MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – After receiving criticism for dropped passes last year, West Virginia’s receivers spent the offseason working to improve their consistency in terms of catching the football.
“We’re really not worried about the narrative. We just work every day,” explained WVU sophomore Bryce Ford-Wheaton. “This offseason, we caught more balls than, honestly, anyone in the Big 12. We caught thousands of balls every week. I think the total for the winter was like 89,000 balls combined. We took it really serious. We know what we had to do to improve, and I think we made great strides in that area.”
The Mountaineers return nine receivers who saw game action last year, and between them they caught 162 passes for 1,898 yards in 2020.
Still, there were too many drops for anyone’s liking.
Pro Football Focus, which charts numerous facets of NFL and college football, tagged WVU receivers with 32 dropped passes in 2020, which was easily the most among Big 12 teams.
So, consistency in terms of catching the football has been a big point of emphasis for West Virginia’s receivers.
“The guys had a really good offseason,” stated WVU’s second-year receiver coach Gerad Parker. “They know improvements need to be made from last season, and they are embracing that.”
Though he was fourth on the team in receptions last year with 27 for 416 yards and three touchdowns, Ford-Wheaton admits he’s one of those who can certainly improve.
“I need consistency, doing it every game and not just one game or two games,” explained Ford-Wheaton. “I want to be a factor every game, and that’s what I need to improve on.”
Seven of Ford-Wheaton’s 27 catches in 2020 went for 20 yards or more. Only Winston Wright and T.J. Simmons had more receptions of 20 yards or longer, as they had nine each. So the goal is to get the 6-foot-3, 222-pound receiver to combine his big-play ability with better consistency.
“He had a great winter,” stated WVU coach Neal Brown of the Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, native. “He just needs to improve his consistency and confidence. He’s uber-talented. He’s intelligent and knows our offense in and out. I think he’s ready to take the next step. I think he can be one of the better receivers in our league; I really do believe that.
“He’s becoming a more complete player, playing away from the ball,” added WVU’s third-year head coach, whose squad was 6-4 last season. “It also doesn’t get talked about much, but he’s been a really consistent special teams player for us on kickoff return, punt and punt return.”
A member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s honor roll, Ford-Wheaton’s West Virginia roots run deep, even though he grew up in North Carolina, where he was a three-year starter at Holly Springs High School. His mother, Tracie Ford, is a WVU grad. His uncle, Garrett Ford Jr., rushed for 1,554 yards in his Mountaineer career (1989-92), and his grandfather, Garrett Ford Sr., is a member of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, having rushed for 2,167 yards in his three seasons on the varsity (1965-67). The elder Ford also spent 44 years in West Virginia’s athletic department, first as an assistant football coach and then as an assistant athletic director in charge of academic counseling before retiring in 2011.
Now a third generation of the family is making his mark with the Mountaineers, and with 21 games of experience, nine as a starter, Ford-Wheaton seems ready to make a strong leap forward.
“My mindset going into this season is I’ve already gotten my feet wet, I’ve started multiple games, so there shouldn’t been anymore pregame jitters or anything like that,” said the sport management major. “I know exactly what I’m getting into now.
“I think I’m capable of making big-time plays and big-time catches. I just have to go out there and prove it.”