Focal Point

While a great deal of attention is being paid to the quarterback battle at West Virginia this summer, the fight for playing time at another crucial position is being largely ignored.

Mountaineer fans can hardly open a web browser, or, for those still stuck in the 1980s, a newspaper, without seeing an update, commentary or opinion on the status of Adam Bednarik, Pat White, Dwayne Thompson or J.R. House, or any of the other myriad candidates for the QB job at WVU. And while that race is an important one, it probably is getting a bit more attention than it deserves.

The reason for all the scrutiny, of course, is the fact that quarterback is the glamour position on offense. The man at the helm handles the ball on every play, and since he's in the spotlight often gets more than his share of credit, or more of the blame, for the results the offense produces. As such, it's easy to zero in on the position, especially when the starting job is up for grabs.

All that attention, or at least part of it, is probably misplaced, however. There's no "quarterback controversy" at WVU, no matter how much some pundits would like to create one. This is simply a year in which several gifted QBs, who played behind the underrated Rasheed Marshall the past couple of years, are getting their chance. While they haven't had a chance to show much of their talent during games, they have demonstrated, during practice and scrimmages, that they do have the ability to move the team. Granted, doing it in front of 50,000 people and a nationwide TV audience in the Carrier Dome is different than doing it on the practice fields, but there's no doubt that both Bednarik and White have shown they are capable of running the West Virginia offense. No matter which one of the QB candidates wins the job and takes the first snap on Sept. 4, it will be someone that has demonstrated, in practice at least, the talent to lead the team.

While all that ink and all those electrons are being devoted to QB, another spot on the offense is deficient in that area. It is, of course, wide receiver, where WVU has struggled to be productive since Rich Rodriguez arrived on the scene in 2001.

Heading into this fall, the Mountaineers have a grand total of 12 receptions from returning wide receivers. The leading pass catcher coming back in 2005 is actually running back Jason Colson, who snared 12 balls of his own a year ago. The numbers produced by the wideouts aren't a lot to lean on, so West Virginia must find a player or two among the returnees, redshirts, props and incoming freshmen that can get open, catch the ball, and make defenders miss downfield.

Before we go any further, let me address the question I'm sure many of you have. ‘What,' you are thinking, ‘is the difference between the young and untested players at quarterback and those at wide receiver? Isn't there a lot of young talent at wideout, just like at quarterback?'

There are some similarities, but one major difference that stands out. WVU had a proven veteran at quarterback the last two years in the form of Marshall, who played well and used his talent to the best of his ability. While the young QBs might have mounted something of a challenge, Marshall's experience and productivity on the field kept him in the starting spot and them on the bench. The backups had talent, but not enough to surpass a proven veteran who guided WVU to some great wins. Now, it's the time for Bednarik, White, et al to make their move, just like Marshall did in 2002.

At receiver, on the other hand, the story is a bit different. Although WVU had a veteran corps of receivers last year, none of them, other than Chris Henry, put up anything approaching respectable numbers. Senior regulars Miquelle Henderson and Eddie Jackson never lived up to the hopes held for them, as each averaged fewer than two catches per game in 2004. However, West Virginia's backup receivers weren't able to unseat the starters, even with the anemic production generated by the first group. That's worrisome, and makes wide receiver a far more unstable position than quarterback this fall.

That's not to say there is no hope at wideout. Players improve over the offseason, and many times last year's backup turns into today's productive starter. Brandon Myles, coming off spring surgery, hopes to regain the early form he displayed last year, Rayshawn Bolden could build on his long catch in the Gator Bowl against Florida State, and Joe Hunter will try to mesh his outstanding athletic ability with the intricacies of playing the position. Redshirts Dorrell Jalloh and Tito Gonzalez, coming off a year of work, will try to make an impact after working with the scout team, and the prop pair of Darius Reynaud and Brandon Tate will also get to display their abilities on the field for the first time. Reynaud, who has outstanding leaping ability to go with his speed, and Tate, a big target who has both size and strength, could be dark horses in the race for playing time. Add freshmen such as Ryan Dawson and Jeremy Bruce into the mix, and there is, again a crowded field of competitors at the position.

As Mountaineer fans have seen recently, however, numbers don't necessarily equal production. For whatever reason, WVU's wideouts have been ineffective in the passing game in recent seasons, which has forced head coach Rich Rodriguez to rely more on his running game and passes to his backs. And while that formula has been successful, the addition of another forty receptions by wide receivers to the West Virginia attack could make the offense one of the best in the country.

Granted, improvements in the passing game will also rest on the shoulders of whichever quarterbacks take the helm in September. However, it's not a one-sided situation. Receivers have to make plays, too. They have to come up with a poorly thrown pass. They have to outjump a defender for a ball, or break a tackle. They have to "make plays" which is something that has been sorely missing from the position (other than Henry) for most of the Rodriguez era.

So, as you read about the latest progress of Bednarik and House as the rehab their surgically repaired shoulders, or take in the improvements of White, Thompson or one of the youngsters as they try to make a move during fall camp, spare some time to watch the battle at wide receiver as well. For it is there, not at quarterback, that the most critical position fights are taking place.


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