One of the biggest hindrances to the success of West Virginia’s offense a year ago was dropped passes.
It was a problem that wasn’t limited to just one player either. Rather, it was sporadically widespread among the Mountaineers’ entire receiving corps. Nearly every one had a case of the drops at some point.
But for those wondering how serious the team’s wideouts have been taking the issue throughout the winter and now into the spring, rest easy. Because, while there’s no guarantee the problem will be fixed, to hear junior Bryce Ford-Wheaton tell it, it has been a focal point of the positional group since the season ended.
It would have been easy for Ford-Wheaton to say that the team’s wide receivers have caught countless balls this year, but he has been counting, and the number is fairly astounding.
“I think the total in the winter was like 89,000 balls combined,” Ford-Wheaton said during a Zoom media call on Wednesday afternoon. “This past offseason, especially in the winter, we’ve caught more balls than I would say honestly anybody in the Big 12. We’ve caught every day. We’ve caught thousands of balls every week.
“We took it really serious. We know what we have to do to improve and I feel like we’ve made great strides in that area too.”
The team has even gone above and beyond, incorporating the use of goggles that, as Ford-Wheaton said, “helps you focus in and lock in on the ball.” But more than technology, it has become about routine.
“We really don’t do too many things different, but we just catch a lot of balls,” Ford-Wheaton said. “It’s really repetition and just getting in the motion of catching the ball so you can be more confident and know that you can make that catch regardless. We put ourselves in hard situations and mimic game situations too.”
What’s good for the group is good for the individual in this case, as Ford-Wheaton pointed to his own consistency as an area of need this offseason. Last season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder hauled in 27 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns. His yardage total was second on the team behind only Winston Wright, and his 15.4 yards per catch was also second with now-graduated senior TJ Simmons, who averaged 17.4 yards.
Ford-Wheaton’s yards per catch points to a receiver with big-play potential and one who could be poised for a breakout season, but Ford-Wheaton isn’t looking at it that way. Instead, it’s about growing as a leader and capitalizing on the experience of last season.
“I know I have to go out and prove it before anything, but my mindset going into this season is I’ve already got my feet wet, I’ve already started multiple games, so now I know what I need to do,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any more pregame jitters, anything like that. I know exactly what I’m getting into now.
“[I want to improve] more mentally than anything. I think I’ve got to take a big leap mentally so I can help influence my teammates and especially the receiver room.”
Obviously, and maybe specifically, that would include the team’s younger wideouts. Fortunately, Ford-Wheaton is in an ideal situation to be that influencer, serving as a big-brother-type role model to true freshman Kaden Prather in the team’s in-squad program.
Prather is the second-most sought-after recruit in this class for the Mountaineers behind only offensive lineman Wyatt Milum, and has enrolled early and is going through spring practices with the rest of the team. At 6-4, 209 pounds, Prather would certainly seem to have the physicality to match the hype.
Ford-Wheaton is seeing that promise as well, and now it’s his job to help make sure that potential comes to fruition.
“He’s been great, honestly,” Ford-Wheaton said. “He’s pretty advanced. He’s way ahead of where I would have been my freshman year of college, and he came in mid-year. I think he’s going to be a playmaker throughout his career here and I think he’s getting better every day.”