WVU Football Questions For 2018: Wide Receiver
Question 12 – Wide Receiver – Not since the Tavon Austin/Stedman Bailey days have West Virginia returned a pair of receivers with more than 60 catches each.
But that’s the envious position the Mountaineers find themselves in heading into 2018, as seniors Gary Jennings and David Sills bring back a ton of game experience and receptions. And that’s not even counting a third proven pass catcher in Marcus Simms, who also is returning.
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Jennings entered his junior season with just 17 career receptions. He exited with the fifth best single-season total in WVU history, hauling in 97 grabs for 1,096 yards in 2017. The only thing he didn’t do in bunches was score, as he had just one TD last year. But Big 12 coaches didn’t hold that against the Stafford, Va., native, voting him second-team all-Big 12.
Jennings and Sills were an excellent combination in 2017. Jennings was the sure-handed chain-mover while Sills was a big-play machine. Surely everyone knows the improbably journey David took, going from WVU to junior college in hopes of living his QB dream before accepting his skills were best suited for receiver and returning to West Virginia in 2017, where he became an All-American. The 6-foot-3, 202-pounder from Wilmington, Del., caught 60 passes for 980 yards last year. His 18 TD receptions tied for the most in the FBS ranks in ‘17 and were the second-most ever in a season by a Mountaineer, trailing only Bailey’s 25 in 2012.
Both Jennings and Sills will look to add to those numbers. Gary may not be able to catch Austin’s career reception total of 288, but he very well could become just the forth Mountaineer with more than 200. And Sills, who is already fifth on WVU’s career touchdown reception list with 20, will try to chase down the top two in Bailey (41) and Austin (29). With fellow senior-to-be Will Grier again throwing them passes, hardly any record seems out of reach.
The only major loss in West Virginia’s receiving corps is the graduation of Ka’Raun White. He departure is not insignificant since he departs in the top 20 all-time at WVU in catches (124), receiving yards (1,862) and TD receptions (20). All that came despite playing only three years with the Mountaineers after transferring in from the junior college ranks.
Simms will be asked to take up some of the slack left by White’s exodus. The 6-foot, 184-pound speedster from Bowie, Md., may have been the fourth fiddle in last year’s receiving band, but he still made a major contribution, hauling in 35 passes for 663 yards and five TDs. Simms improved as a route runner over the course of a season and became more than just a deep threat only, though that remained a big part of his arsenal. If he can continue to hone his craft, Simms, who will be a junior in ’18, figures to be a lethal third target, much like White was last year.
So, if Simms steps into White’s shoes, who will take over for Marcus?
Reggie Roberson will certainly get a chance. The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder from Desoto, Texas, is similar to Simms in many ways. He’s got very good straight-line speed and can take the top off a defense. Roberson, like Simms, saw action as a true freshman, and they posted similar numbers in their rookie seasons – six catches for 30 for Roberson and six catches for 95 yards for Simms.
Roberson will likely factor into WVU’s receiver rotation more in 2018 than he did in ’17. The same is probably true for sophomore-to-be Druw Bowen, who often received rave reviews from receiver coach Tyron Carrier, though he only had one catch for nine yards on the season. Juco transfer Dominque Maiden will be a senior this coming season, and at 6-foot-5, 204 pounds, he’s the biggest of WVU’s receivers. He caught just one pass for seven yards this past season, his first at West Virginia, but now with an offseason to improve his skills, the Mountaineers hope Maiden can become more of a weapon.
Senior-to-be William Crest is available, as are walk-ons Mitch Chugunov (the younger brother of WVU’s quarterback), Anthony DePercio and Chase Riley. Each will get work this spring to see if they can factor into the receiver rotation, which despite the strength at the top end isn’t overloaded with experienced depth. Ricky Rogers, who would have been a fifth-year senior in 2018, will not return to WVU. Instead he’s going to transfer to a school where he’ll have a better opportunity to see the field in his final college season. He played in 10 games for the Mountaineers this past year. But most of that came on special teams, as over the course of his career, he caught just three passes.
One receiver replacement waiting in the wings is T.J. Simmons, who transferred from Alabama to WVU last summer and will be eligible for game action this fall. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound native of Pinson, Ala., played in 12 games for the Crimson Tide as a true freshman in 2016, with most of that time coming on special teams. A four-star recruit coming out of Clay-Chalkville High School, where he caught 47 passes for 1,228 yards and 20 TDs as a senior, Simmons is similar in size and skillset as Ka’Raun White, and very well may step into those shoes in 2018.
The Mountaineers also signed four high school receivers during the early National Letter of Intent period in December, and any of them also could see action right away as true freshmen. While WVU’s top receivers for 2018 are well established, it’s not the deepest group, so almost certainly Carrier will look to some of these first-year receivers for immediate help. It’s just a matter of what skills he’ll be looking for this year. Sam James is the fastest and most athletic, but still a bit raw. Randy Fields is the most technically sound, and Dillon Spalding and Bryce Wheaton are physically bigger and thus more prepared in terms of size for the Big 12. No matter who or how many of these four incoming freshmen play in 2018, it’s a very important receiver class, because this will be the group that will replace Jennings and Sills after they graduate following this coming season. It’s vital that West Virginia gets them ready now so they are prepared to handle bigger roles in the future.
And while we spent the past 1,072 words talking about receivers exclusively, in reality West Virginia’s pass catchers in the future may look different then they have in the past. Obviously running backs Kennedy McKoy, who had 10 catches for 72 yards this past season, and Martell Pettaway (two catches for 28 yards) will factor in as pass catchers as well, but so too will WVU’s tight ends. And the Mountaineers’ use of the tight end position figures to change greatly starting this coming season. Over the past six years, West Virginia’s tight ends – first Cody Clay, who had 20 receptions from 2012-15, and then Trevon Wesco, who has two catches the past two seasons – have been much more blockers than pass catchers. That will likely change for the Mountaineers beginning this year, as Miami transfer Jovani Haskins and incoming high schoolers T.J. Banks and Mike O’Laughlin join the program. Each has tight end size but is also regarded as an excellent athlete and receiver. Thus some of West Virginia wide receiver role from the past may now be shared with the tight ends, who previously were an afterthought when it came to WVU’s passing game.