Veterans Poised to Lead

Wide receivers coach Steve Bird believes that his veteran group of wide receivers is poised to take the next steps in becoming a well-rounded unit.

Since the arrival of head coach Rich Rodriguez and wide receivers coach Steve Bird, WVU has, each year, had one or two pass catchers who attracted a great deal of preseason notoriety. Potential stars such as J. T. Perry and Broderic Jones, just to name a couple, were anticipated as being the breakout guys who would define the Mountaineer passing attack.

However, as is often the case, many of those players didn't pan out. For one reason or another, the newcomers (some of whom never even suited up) made next to no contributions to the West Virginia program.

Last season, that trend was reversed when Chris Henry got onto the playing field, and made an immediate impact. He, however, has been the exception to the generally disappointing performance of "young guns".

This year, although a new group of highly-regarded freshmen receivers are again scheduled to come in this fall, Bird has turned to his veterans to provide the leadership and stability that this corps of players needs. And so far, through winter conditioning and the first couple of practice sessions, he has been very pleased with the results.

"What I have now is a group a leaders within the unit, and they go and run the drills when we [the coaches] are not there. I've been so impressed with that," Bird said of his vets, which include players such as John Pennington, Miquelle Henderson and Dee Alston. "I watch them when they are doing the drills, and I see that confidence where they know 'O.k., we're ahead now.' That's why I feel good about the veteran group.

"Miquelle and Dee are the first kids that I've coached for four years in college," said Bird, whose tenure at WVU is now the longest of his coaching career. "You build leaders that way."

Before the team even hit the field for spring practice, Bird also was impressed with the way his group worked through the "off-season" as he calls it, although it's more like several weeks of boot camp.

"Our whole strength and skill development staff have done a tremendous job, and the kids really worked hard," Bird noted. "Mike Barwis did a great job in getting (new skill development) Coach Kinney acclimated, and he has hit the ground running. He's no stranger to what he has to do. He jumped right in and helped them get after it.

"What has been good there is that Coach Kinney has seen how hard the kids are working. He's observed, seen what they are doing, and just added to it. He can put in something that might help a receiver make a better cut, for example.

"The receivers have had a good offseason. I'm really impressed with what they have done. They've shown a tremendous growth and have improved their speed."

Now the focus has turned to on the field work, where one of Bird's main goals is to develop depth in place. That is, to get to the point where many of his receivers can play more than one position, and ideally all four. That trail was blazed by Pennington last season, and others appear to be following suit this year.

"I think they are working very hard on learning all the positions, not just one, and we've come into spring ball a step ahead. I think the receivers have a good grasp of the offense, but we are doing a few different things in the passing game," Bird noted. "You have concepts within the offense, and all you have to know is am I a one, two, three or four, and then go with it. That's what we've been trying to get to, and with the carryover from the past seasons I think we have that now."

While Bird is looking to improve the yardage and scoring totals in the passing game, he still takes time to work on downfield blocking. With WVU's stated intention of getting the quarterback more involved in rushing the ball this year, wide receiver blocking becomes even more important, and Bird wants his group to continue to improve.

"That's something that the whole group will have to keep improving on," Bird said with determination. "I will never be satisfied with that part of the game. If we are going to be a good running team, we have to get better at that in spring ball again.

"I think Eddie Jackson is going to show that he can be a good blocker. He's strong and does a lot of good things. I think Chris Henry is going to improve. But I think the guy that is the meanest and really gets after it is John Pennington. At the end of spring ball, Coach Rod will say "Alright, we've got to quit cutting (cut-blocking), and it's mostly because of Pennington."

In addition to his in-house veterans, Bird also has another one of sorts in Jackson, who will be playing his only season in Gold and Blue this year, but was in the program last year and has played high level competition at Washington and in junior college. Just like with his other veterans, Bird saw excellent work habits in Jackson, and believes that his addition to the wideout corps has been beneficial even though he has still yet to catch a pass in a game.

"The good thing Eddie has done this offseason is going on his own, watching film, studying, looking at the playbook. That's what I've been impressed with. He has a great deal of maturity, and he's brought that to the group."

WVU continues spring practice today with the third of their 15 sessions.

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