Heading into the 2019 football season, West Virginia had a multitude of questions, but none bigger than at the wide receiver positions, where the Mountaineers’ new coaching staff was tasked with replacing David Sills and Gary Jennings.
WVU had precious few experienced wide receivers left after that pair headed off to the NFL. Over the course of the 2019 campaign, though, new pass catching weapons emerged. Now heading into a new season, West Virginia’s biggest question from last year may be its biggest strength this year.
Last fall the only three Mountaineer receivers who had caught a pass the season before were T.J. Simmons with 28, Tevin Bush with 14 and Sam James with two in a year he ultimately redshirted.
Bush decided to transfer out of the WVU program after playing just four games last fall, and lightly-used Ricky Johns also chose to leave West Virginia via transfer at season’s end. Besides that pair the only receiver the Mountaineers lost from last year is George Campbell. A grad transfer from Florida State who spent just one season with WVU, Campbell proved to be a nice addition for West Virginia in 2019. He caught 19 passes for 469 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns and is now trying to capture a roster spot in the NFL.
In comparison to three returning receivers in ’19 who had previously caught a pass for the Mountaineers, WVU now brings back eight who have such experience.
Here is how we view West Virginia’s coaches juggling that veteran receiving corps this coming season.
Anticipated starters – T.J. Simmons (Sr.), Sean Ryan (Jr.), Sam James (Soph.)
The trio, who started the majority of the games for the Mountaineers at wide receiver last year, all return in 2020.
T.J. Simmons (6-2, 201 lbs., Sr.) battled an injury in the latter portion of the year, but still started nine of the 10 games he played and caught 35 passes for 455 yards with four touchdowns. He’s the veteran of the group this year and the only senior scholarship receiver on the current roster.
The only WVU receiver with more catches than Simmons last year was Sam James (6-0, 184 lbs., Soph.), who latched on to 69 passes for 677 yards and two TDs. His accomplishments as a redshirt freshman in 2019 earned him honorable mention all-Big 12 recognition. His 14 receptions for 223 yards against Texas Tech is a freshman record for the Mountaineers.
Sean Ryan (6-3, 204 lbs., Jr.) arrived at West Virginia in the summer of 2019 after transferring from Temple, where he caught 12 passes for 162 yards as a true freshman in 2018. The NCAA granted Ryan immediate eligibility at WVU, and he hit the ground running with his new club. The Brooklyn, New York, native started each of the first five games in ’19 and caught 15 passes for 168 yards in that time. But a shoulder injury, that ultimately would require surgery, moved Ryan to the sidelines for a month. He missed four mid-season games but did return for the final three contests of the year, starting one of them. His production diminished, though, as he caught only four passes for 51 yards in those three post-injury games.
If all three can remain healthy, the top end of West Virginia’s receiver depth chart looks to be pretty strong.
Likely top backups – Isaiah Esdale (Jr.), Bryce Wheaton (Soph.), Ali Jennings (Soph.), Winston Wright (Soph.)
The quartet of backups, who each became integral parts of WVU’s receiver rotation last year, had precious little major college experience heading into the 2019 campaign.
Isaiah Esdale (6-0, 203 lbs., Jr.) played in one game in ’18 after arriving at West Virginia that summer as a junior college transfer. Bryce Wheaton (6-3, 218 lbs., Soph.) also played in one game in ’18 but still retained his redshirt status. Neither caught a pass in that limited duty.
On top of those two, Winston Wright (5-10, 167 lbs., Soph.) and Ali Jennings (6-1, 195 lbs., Soph.) each were true freshmen last season, but both earned considerable playing time as the year progressed.
Wright, Esdale and Jennings didn’t get a lot of game action early in 2019, but they all became major factors over the course of the season. Jennings and Wright each finished the year with 19 catches, taking them for 192 and 97 yards respectively. Esdale had 15 receptions for 171 yards, none bigger than his 36-yard game-winning TD in the final minutes at TCU. Wheaton caught 12 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
All four showed great promise last fall, and now all each returns for the 2020 campaign. While James, Simmons and Ryan may be listed as the starters on the depth chart, Wright, Jennings, Esdale and Wheaton are almost certain to see regular action as well in the rotation.
Other key returnees – Randy Fields (Soph.), Graeson Malashevish (RFr.)
A 6-foot-1, 198-pound native of Newark, Delaware, Randy Fields played in all 12 games last year as a redshirt freshman, though most of his snaps came on special teams. He did catch one pass for six yards in his work with the offense. As a sophomore he’ll seek to become more a part of the offensive rotation.
Graeson Malashevich (5-9, 177 lbs., RFr.) is a walk-on who earned a great deal of acclaim from West Virginia’s coaches for his practice work last fall as a true freshman. The Huntington, West Virginia, native didn’t see any game action and was ultimately redshirted, but by the end of the season he was travelling to road games in case he was needed. Though he’s not big, his toughness and quickness seeming to make him an ideal slot receiver. He was the Gatorade West Virginia Player of the Year in 2018 while a senior at Spring Valley High School, when he caught 37 passes for 915 yards and rushed for another 895. He accounted for 35 touchdowns, as he had 14 in receptions, 11 on rushes, pass for five, had two on punt returns, two on interception returns and one on a kickoff return. He’ll try to push T.J. Simmons and Winston Wright for playing time at the slot this season.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – Keion Wakefield (Sr.), Reese Smith (Fr.), Sam Brown (Fr.), Devell Washington (Fr.)
It’s an interest assortment of newcomers who will join the Mountaineers’ receiving corps this season.
The elder statesman of the group is Keion Wakefield, who is a grad transfer from Louisville. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound graduate of Louisville Male (Ky) High School arrived at U of L as a three-star recruit in 2016, but injuries slowed his progress, and he caught just seven passes for 80 yards in his Cardinal career. At the end of the 2019 campaign with his bachelor’s degree in hand, Wakefield sought a new home in which to play his final season of college football. That new home is West Virginia, where he enrolled in January. He’s willing to pay his own way, as he’ll be a walk-on for the Mountaineers this year. Still, with his experience at the FBS level, Wakefield could have an opportunity to push his way into the receiver rotation, probably at the slot.
West Virginia also has three new scholarship receivers, as Reese Smith (5-10, 186 lbs.), Sam Brown (6-3, 185 lbs.) and Devell Washington (6-4, 210 lbs.) are all true freshmen this year.
The Mountaineers don’t necessarily need any of the three to contribute in 2020, because receiver is the one position where WVU has an abundance of depth, but the possibility exists than any or all of them may simply be too good to keep off the field this season.
A product of Neal Brown’s alma mater of Boyle County (Ky.) High School, Smith was an excellent all-around athlete for the Rebels. He was a first-team all-state receiver for three seasons, scored over 1,000 career points in basketball – even though he didn’t play his senior year so he could enroll at WVU in January – and also was very good on the track team. He now brings that athleticism to West Virginia, where he seems the perfect fit at slot receiver.
A native of Savannah, Georgia, Brown was a prize recruit for the Mountaineers, picking WVU over a late charge from the likes of Florida and Georgia. He caught 40 passes for 731 yards and 11 TDs for New Hampstead High School in 2019 and was the region 2-5A player of the year. Brown also shined on the basketball court and on the track.
Washington has a combination of size and speed that earned him offers from the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, but he committed in the summer of 2019 and stuck with that verbal. He caught 74 passes for 1,131 yards during his high school career.
These true freshmen receivers are going to have to perform at a very high level this season if they’re going to see regular playing time in 2020. Considering the experienced talented in front of them, such immediate game action won’t come easily, but all three seem to have the skill that such a leap up the depth chart is possible.
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