MORGANTOWN — Of all the players who were supposed to have a positive impact on West Virginia’s rebuilt offense a year ago, perhaps the most disappointing in regard to the results was Kevin White.
Think about it. It was a team replacing a quarterback, Geno Smith, and two receivers, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who had rewritten the record books before moving on to the NFL. Replacing Smith was going to be a struggle and everyone accepted that. Charles Sims had arrived as a multi-talented back who could take some pressure off the passing game, but more than anything else the Mountaineers needed receivers to step up and make the transition to a new quarterback easier.
And White was supposed to be the one with the best chance to make that happen.
He didn’t. And he knows it.
“On a big stage, you want to produce and show how good you are,’’ White said. “But when you start losing and your numbers aren’t showing up, it kind of gets to you. I’ve always been a confident guy, but it’s hard when the stats and wins don’t match up with what you think you can do.’’
It’s not that White’s numbers as a first-year player were awful. They weren’t. He was the third-leading receiver on the team and tops among outside receivers, trailing only slot receiver Daikiel Shorts and Sims. He caught 35 passes, averaged nearly 15 yards per grab and caught a team-best five touchdown passes. Those were almost identical to the numbers he posted in his final season of junior college ball at Lackawanna.
But White was also a 6-foot-3, 210-pound physical specimen who was expected to fit in perfectly in Dana Holgorsen’s Air-Raid-style offense. When he caught seven passes for 80 yards in his first game, at Oklahoma (he missed the opener against William & Mary with a shoulder injury), he seemed well on his way.
But despite occasional spurts of brilliance, he was never the go-to receiver everyone thought — or at least hoped — he would be. It got to him
“When it didn’t happen and my numbers weren’t what they were supposed to be, yeah, it kind of got to me,’’ White said. “Confidence-wise it got to me, and the injuries didn’t help, either.’’
Anyone who has ever talked to White knows that confidence has never been an issue with him, but last year was obviously different.
“First time ever,’’ White said of his shaken confidence. “That was no fun at all.’’
Well, as West Virginia heads into its first game week of the season — the Mountaineers play No. 2 Alabama Saturday in Atlanta — White is almost right back where he started last year. No, he’s not expected to be the centerpiece of the receiving corps because Shorts and Mario Alford are both back and the entire group is far more experienced. But White is still being counted upon to play a huge role.
And this time it seems like he’s in a much better position to make it happen.
“It’s different now. I was confident last year because I’m always confident, but now I know what I’m getting myself into,’’ White said. “I know how quick the guys are, how fast the game is, how physical the game is. I know the little things I can get away with and the things I can’t get away with.
“When a D-back mans me up and they’re close to my face, I know the release I like more than another. It’s just that I’m so much more familiar with everything.’’
So is everyone else in the offense. To place any sort of extra blame on White for West Virginia’s problems moving the ball and scoring last season would be wildly unfair. If ever there was a group failure, that was it.
The hope is that the biggest reason for those failures was that everyone on the offense was just like White — too new. That’s not the case this year, particularly at the skill positions. The receiving corps — not including the tailbacks — returns 162 of 194 receptions. The running back corps is as deep as any in the Big 12, and the quarterback, Clint Trickett, has a year under his belt and a surgically repaired shoulder.
That last part is huge.
“Last year we didn’t know who the quarterback was going to be going into the first game,’’ said White, who caught balls from three different passers last season. “And then even after that it was a toss-up.
“We’ve got a connection going now. I’m running the routes that he likes and we know the timing we have to have on certain plays and certain routes. That’s a huge difference.’’
Again, it’s not as if White was a bust last year. In addition to the Oklahoma game, he had seven catches for 130 yards at Baylor, five for 77 against Texas Tech and five for 89 against Texas.
But consider the impact he was supposed to have and didn’t. In WVU’s four wins, he sat out one game and combined for four catches and 39 yards in the other three. That monster performance against Baylor came in a game in which the Mountaineers trailed by as many as 45 points and lost by 31. Even the Oklahoma performance was marred by a fumble when the Mountaineers were driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown.
And then he was a non-factor again in WVU’s most dismal performance of the season, an embarrassing loss at Kansas.
The experienced gained from all of that should help West Virginia this season, and it will certainly help White.
“The whole season gets brought up a lot, not just losing the Kansas game,’’ White said. “If we’d been more consistent and finished a lot of those drives and games, we might have been 8-4 instead of 4-8. We let a lot of those games slip away just because we were young and inconsistent, and when things didn’t go our way we didn’t know how to change it. I think now we do.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.