Receivers Continue To Progress

The wide receiver position was one of the most heavily scrutinized positions on the football team this spring. Wide receivers coach Steve Bird offers his assessment of the progress the pass catchers made during the fifteen practice sessions.

"I think one thing we really improved on was catching the ball and getting upfield. We had two scrimmages where we caught the ball better than we did at any time last year. A.J. Nastasi and Miquelle Henderson has very good springs.

"You've got a little bit of a battle going on at the other position, but one of my toughest blockers is John Pennington. John finished the spring as a starter, and a lot of that is due to what he does when the ball is not in his hands. He's a tough fighter, and he's starting to be that guy who looks for people to get a block on. He can play more than one position, and he can give us depth across the board.

"I've got to find someone to emerge to be another (fourth) starter out there. It might be a guy coming in, or it might be a guy who emerges during two a days and shows what he can do."

In addition to his duties as wide receiver coach, Bird also serves as the passing game coordinator. In that position, it's his responsibility to oversee all aspects of the passing game.

The passing game was under a microscope last season with the hoopla surrounding the installation of the spread attack, but this season the spotlight has dimmed a bit, due to the presence of two outstanding running backs and a veteran first team offensive line. Did that step out of the spotlight take some pressure off the receivers this spring?

"Probably the biggest thing that helped in that regard was the emergence of Quincy Wilson. He had a great spring. With his spring, we can probably show some different stuff -- three wide receivers and two backs, two backs and a tight end -- things like that. If you can be multiple and change some people in and out, it can take some of the pressure of the receivers, especially some of the young ones that will be coming in this fall."

Another factor that helped the receving corps improve was the stability of the unit. Last year, a number of different players were tried at receiver as the coaching staff searched for productivity from those positions. While those moves had to be done, they also contributed to an air of uncertainty around the group, as a set rotation of wideouts was never established.

This spring, the moves were fewer and the results better. Although Phil Braxton and Mike Page missed the entire spring, only converted running back Cassel Smith was added to the mix at wideout. That gave Bird the chance to focus on repetitions with the same group every day.

"Take a kid like A.J. Nastasi," Bird said of the familiarity factor. "He not only knows what he's going to do, but he knows what the guy next to him is going to do,and that's helped him a great deal.

"Our receivers feel a lot more comfortable, and they have a great attitude. I think having that year under their belt is making everyone more comfortable."

Just as it was entering the spring, however, the final question is one of depth. Although some players such as Pennington have emerged, the injuries and other setbacks that caused missed practice time this spring means that Bird is still searching for his final rotation.

"We'll be going to camp with anywhere from 14-16 receivers. What we want to do is find a group of eight that we'll feel really comfortable with going into a game. The biggest thing that we look at right now is that we don't have that depth. It's the big question mark."

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