Shakeup likely in receiving corps
MORGANTOWN - Through West Virginia's first five games of the season, there was one aspect that was rock-solid, iron-clad dependable: The Mountaineers were going to able to throw and catch.
It was also a given who would be doing the throwing and the catching. Quarterback Geno Smith was, and perhaps still is, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin ranked 1-2 in several national receiving statistics. J.D. Woods was becoming a play-making third receiver and everyone was waiting for Jordan Thompson to explode.
So where does the pass-catch game stand after last week's embarrassing 49-14 loss at Texas Tech? Well, the thrower is still going to be the same, but the catchers could look a lot different.
Bailey, one of the best big-play receivers in college football, is apparently questionable for Saturday night's game between No. 17 West Virginia (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) and No. 4 Kansas State (6-0, 3-0) at Mountaineer Field. And on Tuesday, coach Dana Holgorsen all but promised that at least one true freshman would be among the starting receiving corps and another could join the mix.
Chalk it up to what happens when a team falls flat on its face and a coaching staff searches for both answers and perhaps motivation. A shakeup was probably inevitable, and only part of it has to do with injuries.
The bulk of it might be more mental.
"One thing about motivation is that I would think that motivation is indicative of playing time,'' Holgorsen said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "If you like your current situation, you'd better do what you've got to do to keep that current situation or that situation's going to change. If anybody thinks that they're comfortable in their situation and not doing what they've got to do to be extremely good at it, they're sadly mistaken.''
Reading specifics into that, however, is difficult. Holgorsen is obviously not happy with at least parts of his regular receiving corps. On Saturday at Texas Tech, he burned the redshirt of Travares Copeland, the 6-foot, 185-pound receiver from Port St. Lucie, Fla. He said he also considered doing the same with fellow freshman Devonte Robinson, another Florida recruit, but did not.
Bailey missed the second half of the Texas Tech game, presumably with an ankle injury. Austin had another standout game with nine catches for 114 yards. Woods played to the end and was Smith's go-to receiver during a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
But as for Thompson and backups like Ivan McCartney, their spots in the receiving rotation could be the ones in danger.
Holgorsen at one point Tuesday actually promised that Copeland would start before backing off slightly later and saying it would depend upon his performance in practice this week.
As for where he might start, that Holgorsen wouldn't get into.
"We made the decision to play him, we put him in the game, so we're obviously going to proceed and use him,'' Holgorsen said. "It's all about competition. Stedman goes down and doesn't play in the second half, who steps up? Well, we tried some people and that's the one we settled on. Based on that, it will be [Copeland]. Hopefully Stedman's back.''
Copeland caught just one pass for five yards against Tech, but that was in limited playing time. He was a bit of a phenom during fall camp, returning punts and kicks and playing receiver, but faded into the background when the season started and he hadn't caught on to the offense well enough to play.
"In hindsight, I wish we'd forced the envelope on it a little bit earlier,'' Holgorsen said. "In camp we tried, but he just didn't pick up on it. But the more he played, the more he was here, the better he's gotten. So we're going to play him. And if there's any other freshmen that step up this week, we'll play them.
"I said it from the very beginning, I don't care who you are, you're going to play [when ready]. I don't know what this puts our freshmen total at, but it's a lot higher than it's probably ever been.''
For the record, Copeland was the 11th true freshman to play in the season's first six games.
"He's been getting better and better every week and we got him in the game because we didn't like what we were looking at,'' Holgorsen said. "So we made the decision to play him. We almost made the decision to put Devonte Robinson in there. I probably wish I would have.''
The addition of Copeland or Robinson, though, might be easy to overstate. They play a high-profile position in West Virginia's pass-heavy offense, so they will naturally draw some attention. But Holgorsen was also quick to point out that his team's offense still ranks among the most productive in the country.
"I don't know if he's going to be the savior,'' Holgorsen said. "It's not like our offense is that broke. I mean, we've been OK this year.''
The only injury situation Holgorsen would address specifically was that of cornerback Brodrick Jenkins. He won't play this week because of a slight cartilage tear.
"He'll be back, but he's out this week,'' Holgorsen said.
Everyone else - including Bailey, guard Jeff Braun, defensive end Will Clarke and running back Shawne Alston - is listed as day-to-day by Holgorsen.
Also, two freshmen are listed as backups at cornerback. Ricky Rumph, 5-foot-10, is listed behind Jenkins and took Jenkins' spot last Saturday, while Nana Kyrehmeh is listed behind starter Pat Miller.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.