There's a certain aspect that has one believing Shelton Gibson has shown what he is on the football field. He can track a ball over the shoulder as well as anybody in the Big 12. He has the ability to get past corners, then challenge or match the safety speed of those unfortunate enough to be on the back end. On the flipside, what Gibson hasn't done remains equally as clear. He still struggles in securing balls on comeback routes, and he's not nearly as effective catching the ball coming toward him on slants, curls and the like as he is finding it overhead. There have been too many drops, too many muffed receptions that could have gone for five yards or first downs.
So what's the next step? What's the tweak, addition or spark needed to turn what Gibson and head coach Dana Holgorsen both acknowledge was an underperforming 37-catch, 887-yard season into one of 1,000 yards - as player and coach note could have happened in 2016 - or even the 1,500 yards for which Gibson aims this season? The first is to continue to simply ply away at the trade, turning mere reps into receptions and honing the timing and repertoire between himself and Skyler Howard. But the other, perhaps equally key piece, is to understand the skill sets and abilities of the inside receivers, and maximize the value of that via the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum mantra.
Because without the threats of Daikiel Shorts and Ka'Raun White exploiting the mid-range game and finishing possessions when it gets tight down in the red zone, Gibson would be at risk of additional double teams, and find the lid on the top far tougher to crack. So it is that all three receivers, along with Jovon Durante as another slot wideout, and Gary Jennings as an outside receiver, are beginning to coalesce around one another to form a well-balanced whole. Add in a senior quarterback with two seasons in the program, and two seasons throwing to much the same targets, and the breakout time is now for West Virginia.
"It's a lot different," Gibson said of the difference between going into last year and this season. "(There's) more trust than last year from working with (Howard) the whole time. Going from the last season and the bowl game to spring ball and the summer, just to keep working with him. It was not everybody going from the ones to twos to whatever, but just to work with him."
It's an idea around which Holgorsen's ideals are centered. More reps and more time playing together is a cornerstone of building great offenses, and is the ability to do a myriad of things. On the latter note, WVU seems as well-suited as any offensive in the nation in both the run and pass game. Shorts has proven excellent in the red zone, and snared a couple passes in tight quarters in the Cactus Bowl win. Receivers coach Tyron Carrier called Gary Jennings his best all-around threat early. Durante blew away opposing secondaries early last season before wilting down the stretch, but has gained 15 pounds during the offseason, getting his frame to a respectable 6-0, 172 pounds.
And consider the differences between Gibson and White, who complement - and compliment - each other perfectly. One is a deep threat who would prefer to simply run past defensive backs, the other a possession type with excellent hand-eye coordination and the strength to rip 50-50 balls from defenders. Neither can do what the other, but it works in tandem on the field.
"I have been consistent for the most part his camp, so I am going to keep doing that and make plays when the ball is given to me," said White, who projects to easily eclipse his 15 catches for 275 yards last season. "Coach thinks I have strong hands and I work on that in catching and ball drills. After practice, coach (Carrier) will have us catch some balls. He has been doing some catching drills with us and I think that has helped. For the most part, I've always had good hands, so I just have to keep working on it."
Gibson summed his skills this way: "I really don't care how deep you are, I will get past you," he said. "You are gonna have to stop it, and it's really hard to stop it because I can get past."
It's the contrasts, and the complements, that make for a complete unit. And only Shorts is a senior; Gibson and White are juniors and Jennings a sophomore, which provides for a promising future, as well as present.
"Everybody on the team sets their individual goals, but the biggest thing is that if your team wins, you have done something to contribute," Gibson said. "Our team goals - a lot of people are saying win the Big 12 - but I think we are past that. ... I think we can go to the Final Four, but we have to beat Missouri. That's the first game."