With spring practice having concluded with the 2015 Gold-Blue Game in Morgantown on April 25th BlueGoldSports’ Data Analyst and Senior Writer Mark Fought breaks down each WVU football position group going into the long days of waiting for fall practice to begin. Today, the receivers.
West Virginia recorded the third highest total of receiving yards (4,121) in school history in 2014, led by the seventh selection (by the Chicago Bears) in the recent National Football League draft, Kevin White, and Mario Alford, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the draft’s seventh round. (White became just the 11th WVU first round draft choice ever.) Between them White and Alford accounted for 58 percent of those 4,121 yards, 51.2 percent of all completed passes and 52.4 percent of all receiver targets in 2014.
15 different players caught at least one pass from a WVU quarterback in 2014 and 9 of them return for 2015. However, several of those returnees were used primarily as either running backs (Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell) or as H backs, the blocking back/tight end hybrid position in WVU’s offensive scheme (Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman). The true wide-outs that return for 2015 are (alphabetically) Vernon Davis, Jr., Shelton Gibson, Devonte Mathis, K. J. Myers and Jordan Thompson. Between the wide-outs, only 4 touchdown receptions return – two each by Thompson and Shorts; the only other returning TD reception is one by Wellman.
If the running backs and H backs are subtracted from the 2014 receiving totals, WVU returns just 39.2 percent of its 2014 completions and 37.8 percent of 2014’s receiver targets.
In terms of 2014 starts, if we again exclude the running backs and H backs, WVU returns just 20.6 percent of them, and if Jordan Thompson’s 9 starts are subtracted that leaves just 4 starts – 7.4 percent – in 2014 that will return in 2015, all of them by Daikiel Shorts.
Clearly, WVU has to replace plenty of production that graduated (White, Alford and Dreamius Smith) or left the program (Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, who caught a combined 9 passes for 89 yards). That quintet accounted in total for 56.4 percent of all 2014 completions (194 of 340) and 61.2 percent of the receiving yardage total (2,522 of 4,121).
The quantum leap that Kevin White made from 2013 to 2014 is well documented. Could another Mountaineer receiver make a similar climb in 2015? While it may be a bit lofty of an expectation to see a 2015 Mountaineer receiver equal or surpass Kevin White’s 1,447 receiving yards in 2014 – second only to Stedman Bailey’s school record of 1,622 yards set three years ago – several players have a chance to make their mark as Mountaineer receivers in 2015. Let’s look at each returning Mountaineer receiver and project how they might be used in the WVU aerial attack in 2015. For each player we’ll list their respective statistics as follows:
Year, Height, Weight, Receptions/% of Total Team Receptions, Targets/% of Total Team Targets, Yards, % of Total Passing Yards
Jordan Thompson (Sr., 5’-7”, 176, 49/14.4%, 70/13.3%, 598/14.5%)
Thompson’s 49 receptions and 70 targets lead all returning 2014 receivers in both categories. His biggest game in 2014 was against Texas Tech, where he caught 6 balls for 109 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown catch. The Katy, Texas product showed great promise with spectacular Gold-Blue Game performances in 2012 (8 catches for 66 yards and a TD) and 2013 (6 catches for 123 yards and 3 TDs), but those performances haven’t translated into spectacular game day production . . . at least, not yet. This spring Thompson caught a pair of touchdowns at The Greenbrier scrimmage but in the Gold-Blue Game he caught just 2 passes for 8 yards.
Of the 2014 receivers that caught at least one pass, Thompson and K. J. Myers are the only seniors, so Thompson’s leadership needs to be felt not just on the field but in the locker room, the weight room, etc. Senior leadership is vital to any team’s success and Thompson, with 13 career starts, has the most of them amongst the returning wide-outs. The coaches have challenged Thompson to deliver a superior senior season in every aspect and he appears to be up for the task.
