2016 West Virginia Football Preview: Wide Receivers (and Tight Ends)

3rd of a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s Football team ahead of the upcoming season.

And in case you missed them..

Quarterbacks | Running Backs

The 3rd installment of our preview will look at West Virginia’s receiving corps. The Mountaineers return almost every major contributor from a unit that surprised a some people last year, with the only notable losses being Jordan Thompson and TE Cody Clay. Some of the guys were prone to mental mistakes (dropped balls and occasionally sloppy routes), but if even a few of them take a step forward and the talented freshmen come in ready to play we could have one of the better groups in the country.

THE GAMEBREAKER

The focal point of West Virginia’s passing game will once again be Shelton Gibson, who will be looking to build off of a strong sophomore campaign that saw him emerge as one of the most dangerous big play threats in College Football. Gibson caught 37 balls for 887 yards (24.0 ypc, 2nd in NCAA) and 9 TDs, while also returning 11 kicks for an average of 32.8 yards (4th in NCAA) and another score. Overall, he averaged a touchdown every 4.8 touches.

Shelton is a great all-around receiver with solid hands and route running abilities, but his speed is what makes him truly special. Holgorsen himself has said Gibson’s one of the fastest human beings he’s ever been around, and that’s coming from a guy who spent a lot of time with Mr. 4.33 40 Tavon Austin. I know that in a vacuum “fast guy with solid technical abilities” makes him sound like some kind of a Mike Wallace knock-off, but to think of Shelton like that is disrespectful to just how damn fast he is, and how good he is at using that speed. Gibson seems to have a firm understanding of how his skill set affects opposing defenses, and was adept at using his speed and his opponents’ respect of it to consistently win 1 on 1 matchups on the outside last year. He’s also devastating after the catch in the open field, often making self-respecting D1 athletes look like HS kids. Exhibit A:

Two important takeaways from that clip:

1) Look at how far off those guys are playing, and even though it was semi-blown man coverage, look at how quickly they bail. They’re clearly worried about the downfield threat that both Shelton and Durante offer.

2) GUUUUUUMMP!

Game recognizes game, and often the best indicator of a player’s abilities can be found in the respect given to them by an opponent. It was increasingly clear as the season wore on last year that teams were terrified of Shelton.

None of this is to say that Shelton is exempt from criticism, however, and unfortunately the main concern with him is every down focus and concentration. He occasionally appears to be either thinking too much or not enough, and though this seems relatively small and fixable, it’s an issue that can manifest itself in a couple of different and very glaring ways.

With Shelton, the first and most egregious of these is that he dropped some balls that he absolutely should’ve caught last year. It’s frustrating because he makes great plays on the ball when he can run under it or doesn’t have time to do anything other than react (see: diving catch vs TCU, the play along the sideline against ASU where he got one foot in, or this ridiculousness in spring drills), but seems to have trouble simply looking the damn thing into his mitts. This is inexcusable for a top-class receiver and cost us first downs and even touchdowns last year, and we just cannot have it this year if we’re going to get where we want to go.

The other problem that arises from his occasional lack of focus is occasionally sloppy route running. Like I said, Shelton knows how fast he is and knows his opponents know how fast he is, and sometimes he relies on his speed to get open rather than using proper technique, which leads to rounded off patterns and poor timing with his fellow receivers and QB. I know we like to pile on Howard, and in most cases that’s fair, but there were also times last year when he put the ball where it needed to be and the receivers just weren’t there. There’s not really an excuse for this either at the high-D1 level, and both Shelton individually and the group as a whole need to work on it.

THE CHAIN MOVER

Daikiel Shorts may not be as exciting as Gibson, but he’s every bit as critical to WVU’s aerial attack. The senior led the team in receptions with 44 for 511 yards, while also contributing 5 touchdowns and a Hines Wardian knack for finding soft spots in zones on crucial downs. There are a whole handful of cliche words that come to mind regarding Daikiel, but really he means so much more than that to our football team and especially to this position group.

He’s the leader, the guy who sets the tone for all the receivers with his blocking on the edge. He rarely drops a pass or misses an assignment, demonstrating a level of consistency and excellence for the rest of the guys to aspire to. And he knows all three positions inside and out, so if one of the young bucks has a problem with route combinations he’s more than able to help. I actually think his work in this final regard last year had a big impact on how quickly new guys like Jovon Durante and Gary Jennings were able to get acclimated with the offense, and ultimately on how well they were able to play.

As far as criticisms go, even if you’re going to pick nits the only real knock on Shorts would be that he’s not really a big play threat, but that’s really a non-issue because we have plenty of other guys who can fill that role. We need Shorts to be a smooth operator in the middle of the field and move the chains on 3rd down, and at that he excels. He thrives on those intermediate passes that were unfortunately such a struggle for us last year, so if he and Skyler can sync up a bit better this year it’ll go a long way toward making us more consistent offensively.

