So far this season, the West Virginia receiving corps, which has had its ups and downs, has yet to produce one go-to guy that quarterback Jarret Doege feeds more than others.
Instead, it has been more of a by-committee approach with different players coming through at different times.
Is that a negative or a positive? According to Mountaineer coach Neal Brown it’s a little of both.
“We’d love for somebody to just be dominant week in and week out but I like having a lot of guys involved,” Brown said. “I think it’s camaraderie I think it’s good chemistry, I think it’s harder to prepare for and those receivers are getting better and we’re playing a bunch of those guys — we’re playing seven or eight consistently each week. There’s been different guys be productive. And so I like rolling with a bunch of guys, you keep them fresh and the defense can’t really lock in on any particular target.”
Trying to account for WVU’s stable of weapons on the outside will be the task for TCU’s defense next as the Horned Frogs get set to invade Morgantown on Saturday for a noon kickoff. The game will be televised on Fox.
The statistics certainly tell the story of a team running a plethora of options on pass routes. Sixteen different Mountaineers have caught at least one pass this season, including Doege, who caught a ball that was deflected by a Texas defender last week.
Sophomore Winston Wright is leading the charge, albeit not by much, with team bests in receptions (36), receiving yards (447) and average yards per game (63.86). He has two receiving touchdowns this season, as does fellow sophomore Sam James and junior running back Leddie Brown.
A third sophomore wideout, Bryce Ford-Wheaton, has emerged as the team’s most reliable deep threat and has three touchdowns to lead the team and an average-per-catch of 16.18, also tops on the roster. James (28 catches, 257 yards) and senior T.J. Simmons (11 catches, 219 yards) are also among the team’s most consistent contributors.
“What better way to build morale, build maturity than get those guys out on the field so we’re not fighting similar issues a year from now,” WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. “Instead of worrying about depth, we’re playing six to eight wide receivers each week, which makes it a very enticing place to want to come play as a young recruit, and it also makes a place to keep morale here in house.”
In recent weeks, a few other players have begun to emerge as major players in the passing game, particularly Isaiah Esdale, Ali Jennings and Sean Ryan.
Esdale entered last Saturday’s 17-13 loss at Texas with just one catch on the year, but hauled in six balls for 60 yards against the Longhorns. Jennings has caught a pair of passes in each the past two games, including a touchdown in a 37-10 win over Kansas State two weeks ago. Ryan has contributed 12 catches for 106 yards this season.
A year ago, the three combined for 53 catches and 582 yards and are coming on at an important juncture in the season. For Jennings, an early hamstring issue put him behind and it has been an uphill climb since the beginning of the season.
“He’s starting to come on and give us some significant minutes and reps out there during the game and starting to do some good things,” Parker said. “Really more than anything, he’s getting healthy and able to practice full speed and play at a faster level.”
“I had a lot of frustration,” Jennings added. “I kind of got down on myself during camp because I worked so hard in the offseason and during the COVID situation to come back and try to make a huge impact. I felt like it set me back two months behind everyone else, but I feel like these past few games I’m getting back to myself, better than I was last year, and I’m just going to keep moving forward with it.”
As for Esdale, Parker said that getting on the field and into the flow of the offense was as simple as improving his practice habits.
“Our guys play and they earn that right through how they practice, their practice habits and their ability to make plays and play with great effort,” Parker said. “Really big compliments to Esdale for being able to stay the course. We’ve thrown him and played him at different positions — inside, outside and all over the place — and he’s embraced it. He’s really changed his practice habits, he’s practiced really hard, had a no-nonsense mentality about it and that approach has led him to being involved.”