2011 WVU Football Season Preview: Wide Receivers

Without a doubt, wide receiver is one of the deepest and most talented positions on the 2011 roster.  And in light of the number of passes WVU figures to throw this season, that's an encouraging sign.  The loss of last year's leading receiver, Jock Sanders, will be softened by the emergence of a crop of new talent, such as Ryan Nehlen, Tyler Urban, and Devon Brown.  Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are a year older and, presumably, a year better. Things look bright for new inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson and outside receivers coach Daron Roberts.

New head coach and offensive mastermind Dana Holgorsen has continually expressed a philosophy that promotes balance among the number of touches different players receive.  As Dawson recently told the Charleston Daily Mail's Mike Casazza

"At halftime, if we look at the touches and see all five positions that can touch the football are getting touches, then that's good balance,"

While that's the philosophy in theory, reality suggest that one or two receivers will emerge as the go-to guys. Dawson explained the distribution to Casazza last spring:

"Our receivers can't be broken up where one guy gets 100 and the next guy gets 30," he said.

"It's more staggered where one guy get 100, one guy gets 80, one guy gets 65 and two get 40.

"It's better if it's evenly distributed across all the receivers and the running backs. The more evenly it's distributed, the less focus there is on one guy and the better it will be."

Obviously, at Oklahoma State, the go-to guy getting those 100 catches was Biletnikoff award-winner Justin Blackmon.  Before him, it was guys like Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech.  Does WVU have anyone who will emerge along that vein? The names on the latest depth chart, listed below, certainly provide some candidates:

X - Stedman Bailey, JD Woods, Coley White, Dante Campbell

H - Tavon Austin, Willie Millhouse

Y - Tyler Urban, Devon Brown

Z - Ryan Nehlen, Ivan McCartney, Brad Starks, KJ Myers

Let's discuss after the jump:

Obviously, all eyes will be on human sparkplug Tavon Austin, who has shown flashes of brilliance in his two years in Morgantown, but has seemingly been held back by the offensive system.  With Jeff Mullen currently at UNC-Charlotte, there isn't a coach in the country who knows how to slow down Austin.  By all accounts, Austin has been dynamite in practice and is poised to have a monster year catching, running, and returning kicks and punts.  In a recent WVIllustrated article about the depth at the inside receiver position, Shannon Dawson had this to say about the junior speedster:

"Tavon’s a guy that’s explosive," Dawson said. "I mean, I don’t know any other word to describe him. He goes from zero to full speed faster than anybody I’ve ever seen."

Starting opposite Austin will be converted tight end Tyler Urban, who has also been underutilized throughout his career.  Where Austin uses his speed and quickness to make plays, it's Urban's size and strength that will allow him to by physical at the line of scrimmage and hopefully make an impact in the red zone.  The two receivers complement each other well, and should provide a multitude of options for quarterback Geno Smith as they present different types of matchup issues for opposing defenses.

The backups at inside receiver are Wake Forest transfer Devon Brown, who we discussed last week in imabeast78's fanshot.  If you take a look at Brown's highlight video in that post, it doesn't take long to realize that Brown can definitely help.  He's no Austin, but he has a nice burst and some "wiggle" in the open field that should allow him to make plays in Holgorsen's system.  The other inside receiver is walk-on Willie Millhouse, whose name has popped up several times through spring and fall camp as a guy who could step up should the starters get injured.  

Stedman Bailey clearly has one outside receiver position locked up.  His rapport with Geno Smith from their high school days and his strong showing last season have him on the verge of a breakout campaign.  For some reason, Bailey seems to be overlooked by the mainstream media.  Why doesn't he get more love?  It's a mystery to me, but if I'm a betting man (and I am a betting man), I say that changes this year. All he does is get open and make ridiculous catches:

[H/T to our friend imabeast78 for the quality highlight vid]

At the other outside receiver position, Ryan Nehlen and former blue-chip recruit Ivan McCartney are battling for playing time.  This battle has been one of the best and most-discussed storylines of fall camp as both have seemingly made plays, yet had enough off days to keep from gaining much of an edge.  If Holgorsen is to be believed in this recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the battle is likely to continue into the season:

"Right about the time you think Ivan has the edge, then Ryan comes back and has his best day since he has been here," Holgorsen said.

It's that type of competition that makes both players better, and I have a feeling WVU fans will be reaping the benefit of that competition sooner rather than later.

The two freshmen, Dante Campbell and KJ Myers, appear to be talented and certainly have the physical gifts to be outstanding receivers at WVU.  Perhaps one will emerge as enough of a playmaker that Holgorsen is forced to play him, but at this point, it looks like both will redshirt.  Brad Starks is buried deep in Holgs' doghouse at the moment, and from what I hear will need to work harder than ever if he wants to take back his spot as WVU's primary deep threat.  JD Woods contributed last year, but we haven't heard much about him throughout camp.  Obviously he has the ability, but for whatever reason has simply been overshadowed.  Ditto Coley White, who seems to have been lost in the shuffle.  I'd love to see him break through and contribute at this point, even if only for the sake of his last name.

One thing I read in the aforementioned WVIllustrated article is the continued emphasis Dawson is putting on blocking by wide receivers.  After being perhaps the primary function of receivers under RichRod, that skill has seemingly been lost in the shuffle during the Stew era, as evidenced by the reduction in the number of big plays.  Look for more big plays this fall, thanks in part to the guys on the perimeter knocking down safeties and corners to free up running backs for huge gains.

Blocking aside, look for Tavon Austin to finish in the neighborhood of 100 catches (I'm predicting just short of that, likely in the low 90's), with Stedman Bailey just behind him in the mid-70's, and a cluster of Devon Brown, Tyler Urban, Ryan Nehlen, and Ivan McCartney grouped together, all with between 25 and 40.

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