THE DEEP THREATS

Sophomores Jovon Durante and Gary Jennings return as the most frustrating members of primary deep threats in West Virginia’s offense. Durante was the more productive of the two last year, catching 25 balls for 395 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Jennings was basically Durante-lite with 7 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Both of them are about 6’2 190, both are rangy and athletic, and both have a knack for being consistently inconsistent, catching passes they probably shouldn’t and dropping passes they should probably catch. 

In my opinion we need at least one of these two guys to step up and play big this year for our offense to thrive. You need a guy to take the lid off the defense, and when you look around the roster for someone who can line up on the outside opposite Shelton and provide that balance you’re left with these two, KaRaun White, and freshman Marcus Simms.

Jovon Durante will probably have first dibs on the lion’s share of that playing time ahead of the other three, but make no mistake that this will be an open competition. Durante failed to completely establish himself last year after some costly drops and then doubled down on his stupidity by getting suspended for the spring, so even though he’s probably the most talented of the bunch I also expect him to have the shortest leash.

THE TOKEN WHITE GUY

KaRaun White got and stayed on the field last year due to one thing: his blocking. He took advantage of the inconsistency of our other options on the outside and parlayed it into serious playing time towards the end of the season. Like his older brother Kev, KaRaun has a big body that he uses well to get open and like Kevin, he wasn’t overly productive from a statistical standpoint in his first year in the program. He did show solid hands when given the opportunity though, and by all accounts had a strong spring, so let’s cross our fingers that he’ll also follow in big bro’s footsteps with regards to the improvements in productivity we saw between years 1 and 2. If White can consistently add the same value to the passing game this year that he did to the running game last year, he might just emerge as the every down starter at the Z.

THE NEWCOMERS

The two most exciting additions to the group are incoming freshmen Marcus Simms and Steven Smothers. Please excuse the graphic nature of this comment, but I’m about to slobber all over these dudes so just bear with me for second. If you’re not also erect after the next few paragraphs, please consult your physician.

Marcus Simms comes in listed at 6’0 175, so you’re immediate thought is that he might be too slight to play right away, but actually the first thing that jumps out on his HS highlight tape is how strong of a runner he seems to be. He routinely runs through arm tackles and even lowers his shoulder and runs over a few guys. It’s hard to say how well he’ll hold up blocking on the edge at the next level, but at least he seems like he plays bigger and more physical than his listed size.

The second thing that jumps out on his tape is just how damn fast Marcus is. I don’t care if it’s HS or not, you have to be absolutely cruising to run a slant and split the corner and the safety up the near hash and he does that about 5 times in his video. And if the HS tape alone isn’t evidence enough, Shelton Gibson himself has already remarked on how fast Simms looks in practice. As far as speed endorsements go, they don’t get much more ringing than that: if Shelton says you’re fast, you’re fast.

My only concern about Simms is that he seems like he also has that Shelton thing where even though they have good hands, they seem much more comfortable making a play on the ball rather than just catching it, but hopefully they can figure that out together. 5 catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in his first spring game speaks for itself, and I firmly expect Simms to be in the picture this year.

Now for his classmate. As excited as I am about Simms, it’s nothing compared to how I feel about Steve Smothers. The dude just oozes potential. I hate comparing anyone to Tavon because as we all know, there’s Only One. Shout-out to Dougity Dog. That being said though, Smothers has gifts that you don’t see too often and you really can’t help but be reminded of Tavon as you watch him with the ball.

It’s almost uncanny. And it’s not just the way that he seems to be jogging passed fools or the freeze-tag world champion levels of agility that he uses to make them look ridiculous, it’s the sheer enjoyment he seems to be getting out of it. Like embarrassing people on the football field is his favorite past time. I’m down with as much of that as we can get.

You hesitate to place too many expectations on young shoulders, but suffice it to say that I expect both of these lads to come in and challenge for playing time right away. Smothers may need a minute to adjust to the speed of the college game but should still step straight into the #2 spot at the Y behind Daikiel and hopefully have his chance to stake claim to punt return duties, while Simms will be fighting for time at X and Z with Durante, Jennings, and White. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Smothers get a carry or two out of the backfield or on that quick little touch pass. Like Tavon, that dude needs as much of the ball as we can give him.

THE REST OF THE GANG

Rounding out the wide receivers are redshirt junior Devonte Mathis and redshirt freshmen Ricky Rogers, two kids who have so far failed to make much out of their careers in Morgantown. There’s probably still time for the younger Rogers, but with talented youngsters abound in both the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes the time is now for both of these guys to make their mark if they’re ever going to.

