There are a number of reasons for WVU's struggles to put together a good passing attack since the turn of the century, and it can't all be blamed on one factor. Recruiting certainly comes into play, as West Virginia hasn't been able to find or develop the big play downfield guys that can produce big gains and long scores. The Mountaineers have landed some highly touted recruits, but for a variety of reasons none has developed into the kind of playmaker needed to kick start the passing game. WVU has also been unable to develop many less heralded players into solid producers, as it did with several players in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, West Virginia's passing game has sputtered at times and downright languished at others.
Star players at other positions have also taken focus from the passing game. West Virginia has been blessed with a number of outstanding tailbacks and runners, and it only made sense to ride those players while they were in uniform. Of West Virginia's top eight career rushers, six played in the last 12 years, so it's understandable that WVU would not throw the ball all over the field. Conversely, only Chris Henry and Darius Reynaud reside in the Top 20 on the career receiving yards list while playing in the last ten seasons. Current receiver Jock Sanders will break into that list this year, but he, along with Brandon Myles, are the only two players who were consistent performers at the position.
Over the period, WVU has also tried more position moves than a yoga class to fill the gaps. Running backs and defensive backs galore have been tried at wideout in the hopes of finding another solid producer. But for every Bradley Starks, who has a very good 46 catches for 573 yards and three scores in two years, there are dozens of players who failed to have an impact.
None of this is breaking news, of course, but this spring the WVU coaching staff is taking a different approach. Rather than searching for taller wide receivers for the outside positions that can theoretically win jump balls and fight off defenders for catches, the Mountaineer mentors are looking at small, but speedy, Tavon Austin as an outside receiver. Following the sound coaching dictum of getting the best players on the field, the decision has been made to split Austin wide and deploy him along with Sanders and Noel Devine to form a trio that could be tough to defend in the open field.
The immediate question that arose from this move was one of size. Can WVU quarterbacks get the ball to a five foot, nine inch outside receiver? Will Austin be able to get clean releases against defensive backs that will routinely be bigger than he is?
Any move that flouts conventional football wisdom (in this case, that outside receivers need to be tall and rangy) will immediately draw such questions, but the beauty of the college game is that there's room for a number of different approaches and styles. From Georgia Tech's unique rushing attack to Texas Tech's aerial show, there are many proven ways to win.
It's not as if West Virginia has seen success with smaller guys on the outside before. Grantis Bell was a productive pass catcher for the Mountaineers in the early 1980s, and guys such as Gary Mullen (generously listed at six feet) and Cedric Thomas dot the Top 20 receiving list. Of course, their successes don't automatically guarantee the same for Austin, but there's no doubt that he has the speed and ability to make an impact. It's not just individual talent, however, that will determine how this move works out.
Two other factors to watch in this move are pass patterns and quarterback development. In the first, WVU will likely have to, as wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said recently, figure out ways to get Austin the ball. West Virginia will have to use routes that emphasize Austin's speed to help him get the ball. Obviously deep fly routes and post patterns will come into play, but it also won't be a surprise to see Austin and Sanders working on combination moves and crosses to try and get some space for catches. The orbit sweeps designed for the slot receivers could also be extended to the wideout spots to get a couple of carries for the speedy Austin. Installing these things, and developing the requisite timing for success, won't be an overnight task.
The second is perhaps even more important. Geno Smith's injury figures to have a huge impact on the development of the offense as a whole, and on his rapport with the receivers in particular. While Smith is still throwing this spring nothing replaces the experience gained by going through repetitions with the offense at full speed, and in game-like conditions. Smith is making the most of his availability on the field and in the film room, and he does have some experience to draw from in the Marshall and Florida State games of 2009, but there is no doubt that the missed time in the spring will have a big effect on his progress. How quickly will he be able to get into the groove with Austin and the other wide receivers? Will he be comfortable with any of the changes that will need to be made to emphasize Austin's strengths?
As the old Magic 8-Ball says, "Outlook Unclear. Try Again Later." There are simply too many variables right no to determine whether this move, the progress of young receivers such as Stedman Bailey or J.D. Woods, or the latest crop of high profile signees will provide the answers that the Mountaineer passing game has long been looking for. There's no doubt, however, that the coaching staff is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to make West Virginia's passing game a serious complement to its slashing running attack.