Thompson will man one of the inside receiver positions (usually referred to as “the slot” or the “Z” receiver). His best utilization appears to be on crossing routes where he can catch the ball at or near full speed and get to the edge then turn upfield. Thompson doesn’t possess Tavon Austin-like speed but he’s by no means slow and if WVU quarterbacks can get him the ball with room to maneuver he could make a big impact in 2015.
Shelton Gibson (r-So., 5’-11”, 188, 4/1.2%, 6/1.1%, 60/1.5%)
One of the benefits Kevin White brought to the 2014 receiving corps was his ability to win “jump balls”. White combined one attribute that can’t be coached – height, at 6’-3” – with good leaping ability to catch several passes that were purposely thrown over defensive backs with the expectation that White could go up and get them, and most often did. At 5’-11”, Gibson does not have that capability. Even if he were a superior leaper, those 4 inches in height difference simply won’t allow the “jump ball” to be as big a part of the WVU passing repertoire in 2015. (In fact, the tallest WVU wide-out currently on the roster is K. J. Myers at 6’-2”.) Does the lack of “jump ball” capability mean that WVU won’t throw the deep ball in 2015? If the recent Gold-Blue game is any indication that answer is, “No!”
In his post-Gold-Blue Game press conference head coach Dana Holgorsen noted that WVU had gotten in more downfield passing work this spring than it did in 2014 with White and Alford as participants and Gibson appears to be slotted as the primary deep threat from spring practices that were open to the public. Since he does not have a height advantage Gibson must rely on superior technique and route running to find openings downfield and obtain separation.
Separation for a wide receiver can be gained anywhere on the field but it primarily occurs in four areas – at the line of scrimmage (particularly in press coverage), at the point where the receiver cuts (if he isn’t running a fly or streak route), while the ball is in the air and at the point of the catch. Various techniques (swim, shake-and-rip, head movements, slow-then-go, etc.) must be employed and without the “jump ball” option Gibson, penciled in as one of the projected starters at outside receiver, will need to use the full range of techniques to gain separation.
Gibson showed decent speed in spring drills but not blazing speed. He also must work on consistency in catching the ball and eliminate drops, such as the one against Alabama that cost WVU a first down and momentum at a critical point in that contest. Working with the QBs this summer, particularly on deeper patterns, will be critical to preparing Gibson for the fall. If he and the QBs can fine tune the timing on his intermediate and deep routes plenty of completions could result in 2015.
Daikiel Shorts, Jr. (Jr., 6’-1”, 200, 24/7.1%, 45/8.8%, 346/8.4)
Shorts began his Mountaineer career as a true freshman January enrollee on the outside and tied with Charles Sims for the team lead in receptions (45) in 2013, but with White and Alford in the mix a move to the interior made sense. Now that the two NFLers are gone Shorts moved back to the outside early in spring practice as WVU’s coaches sought to get playmakers on the perimeter and the move appears to be permanent. Shorts is a very heady player, as the shift from the outside to the inside early in his career was practically seamless, so the move back to lining up on the numbers shouldn’t present a steep learning curve. He snared three (3) catches for 29 yards in the Gold-Blue Game.
Shorts has decent size at 6’-1” to take on Big 12 cornerbacks and has demonstrated good ball catching skills – he latched onto three (3) TDs in one spring practice scrimmage – but needs to become more consistent in catching, as his 53.3 percent success rate (24 receptions in 45 targets) was second lowest on the team in 2014 amongst receivers.
J. Myers (r-Sr., 6’-2”, 196, 4/1.2%, 10/1.9%, 15/0.4%)
Myers saw action in 11 games in 2014 – a lot of it on special teams. Myers had the lowest success rate amongst WVU receivers in 2014 at 4 receptions in 10 targets for just 40 percent. Like Thompson, Myers is entering his final campaign as a Mountaineer and hopes to make the most of it with increased playing time in 2015 and with leadership in the locker room.
Myers will enter fall camp as the projected starter opposite Thompson as the other inside receiver, but may get bumped occasionally by the receiver below.