The one thing you can say about both of them is that they’ve stepped up and answered the bell on the rare occasions that they’ve been called upon. Rogers had a nice game against Kansas and Mathis was pretty solid in spot backup work, and honestly I think that’s what we’ll need from them again this year. For whatever reason, neither has shown the coaches enough to warrant regular playing time, so the best thing they can do is keep their heads down and keep working hard to make sure that they’re ready to jump on their opportunities if and when they come.

THE UTILITY MAN

One other guy who deserves a quick mention here is redshirt sophomore William Crest. Crest is officially listed as a QB on the roster but actually seemed to be growing into a utility role last year as a kind of do-it-all athlete. He ran the ball, caught passes, and even fielded a few punts. However, while he might offer the chance for the coaches to get a bit more creative with their play-calling, I’m not sure that he did enough to break into the discussion for regular playing time at receiver, especially if the new guys are able to come in and play as well as expected. There’s still time for Crest to make a name for himself in Morgantown, but this is the year where he probably needs to find something that he excels at and stick to it. Jack of all trades but master of none is a good way to get buried in the deep, dark crevices of the depth chart, and that would be a sad way for his once-promising career to play out.

THE IN-SO-MUCH AS WE HAVE THEM

Oh yeah, tight ends. I almost forgot we had them. I guess technically we should talk about them. The three guys who will be competing for time will be Michigan transfer and redshirt sophomore Michael Ferns, Lackawanna via Musselman product Trevon Wesco, and the homegrown Jon Lewis. There’s not a whole lot to say about the tight ends not only because we have traditionally ignored them like the plague, but also because all three of these guys will either be new to the program (Ferns, Wesco) or to the position (Lewis). Regardless of their relative inexperience though, all three should bring something to the table.

Michael Ferns is big and athletic, and if his HS tape is anything to go by he plays physical as hell. He was also instrumental in getting his younger brother Brendan on campus, so even if his career never really develops here I think that his brother’s might to the point that we will all remember him fondly.

Trevon Wesco is a West Virginia boy and I’ll always take as many of them as we can get. It’s simply a plus that he happens to be 6’5 and athletic with soft hands, maybe to the point that we’ll have to rethink the whole “not using a tight end” thing.

And Jon Lewis is a Morgantown native and WVU legacy, and is someone that I’m proud to have on the team. He’s a big body who you just know will be pouring his heart and soul into every opportunity he receives.

Something to note about these guys and they’re potential impact this year before we move on: even though I’m including them in the tight ends section, the position they’re really competing for is probably H-Back, and as we discussed in our previous installment, Elijah Wellman played well enough last year to solidify his claim to most of the available playing time there. It’s very rare that we use two tight ends, two H-Backs, or even an H-Back and a tight end, so offensive playing time for these guys will probably be extremely limited. There will probably be situational time available as a blocker when we want to run Wellman in short yardage, and obviously we’ll throw a few more big bodies out there in goal line sets, but unfortunately outside of special teams work I just don’t see these guys getting on the field too often.

POSITION GRADE: 4.5/5

I know I harped on this with regards to the running backs, but I think my favorite thing about the receiving corps is again how well the pieces just seem to fit. The roles are well-defined and what’s more is we actually have some pretty talented guys filling them.

Actually, the balance is my second favorite thing. My favorite thing is just how much damn potential this unit has. That’s what that 4.5/5 is based on, and that’s what has me downright giddy about them. I know that I’m doing the classic Mountaineer Fan thing where I talk myself into wayyyyy too much and end up setting myself up to be let down, but I don’t know if I remember us ever going at least 6 deep like this. We usually have one or two guys, sometimes maybe even three, but I can’t help but feel that on most of our teams in recent memory guys like Ricky Rogers or Devonte Mathis would be contributors and on this team they might not even see the field. That’s a big step forward for the program.

We know what we have with Daikiel, and even though he needs to get more consistent, we know how good Shelton can be, we’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Durante and Jennings, KaRaun’s worst case scenario is that he stays the same player he was last year and still contributes heavily in the running game, and Simms and Smothers are two of the more exciting freshmen we’ve seen come through in about 10 years. I mean, come on. Am I crazy to think that if even two of those last five guys step up big along with Daikiel and Shelton that we could have one of the best groups in the country? I don’t think I am.

One interesting thing to watch with regards to player development will be to see how well new WR coach Tyron Carrier interacts with the guys, but I for one love what I’m hearing. Carrier is only 28 years old, more than young enough for the guys to identify with, and played in the offense under Holgorsen at Houston. Can’t ask for anything more perfect than that.

Hey, does anybody else feel that? What is that, optimism? Is this what blind, unadulterated optimism feels like. Because that’s how I’m feeling about our receivers. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, but certainly a welcome one.

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