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2019 West Virginia Football Position Preview: Receivers and Tight Ends

No other offensive personnel group was hit as hard by offseason attrition as our pass catchers, but there's hope that a new generation of playmakers may be ready to start making their mark.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 TCU at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The "Throw It Up U" era under Dana Holgorsen featured some of the best WR play in the history of our program. Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey gave us our first taste of what was to come while Jennings, Sills, and Simms provided a fitting conclusion, but guys like Mario Alford, Daikiel Shorts, Kevin and Karaun White, and Shelton Gibson certainly created plenty of excitement in between. There aren't many programs in the country that could roll out a more impressive list than that over the last decade, and only Texas Tech and Clemson boast more receiver alumni on NFL rosters than our six.

Unfortunately, until the recent emergence of Trevon Wesco the tight end position never flourished in quite the same way. It's not entirely clear whether that was by design or simply a result of us not having players capable of flourishing, but the fact is that Wesco was the first tight end we've had drafted since Anthony Becht at the turn of the century. Here's to a new era, then?

Before we begin - I imagine most of the folks reading this will have at least some understanding of what my section headers are referring to, but here's some quick explanation just in case we have some first-timers out there. In football jargon, the various receiver positions are commonly referred to as the X, the Z, the Y, and the H. The X and Z are generally what you'd think of as "traditional" wide receivers, with the X lining up on the line of scrimmage and the Z a step or two off on the opposite side of the formation. The Y is generally the tight end but can also be a bigger inside receiver in certain personnel packages, while the H acts as the slot receiver. Clear enough? Good.

The X’s

This year our X receiver is TJ Simmons. The Alabama transfer started last year with a bang, taking his first reception in the Old Gold and Blue to the house for a 59-yard touchdown in the season opener against Tennessee. Unfortunately, he only topped that total once in the remaining 11 regular season games, and however unfair it may be, the play he's probably most remembered for was the "excessive blocking" penalty that negated Kennedy McKoy's 73-yard run late in the Oklahoma game. However, Simmons has emerged during this spring and summer as one of the emotional leaders of not only his own room, but of the whole team, and he seems eager to make the most of his first season as THE guy. At 6'2 200 with good speed, Simmons has the physical profile to make plays both inside and outside, and we'll likely see him lined up in a variety of interesting spots this year. The most valuable trait that he brings though might just be that physicality on the outside, which will be crucial in setting the tone for an offense that figures to lean on the running game.

Based on the July depth chart, the group behind Simmons at the X currently includes Bryce Wheaton and Ricky Johns, but don't be surprised if Florida State transfer George Campbell gets in the mix here, as well. The 6’4 Campbell was a 5-star recruit out of high school who just never really got things going in Tallahassee, but the athletic pedigree is undeniable. Based on the information that’s trickled out of camp over the last few weeks, Wheaton seems the most likely to make an immediate impact this fall. He reportedly had an awesome summer and at 6’3 220 is the biggest receiver on the team, which in addition to being useful in jump ball situations and in the red zone could also be a nice boost to our running game. Ricky Johns goes about 6’3 as well, and though he's probably received the least buzz of the three, he was one of the few guys who made plays downfield in the spring game.

The Z’s

The current starter at the Z is unsurprisingly Sam James. James actually appeared in 4 games for us last year but caught just 2 balls while retaining his redshirt. However, the guy had as good an offseason as anybody on the squad and now seems to be the near unanimous choice for “Breakout Offensive Player” this year. At 6’0 and just 183lbs James won’t overpower many defenders physically, but as a former 6A track champion in Georgia he has the speed to get behind defenses and make big plays down the field. That’s his primary utility this year - he's a guy that can stretch defenses vertically and open up the box for our running game, much in the way that Shelton Gibson did in 2016.