Wendell Smallwood (Jr., 5’-11”, 201, 31/9.1%, 43/8.2%, 326/7.9%)
The one “wild card”, if there is one, at receiver (discounting the possible use of William Crest, which we won’t cover in this article) going into fall camp is exactly how the coaching staff will utilize the talented Wilmington, DE native. In 2014, Smallwood primarily lined up at running back and shared the load with Rushel Shell, but he could be used more as a receiver out of the backfield, or even see more slot receiver duties, in 2015 as Holgorsen seeks to put playmakers in space to operate.
In the post-Gold-Blue Game press conference Holgorsen said of Smallwood, “He’s without a doubt our most dynamic guy right now. He’s had a great spring. He’s probably our fastest player.” It is a given that the coaches will make every attempt to get Smallwood the ball in a variety of ways – as a runner, receiver and also as a kick returner. If Donte Thomas-Williams emerges as a force at running back to share the load with Shell it would free up Smallwood to line up as a fifth receiver in five-receiver sets and give even greater versatility to the coaches in how they use Smallwood.
Vernon Davis (r-Jr., 5’-10”, 175, 2/0.6%, 6/1.1%, 38/0.9%)
Davis saw action in 9 games last season, mostly in special team roles. Davis was targeted 6 times in 2014 and caught two passes for 38 yards. In the spring practice depth chart provided to media members at the Gold-Blue Game Davis’ name was not found on the two-deep chart, so he has some work to do to see more action at wide receiver in 2015. It must be kept in mind that Davis is a converted cornerback and his progression has been a bit slower due to learning a new position. He should, however, get a few more targets in 2015 and will strive to make the most of them.
Devonte Mathis (r-Jr., 6’-1”, 212, 0/0%, 1/0.2%, 0/0%)
Part of the Miramar, FL pipeline to Morgantown, Mathis was targeted just once in 2014 (against Alabama) and will begin fall camp as the back-up to Gibson at outside receiver. Mathis caught one ball for 23 yards in the Gold-Blue Game and hauled in a 30-yarder from William Crest at The Greenbrier scrimmage. Mathis has good size for an outside receiver and is a versatile athlete, having played quarterback and running back in his prep career and he has decent leaping ability, but lacks speed and is more of a possession type of receiver. If Mathis can push Gibson for playing time it would elevate both players’ capabilities and the coaches will be encouraging just that in fall camp.
Lamar Parker (r-Fr., 5’-8”, 167, 0/0%, 0/0%, 0/0%)
Parker will enter fall camp as the back-up to Thompson. Parker is somewhat diminutive in size but came to WVU with hopes of following in the footsteps of Tavon Austin, who was similarly sized. Parker has good speed and hands and after a redshirt year hopes to provide depth and get several opportunities in 2015. Parker may be a year away from making a big impact this upcoming season but could be a big contributor in 2016.
Ricky Rogers (r-Fr., 6’-1”, 201, 0/0%, 0/0%, 0/0%)
Rogers came to WVU as a 3-star recruit out of Monroeville, PA’s Gateway High School and, like Parker, now has his redshirt year under his belt. He will enter fall camp as the back-up to Shorts at the “Z” (inside) receiver position. Rogers made a nice leaping catch of a long William Crest heave for a touchdown in the back of the end zone at The Greenbrier scrimmage. He may mirror Parker in being a year away from significant contributions to the WVU offense but shows great promise and should get some targets in 2015.
Cody Clay (r-Sr., 6’-4”, 265, 7/2.1%, 11/2.1%, 65/1.6%)
Now we come to the unsung position amongst WVU receivers – the H backs. The position is one that primarily requires blocking skills with receiving being an added bonus on the few occasions the ball comes their way. While every H back would love more receptions it takes a special mentality to fill this role in the offense. Their value to the program doesn’t show up in a big way on the weekly stats sheets but if the running backs have good days and the quarterback isn’t getting sacked it is due, in part, to the H backs paving the way for the runners and keeping would-be tacklers off of the QB.
