Dana Holgorsen has littered his press conferences with references to the intermediate game. Skyler Howard has reiterated those, and his offseason focus was geared partially toward such advances. And the offensive line has perhaps born the brunt of that, being chastised for their pass sets and protection last season, while also working to widen the pocket via tackle placement and allow Howard more time to look downfield.
The issue isn't lost on the wideouts, who have proven capable of striking vertically via threats like Shelton Gibson and Jovon Durante. What they haven't shown, outside of flashes by the departed Jordan Thompson, and a handful of spectacular red zone plays by Daikiel Shorts, is the ability to make consistent plays in the 10 to 15 yard range. It's been a theme of first-year receivers coach Tyron Carrier, who has said that this offense, much more than the likes of Baylor, is predicated upon route running and being able to generate yardage from any position and at any depth on the field. Where the Bears like to primarily throw deep, carrier and Holgorsen believe the current Mountaineer offense should be able to exploit the middle areas behind the linebackers and in front of corners or safeties playing deeper to protect vertically.
That will start with Shorts, who led the team in receptions last season with 45 for 528 yards. Perhaps his finest game was his six-catch, 97-yard game in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State, when he exploited the Sun Devil secondary for two scores. Both were from the red zone, one on a beautiful catch on a fade along the sideline when he out-bodied and out-muscled the defender.
"If you really pay attention with what we do with Daikiel, he is the purest inside receiver that we have," Holgorsen said. "He is the guy that is always closest with the ball. When we go into heavier sets, he is still the closest receiver to the ball, so he will widen out because he is our best goal line guy."
At 6-1, 202 pounds, Shorts has the size to pair with vast playing experience. He also has a penchant for getting open in traffic, and being able to make the grab despite tight coverage. It's how he has become the so-called security blanket for Howard, who would often still find Shorts when he was a third option last season. West Virginia has been able to pair Shorts with a quickly emerging Ka'Raun White, whose skill set and strengths are similar. Neither is a true deep threat like Gibson and Durante, but both play more physical than their defensive counterparts, and have a nose for open areas within the coverage schemes.
"Just studying film and being patient down there," Shorts said in terms of what has made him effective in the red zone. "It’s a different speed of the game. Also, just getting that timing with Skyler down there. We still need to work on that. (You have to be) more patient because you can’t stretch the field. There’s only so far you can go. I just try to go in and do what I can do. Help the team out, make some plays, and make more routine plays. Coach has been preaching a lot about that, and to give Skyler a blanket and someone he can trust."
On the outside, Gary Jennings is doing much the same. The sophomore, who also splashed onto the scene in the Cactus Bowl - more than half his 116 total receiving yards came in the postseason - is adding a durable and resilient option on the outside. Jennings, 6-2, 203 pounds, is currently running with the second team behind Gibson, while also slated to be the first team punt returner and an option for kickoff return as well. The versatility has served him well, and showcased his quick twitch and cutability.
"That's your job to catch footballs," Jennings said. "As a receiver you always work on catching the football. Over the years you just catch hundreds and hundreds of balls."
To the point where it's expected, both of and by Jennings himself. And with Durante quickly showing himself able to play on the inside as well, West Virginia would appear to have significant promise at wideout, with a sturdy versatility unmatched in recent seasons.
"There’s so much timing with what goes on with where those guys are and the quarterback and the quarterback expecting them to be in the specific plays," Holgorsen said. "You say it’s easy to run a fade route, throw it out there and let the guy go get it. There’s such a timing with all that, running big routes, getting familiar with when they sit things down from when they go fast, shallow routes, crossing routes. There’s a lot of timing aspects to it to where you can’t just plug a guy in. I can assure you watching Jovon run a dig and Daikiel run a dig, is two different things. So the quarterback has to understand that to be able to have a lot of familiarity with what the timing aspect of it is."