The only guy currently listed behind James at the Z is redshirt freshman Randy Fields. At 6’1 196, Fields has a similar body type to Sam James, but aside from that we don't know a ton about him yet. Another guy to watch here though might be Temple transfer Sean Ryan. Ryan’s involvement hinges on his eligibility, but based on the few nuggets the coaches have dropped about some of the things he’s been doing in practice (everybody watches every second of those interviews, right?), it sounds like he could be a real X-factor for us if (when?) his waiver goes through. I haven’t been at practice, so here are my impressions based on what I’ve seen the internet: long strider with good agility who uses his body extremely well to get open and shield defenders from the ball. Add in the 6’3 198lb frame and that package sounds a lot like one David Sills. I’m not saying that Sean Ryan is or will be David Sills, mind, I’m just saying that his frame and play style remind me of him. If he’s allowed to play, he gives us someone with length who can get open in multiple ways, run after the catch, and most importantly, win contested balls downfield. We need that skillset desperately this year.

The H’s and Slots

The current starter at the H is one of the few receivers on the roster that we actually have a pretty good feel for: mighty mite Tevin Bush. At just 5'6 and 165lbs, Bush can sometimes look a bit out of place in a game filled with giants, but we now have more than two full years of good things happening pretty much every time he touches the ball as evidence that he belongs. He has the elite short area quickness you'd expect from someone of his stature and averaged an almost comical 15.6 yards on his 20 traditonal touches last year, so I expect us to go out of our way this year to try to find creative ways to get him the ball in space. If he can maintain that level of productivity with increased usage he's going to be a big player for us this year.

Another guy we'll likely see here is JUCO transfer Isaiah Esdale. I don't know much about him, but as the only guy currently listed at the slot position on the depth chart he figures to see at least some playing time. If I had to guess at how the rotation will work, I'd think that Bush will be a guy that we use on quick hitters (screens, jet sweeps, etc) and try to isolate on linebackers with option routes, while the 6'1 205lb Esdale will take on more of a Daikiel Shorts type of role and play in situations that call for a physical guy who can maneuver underneath and move the chains.

A final guy who might see some time at the H is my Class of 2019 recruiting crush Winston Wright. The 5'10 170lb freshman has speed to burn as a two-time Georgia state sprint champion in the 100 and 200 meters, and as I've written repeatedly since this spring, he's as talented a guy with the ball in his hands as we have on our team. It seems as though we're easing him into a freshman Tavon type of role for now, where he'll primarily be involved as a kick and punt returner with maybe a couple of traditional touches sprinkled in just to see what happens.

The Y’s

Tight end Jovani Haskins is another guy who I see as a big X-factor for us this year, in that his development (or lack thereof) will have a big impact on the types of things we're able to do offensively. The Miami transfer caught 16 balls for us a year ago, and at an athletic 6’4 245 he looks every bit the part of a modern tight end. I’m confident that he’ll be able to fill Wesco’s shoes as a receiver, but he needs to improve as an inline blocker to truly match his predecessor’s impact. If he's able to do so, it'll unlock a lot of things for us through the playaction passing game that will make us difficult to prepare for; if he's not, it'll likely force us into some personnel tendecies will make us much easier to defend.

The two guys battling for time behind Haskins are redshirt freshmen TJ Banks and Mike O'Laughlin. Both guys go about 6'5 250 and are more than capable of making plays in the passing game, but like Haskins they have some growing to do in the blocking department. Banks is probably the more physical of the two right now because he played with his hand in the dirt in high school, but O'Laughlin, a high school receiver, has done an outstanding job transforming his body to get ready the role. I'm really looking forward to watching these two grow together over the next few years.

Next In Line

The guys mentioned above will likely take the lion's share of the playing time this year, but there are a few other guys on the roster who we should mention.

At receiver, true freshmen Ali Jennings and Graeson Malashevic are probably a year or two away from contributing. Ali definitely has the higher profile of the two and looks like he has the frame and athleticism to grow into a Gary Jennings-type of player at some point, but in-state slot man Malashevic is the one who's gotten a couple of shout outs from Real Deal Neal for his performances in camp.

At tight end is Morgantown native Joseph Turner. Turner is a redshirt sophomore but unfortunately didn't see any action last year as a freshman. I always love to see the local kids get some burn, so it'll be interesting to see if Turner's able to get on the field this year.