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West Virginia Mountaineers Spring Practice Preview: Wide Receivers

Our spring practice preview schedule:

Who exactly is Justin Blackmon?

It's not a rhetorical question, but more of a choice between evaluating the Blackmon known to Oklahoma State fans before Dana Holgorsen showed up, or the one that won the Biletnikoff Award after his arrival.

Blackmon arrived to Oklahoma State's campus as an unheralded receiver prospect from Ardmore, OK.  He was ranked as the #58 receiver in the country according to Scout, which is higher than the #91 ranking he garnered from Rivals.  And this wasn't a three star with a ton of offers -- no, Northern Iowa was apparently in the running for his services.

His freshman season, Blackmon caught 20 balls for 260 yards and 2 TDs.  Not bad for a freshman, but that was BH (Before Holgorsen).  After Holgorsen (AH)?  He was rampant, catching 111 passes for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs, winning the highest award for a receiver in the country.

The Oklahoman quickly sums up the transformation of Blackmon:

Last spring, Justin Blackmon was just another receiver looking to make a name for himself at Oklahoma State.  When spring football drills started Monday, Blackmon stepped on the practice field as the 2010 Biletnikoff Award winner.

Was that because Justin Blackmon is the most talented receiver in the country?  Probably not.  That's not to say Blackmon doesn't have talent, because it would be impossible to put up those video game statistics without at least a smidgen of skill.  But Holgorsen's system has a strange effect on players with the right skills: it makes them superstars.

Expect the same to happen to Mountaineer receivers in 2011.

When you were perusing the Biletnikoff Award winners in the link above, did you happen to notice Michael Crabtree's name as a back-to-back winner at Texas Tech?  Crabtree went on to also become the 10th pick in the NFL Draft, but he entered Texas Tech as a lowly two star recruit with low-to-middle Big 12 and Big 10 offers.

The 2011 version of the West Virginia Mountaineers has a receiving corps filled with enough talent to match or exceed the types of numbers put up at Holgorsen's former stops.

Projected Depth Chart:

Austin's 2010 season was both awesome and a disappointment, all wrapped into one.  He caught 58 balls for 787 yards, which is an accomplishment in recent Mountaineer teams.  Unfortunately, he was targeted far less than his talent deserved.  He averaged 13.6 yards per reception, yet went three games towards the end of the season where he only caught five total passes (Cincinnati, Louisville, and Pitt).  He also averaged over 10 yards a carry, yet only carried the ball 15 times all season.  If ever there was a player begging to be unshackled in a wide-open passing (and running) system, it is Tavon Austin.

Austin has the ability to torment defenses across the soft middle, catching the ball on the run and using his amazing quickness and ability to change directions to force big plays.  What he brings to the table beyond that is a deep ball threat, as seen in the Pitt game, which will make defenses to respect the big play and give him more openings in the 10-15 yard range.  Those types of consistent completions can demoralize a defense, just like the gashing run plays did in Rodriguez's offense.

Another home run threat is Bradley Starks.  Throughout 2010, Starks would come in and out of the Mountaineer offense, going five games without catching a ball (or not playing).  But when he did catch passes, they were big plays, as he averaged over 16 yards per reception.  Starks is a veteran receiver on a very youthful team of receivers that can really have a breakout senior season.  If he can work towards becoming a more consistent pass catcher rather than a pure down field threat, he can achieve the kind of success that was projected upon him when he first moved to receiver.

The owner of the stat line that most closely resembles Justin Blackmon's freshman season is that of Stedman Bailey.  Compare, if you must:

Blackmon - 20 catches - 260 yards - 13.0 yard average - 2 TDs

Bailey - 24 catches - 317 yards - 13.2 yard average - 4 TDs

Should we expect the same things from Bailey?  Probably not.  Bailey lacks the height of Blackmon (Bailey is 5'10", Blackmon is over 6'1").  But Stedman Bailey certainly has the chance to build on a stellar freshman campaign with a potential 1,000 yard season.  When he did make catches in 2010, Bailey made them in traffic, in traffic in the end zone, and in traffic in the end zone with one foot in bounds.  Without elite athleticism or size, Bailey made more dazzling receiver plays (that is, great catches) than any other receiver in Morgantown.  If that continues, just on a bigger scale with more total receptions, than Bailey will be extremely productive.

While Tavon may be the star of this coming year, the player that has the biggest chance for a huge jump is Ivan McCartney.  McCartney's freshman season was a complete waste.  He was deployed sparingly, and when he was deployed, his targets weren't of much quality.  He caught all of one pass for four yards on the season.  When I look back at the career of Jeff Mullen in Morgantown, it may be McCartney's lost season that most angers me.

But McCartney has the type of elite size and speed that NFL receivers possess.  He is built in the mold of Crabtree or Blackmon, and though his freshman season was a bust, he entered the WVU program with much more hype of regard than either of those receivers.  It's tough to judge anything based on last season, simply because McCartney looked so out of sorts on the field.  I certainly don't blame him for that, considering the lack of playing time he received.  Still, projecting a monster season after that dud is tough -- but if he's able to fulfill the promise of his recruiting ranks, that type of explosion statistically is not out of the question.

Just as in the comparison between Blackmon and Bailey in their freshman seasons, JD Woods is right in that mix.  More of a surprise than expectation last year, Woods caught 18 passes for 205 yards and a TD.  That's great production for what looks to be the Mountaineers' 5th option in the passing game this year.  I liked what I saw from Woods in 2010, but I fear there just may be not enough balls to go around to see him truly thrive at WVU.  Most of the Smoking Musket readers agree with me, too, as only 7% feel he will be the #2 target in 2011.

That leaves us with Tyler Urban, the most fish out of water member of this receiving corps.  Urban is a tight end playing in a system without a tight end.  At first glance, it sounds far less than ideal, but Holgorsen has adapted to this scenario before.  In 2008 with Houston, Holgorsen inherited a talented tight end in Mark Hafner.  Rather than deploy Hafner as a traditional tight end, he moved Hafner around, creating mismatches with slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs.  That season, Hafner led the Cougars in receptions and TDs, capping a stellar career with a senior season that couldn't have been predicted from him when Holgorsen took over.

And that's what Holgorsen is all about.  There is no such thing as trying to force a square peg into a round hole.  Holgorsen will adapt his offense (not overhaul, but tweak) to fit the personnel presented to him.  The personnel at receiver in Morgantown is highly talented and possesses enough diversity that Holgorsen should be able to make the absolute most of the passing game.  With Geno Smith at QB, that becomes even less of a problem.

So, when you're at Kegler's later tonight and you hear someone talking about how we don't have the talent of Blackmon or Crabtree on this team, feel free to scoff.  We have the talent of Holgorsen, just as Oklahoma State, Houston, and Texas Tech did.