WVU Wide Receiver Outlook: Last Year’s Youth Is This Year’s Experience
The experience level returning for the Mountaineer football team at the wide receiver position this season compared to 2019 is night and day.
At the start of last season, WVU featured just two receivers who had significant experience for the Mountaineers the year before. Now they return eight such veteran pass catchers.
Returning – Freddie Brown (RFr.), Isaiah Esdale (Jr.), Randy Fields (Soph.), Sam James (Soph.), Ali Jennings (Soph.), Graeson Malashevish (RFr.), Quamaezius Mosby (Jr.), Sean Ryan (Jr.), T.J. Simmons (Sr.), Bryce Wheaton (Soph.), Winston Wright (Soph.)
Departed – Tevin Bush (Jr.), George Campbell (Sr.), Ricky Johns (Soph.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – Reese Smith (Fr.), Keion Wakefield (Sr.)
Expected to enroll this summer – Sam Brown (Fr.), Devell Washington (Fr.)
West Virginia’s eight experienced returning receivers were nearly nine.
George Campbell (6-4, 183 lbs., Sr.), a grad transfer from Florida State, had 19 catches for 469 yards for WVU last season with a team-high seven touchdowns. Because he missed all of the 2016 season and most of 2017 due to injuries while at FSU, he could have appealed to the NCAA to allow him to come back to West Virginia for the 2020 season as a sixth-year senior. But Campbell has decided to move on. He’s signed with an agent in January and instead of returning to college will now attempt to find a playing opportunity in the professional ranks.
Even without Campbell, WVU’s other top eight receivers all are eligible to return in 2020, including four who played as freshmen last year – Sam James (6-0, 182 lbs., Soph.), Bryce Wheaton (6-3, 215 lbs., Soph.), Ali Jennings (6-1, 181 lbs., Soph.) and Winston Wright (5-10, 167 lbs., Soph.).
Add to that returnee list T.J. Simmons (6-2, 199 lbs., Sr.), Sean Ryan (6-3, 198 lbs., Jr.), Isaiah Esdale (6-0, 201 lbs., Jr.) and Randy Fields (6-1, 196 lbs., Soph.) and the Mountaineers have a receiving corps with a whole lot more experienced players to start 2020 than they did at the outset of 2019, when they had just Simmons and Tevin Bush, who left the team in mid-season to transfer elsewhere.
The most explosive of the group last year proved to be James, who caught more passes (69) than any freshman in Mountaineer history – topping the previous high of 45 by Daikiel Shorts in 2013 – and finished second in freshman receiving yards with 677, which was just five yards behind David Saunders’ class best total of 682 in 1995. James led the 2019 WVU squad in both departments as well, and West Virginia’s coaches maintained that the speedster from Richmond Hill, Georgia, is far from hitting his peak yet. James’ top performances last fall came against N.C. State (nine catches for 155 yards) and Texas Tech (14 catches for 223 yards). His effort against the Red Raiders was the second-best ever at WVU, regardless of class, in terms of receptions and fourth-most in terms of yardage. For the season, James was an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick.
West Virginia’s other sophomores-to-be also displayed great potential in their first full year of varsity action. Wheaton, who like James was a redshirt freshman in 2019, caught 12 passes for 201 yards and two TDs. The Fuquay-Varinia, North Carolina native, whose grandfather (Garrett Ford, Sr.) and uncle (Garrett Ford, Jr.) both were running backs at WVU in past generations, did most of his damage in the later half of the ’19 season, as he had just one catch in the first four games, and thus accumulated the other 11 after that.
Wright and Jennings, both true freshmen in ’19, also became increasing factors as the season went along. Wright finished with 19 catches for 97 yards, and Jennings hauled in 19 receptions for 192 yards.
Other newcomers contributed as well last year. Ryan transferred to West Virginia from Temple in May and eventually was declared eligible by the NCAA. A midseason injury kept him out of the lineup for four games, but the Brooklyn native did manage to catch 19 passes for 219 yards surrounding that rehab time.
Esdale worked his way into the rotation for increasing time at receiver over the course of the season, and he wound up with 15 receptions for 171 yards. His biggest catch was his 35-yard game-winning TD at TCU in the regular season finale.
Simmons was the veteran of the bunch, having moved into the Mountaineer lineup in 2018 after transferring from Alabama. The Birmingham native caught 28 passes for 341 yards in his first season, and then despite missing two complete games and most of a third last year with an injury, he still managed to finish with the second most catches among WVU’s receivers with 35 grabs for 455 yards.
This group of Mountaineer receivers came on strong as they gained experience last season, but they need to develop consistency moving forward. Working with a new position coach in Gerad Parker, they’ll undoubtedly spend a great deal of time this spring trying to limit the drops that plagued them at times last season.
West Virginia also has some other receivers who were on the squad last season who will try to earn playing time in 2020. Fields saw lot of game action on special teams, but he wasn’t used much on offense, as he caught just one pass for six yards on the season. A pair of true freshmen walk-ons – Graeson Malashevish (6-9, 169 lbs., RFr.) and Freddie Brown (5-9, 175 lbs., RFr.) – were redshirted last year, and will now attempt to move up the ranks.
Added to these returnees is a promising group of newcomers.
Reese Smith (5-11, 180 lbs., Fr.) graduated from Boyle County (Ky.) High School a semester early in order to enroll at WVU for the start of the spring semester this past January. In his four high school seasons at Boyle County, which is also the alma mater of West Virginia head coach Neal Brown, Smith caught 201 passes for 4,378 yards with 64 touchdowns. Also hard-hitting safety, he had 26 career interceptions and 185 career tackles. His toughness and athletic ability will seemingly be a perfect fit at slot receiver, and he’ll get a chance this spring to show if he can work his way into the rotation for the ‘20 season or if a redshirt would be better suited.
Keion Wakefield (5-10, 175 lbs., Sr.) also is new to the Mountaineers, having enrolled at WVU as a walk-on in January after transferring from Louisville. His injury-filled career with the Cardinals yielded seven catches for 80 yards.
In the summer, West Virginia’s receiving corps will add two more promising scholarship newcomers in Sam Brown (6-3, 185 lbs., Fr.) and Devell Washington (6-4, 210 lbs., Fr.). Brown is a playmaker who spurned offers from the likes of Florida and Georgia to sign with WVU. Washington may be a bit raw at this juncture, but he has a combination of size and speed that make football coaches sit up and take notice.