Cody Clay started 7 of 13 games in 2014 and saw action in all 13 of them, catching 7 passes for 65 yards. The Alum Creek, WV product has proven to be an ideal fit for this position. Take a few plays this fall to isolate on Clay and watch how he executes his assignments; doing so will likely provide an enhanced appreciation for his role in the WVU offense’s success.
Darren Arndt (r-Sr., 6’-3”, 248, 0/0%, 0/0%, 0/0%)
Arndt, whose younger brother Justin is a current WVU linebacker that was awarded a scholarship this spring, will back up Clay at the H back position as fall camp opens. The Martinsburg, WV native will get more snaps in 2015 as Elijah Wellman has moved from the H position to more of an offensive backfield role, meaning Arndt will be giving Clay some breathers.
Four incoming receiver recruits look to add their mark on the Mountaineer program beginning this fall, one more immediately than the others.
Ka’Raun White (6’-2”, 200, Lackawanna Community College, Scranton, PA)
The younger brother of the newly minted Chicago Bear, Kevin, Ka’Ruan will come to WVU with what might be unrealistic expectations simply because of his last name and his now famous sibling. Expecting Ka’Raun to erase memories of Kevin’s success at WVU last season is a bit over the top, but like any little brother he will want to show big brother that he’s every bit as talented and capable as the older son of Kevin, Sr. and Tammy White. With just two years of eligibility White is the one incoming recruit that will likely see the field early in 2015. Whether Ka’Raun can make the leap Kevin did between his junior and senior years at WVU remains to be seen but if he can come even close to the level of effectiveness of his older brother Lonnie Galloway and Dana Holgorsen will be very happy men in Morgantown.
Jovon Durante (6’-0”, 162, Hollywood, FL)
Durante, the latest member of the Miramar pipeline, comes to Morgantown as a highly touted 4-star recruit. At 6’-0” he has the frame to build upon but will need to add some bulk at just 162 pounds. With a 4.50 40-yard dash time Durante has good speed and quickness and could get even faster after a year in the WVU strength and conditioning program. Durante has the talent to possibly crack the line-up in 2015 and avoid a redshirt year, but ideally he’d spend that redshirt year adding muscle and mass and hit the field as a force to be reckoned with in 2016.
Gary Jennings (6’-2”, 205, Colonial Forge, VA)
Jennings was one of the last recruits to sign his Letter of Intent (LOI) with the Mountaineers in February but was a highly sought recruiting target hauled in by Lonnie Galloway from Stafford, VA. His signing was a capstone to the 2015 recruiting class. At 6’-2” and 205 pounds Jennings already has an ideal frame to build upon and could impress enough in fall camp to avoid the redshirt, like Durante. However, also like Durante, a year in the strength and conditioning program could do wonders and Jennings holds great promise for the future.
Jacquez Adams (5’-11”, 165, Resiterstown, MD)
Part of another football playing brothers duo at WVU – Jordan comes to WVU as an athlete not yet slotted for a particular position – Jacquez is a 3-star recruit who committed to the Mountaineers in mid-January. Similarly sized as Durante, Adams would also benefit from a redshirt year. His high school coach, Anthony Burgos, raved about the work ethic of both Jacquez and Jordan and that ethic will serve both players well as they begin their respective Mountaineer careers.
In summary, West Virginia has big shoes to fill at wide receiver with White and Alford moving on to collect paychecks on Sundays. Thompson and Myers must provide the senior leadership the receiving corps needs and it remains to be seen if Gibson or one of the other outside recievers can become a consistent deep ball threat. WVU appears to be loaded with quality and depth at the inside position and Clay should capably man the H back position. There will likely be a drop-off from the productivity of 2014, but not a fall-off-a-cliff type of drop-off. Dana Holgorsen is noted as a passing game guru and if he and Lonnie Galloway can coax and coach this group to reach their potential the WVU Air Raid should be proficient again in 2015.