Looking At WVU’s Position Battles – Wide Receiver
Two of the greatest pass catchers in West Virginia football history have departed. Replacing them is going to be a difficult but key task for Neal Brown and his new staff.
(Note – Year of eligibility for returning players listed below is for the 2019 season, while that listed for the departing players is their 2018 class. The * indicates a newcomer who is already enrolled at WVU.)
Returning – Marcus Simms (Sr.), T.J. Simmons (Jr.), Isaiah Esdale (Jr.), Tevin Bush (Jr.), Anthony Delpercio (So.), Ricky Johns (Soph.), Kwincy Hall (RFr.), Kolby Mack (RFr.), Bryce Wheaton (RFr.), Sam James (RFr.), Randy Fields (RFr.), Dillon Spalding (RFr.)
Departing – Gary Jennings (Sr.), David Sills (Sr.), William Crest (Sr.), Dominique Maiden (Sr.)
Newcomers – Terence Doston (Fr.), Ali Jennings (Fr.), Winston Wright (Fr.)
Other than maybe the quarterback spot, no position on the Mountaineers’ squad this season is taking a bigger hit than wide receiver.
Gone are two of the top receivers in WVU history in Gary Jennings (168 career receptions for 2,294 yards and 17 TDs) and David Sills (132 career receptions for 2,097 yards and 35 TDs). Both are among the top 12 all-time Mountaineers in each of those three categories. Add in the further graduation losses of Dominique Maiden, who had 10 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown this past season, and William Crest, who had four catches for 29 yards in his career, and West Virginia has some huge holes to fill.
Despite the loss of four seniors, though, West Virginia still returns some proven receivers. At the top of that list is the only senior receiver currently on WVU’s roster. Marcus Simms (6-0, 194 lbs.) has been a nice complementary option beside Jennings and Sills the past couple of years. He had 46 catches for 699 yards and two TDs last year, and shows 87 receptions for 1,457 yards and eight touchdowns in his three seasons with the Mountaineers. All are good numbers, and he has a very good chance of becoming just the 10th WVU receiver all-time to eclipse the 2,000-yard career mark. That chance is especially high considering he’ll likely be the first option in West Virginia’s passing attack now. Though he battled injury some last season, missing the bowl game with a knee strain, he did show overall improvement. A speed receiver who was used primarily on deep routes earlier in his career, last year he developed more all-around skills. WVU will need for him to continue that improvement in his final collegiate campaign.
Simmons (6-2, 200 lbs.), who transferred to West Virginia from Alabama in the summer of 2017, burst on the scene with the Mountaineers in last year’s opener, taking a first quarter crossing pattern all the way for a 59-yard touchdown against Tennessee. He had moments both good and bad after that. He did catch 28 passes for 341 yards, but he also had a number of drops he hopes won’t repeat themselves in 2019. He also had a costly, though questionable, blocking out of bounds penalty in WVU 59-56 loss to Oklahoma in the regular season finale. Add upon the good and cut down the bad and Simmons could team with Simms to give the Mountaineers a nice one-two receiving punch to start the Brown era.
The question is who will step up at the receiving positions after Simms and Simmons. Tevin Bush (5-6, 160 lbs.), who will be a third-year junior this season, received increasingly more opportunities at slot receiver for WVU last year, whether it was throwing it to him (18 career catches for 224 yards) or handing it to him, mainly on jet sweeps (26 career carries for 184 yards). Bush can certainly have a role in Brown’s offense, but the diminutive scatback from New Orleans has to prove he can be an every-down player.
Unless West Virginia picks up a veteran transfer at receiver between now and the start of the ’19 season, its other options at the position are all going to be very young.
Ricky Johns (6-3, 193 lbs.) will be a third-year sophomore who spent his true freshman season redshirting and working with the scout team at safety. He moved over to receiver last year, but only saw action in three games, most of that on special teams. Also junior Isaiah Esdale (6-0, 194 lbs., Jr.), a juco transfer who arrived at WVU right before the start of 2018 regular season, will try to develop. He played in one game this past year, but did not have a catch.
After Johns and Esdale, West Virginia has four redshirt freshmen – Bryce Wheaton (6-3, 210 lbs.), Sam James (6-0, 165 lbs.), Randy Fields (6-2, 193 lbs.) and Dillon Spalding (6-1, 215 lbs.) – who each have a great deal of promise. Wheaton saw action in one game, and James in four, even catching a couple passes, though for only two yards. But because of the new NCAA rule, each was still able to redshirt. Spalding suffered an ankle injury in preseason camp, which kept him on the sidelines all season. Now it will be an important spring for all four, as they try to work their way into Brown’s receiver rotation.
If they can’t secure spots this spring, incoming freshmen Terence Doston (5-11, 160 lbs.), Ali Jennings (6-1, 180 lbs.) and Winston Wright (5-10, 160 lbs.) will challenge them when they arrive in the summer. In addition, walk-ons Kwincy Hall (5-5, 154, RFr.), who had a 43-yard reception in the bowl game, Kolby Mack (5-11, 168 lbs., RFr.) and Anthony Delpercio (5-8, 208 lbs., Soph.) also will get reps in the spring.
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