the productivity factor. Drops were still a bit of a problem, and need to be lessened, but that trio should be a threat that helps spread coverage across the field. STATS Behind them, Mountaineer fans have heard names like Gary Jennings, Simms, Jovon Durante, Ricky Rogers and Devonte Mathis. However, none of those players have been anywhere near the level of consistency or production that the starting trio has recorded. If WVU can get at least two of these players to the point where they can get open and make plays when they get their chance, it could have a passing attack that flourishes on the strength of numbers. The wearing down of opposing defenses could result, and the Mountaineers could be positioned to overwhelm enemy secondaries as games wear on.
As has been seen over the past few years, though, just having familiar names doesn't automatically yield such a result. The backups must show more than they did last year. Spring practice yielded some encouraging results, with Jennings and Simms getting open and making catches. Durante will be a bit of a wild card after missing the bowl game and all of spring, but the hope is he can complement Gibson downfield. And then there's Smothers, who reminds some of Austin with his speedy moves and open field ability after the catch. If this group can buy in to the plan, mesh with Carrier increase its reliability and not get caught up in any squabbles over playing time, the receivers could wind up competing with the offensive line as the best unit on that side of the ball. Taken singly, each of those items are achievable, but surmounting them all together will take concerted effort.
The perception of West Virginia's receivers as a group is strong – at least from the receivers themselves. On one level, that's good, because wideouts must have confidence. They have to believe they are coming down with every ball, and that they can defeat coverage with speed, strength or savvy. Sometimes, though, that confidence can create unrealistic expectations, and lead to a backlash when performance doesn't measure up. Even with the departure of Sills, who left to pursue his quarterbacking dreams, WVU has a number of receivers who could help make the group shine in 2016.
Also in the mix is William Crest, who figures to get snaps in both the backfield and at wide receiver. While he won't be on the field for every play, he could end up being a vital part of the offense. After the catch, he's very tough to bring down, and could evolve as a good third down conversion and red zone target with his ability to screen defenders. Add him into the equation, and the Mountaineers could really cause opposing defense some situational match-up issues when he makes an appearance.
They range along the spectrum, from proven performers to still-in-potential only mode, but if the law of averages plays out, enough of the latter should be able to progress, especially as the season goes along, to give the Mountaineers at least five pass catchers who present threats to the defense. While assumptions can't be made that all of the backups will catch fire, a couple of 20-30 catch season performances from backups would make this the surprise unit of the year.
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