2019 Position Preview: Wide Receivers
A year ago, West Virginia harbored an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. David Sills V, Gary Jennings Jr., Marcus Simms and T.J. Simmons. In 2018, that quad attack produced 2,943 yards and 31 touchdowns which was, in a word, exceptional. That's not even accounting for Trevon Wesco's resurgence at the tight end position or Tevin Bush's contributions as an out-of-nowhere big play artist. Last year, the Mountaineers had weapons stacked atop weapons. That was last year, though, 2019 figures to be a completely different animal altogether.
Sills, Jennings and Simms have all made their exodus to different corners of the NFL and with them went the lion's share of the Mountaineers' star power. While Neal Brown is not inheriting an empty cupboard per se, this year's wide receiver corps has much and more to prove before they can steal a moment in the national spotlight.
Simmons is energy incarnate and one can reasonably assume, based on his pedigree and the flashes he showed last year, that he's going to be WR1. Other than him, only Bush has made meaningful plays and for the diminutive New Orleans native, this is a season that he simply has to build on several of his highlights from last year. If he truly does possess Tavon-esque potential, it needs to be unleashed. Beyond those two, we're venturing into largely unknown territory.
Without a minted starter at quarterback and a considerable lack of household names at wide receiver, it stands to reason that Mountaineer nation might be worried about the passing game in 2019. Although it was only a two short years ago that a few relatively unproven receivers and a quarterback who spent almost two years away from the game were able to draw the national spotlight. Might similar magic be in store for this season?
There's certainly a blueprint for success, but the raw materials at new receiver coach Xavier Dye's disposal bear myriad question marks. Let's see what he's working with going into 2019.
Starters: X - r-Jr. T.J. Simmons 6'2" 199 lbs
After transferring in from Alabama and biding his time on the scout team, Simmons was a solid contributor to West Virginia's prolific offense in 2018. While he only had notched one score on the year, Simmons made several contested catches and proved to be a great auxiliary target in light of sharing the field with several future NFL-ers. Now, after the unexpected departure of speedster Marcus Simms, Simmons is the Mountaineers' elder statesman and de facto pack leader.
There's no question the Alabama native has the pedigree. After all, he was expected to see the field quite a bit in Tuscaloosa before entering the transfer portal and he plays the game with reckless abandon (excessive blocking, anyone?). Which is all excellent news, given that he'll need to blow his 2018 stat line out of the water if the Mountaineers hope to field an effective passing attack. His 341 yards on 28 receptions last year is a more than respectable clip and there's no measure for the toughness with which he plays the receiver position. While he had more than a few drops last season, assuming he's mentally and physically ready to adjust to a much bigger role, Simmons has all the requisite tools to ascend to an elite level in a conference filled with top-end receiving talent.
Z - r-Fr. Sam James 6'0" 182 lbs
There's never not an instance where speed doesn't prove essential. Of course, Marcus Simms was thought to be West Virginia's resident burner in 2019 that would keep defensive secondaries honest only now he's a free agent signed to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Enter Sam James. James, a Georgia product, has electric potential. As a high schooler in Richmond Hill, GA, James was a virtuoso on both the gridiron and the track where he shredded competition at the 6A level (he averaged an astounding 17.1 per catch as a senior). In fact, he was so head-turning as a camp attendee that former WVU receivers coach Tyron Carrier exclaimed that he could "make him a first-rounder". It's time to see what the kid can do.
James saw very limited action in his true freshman season but the dearth of experience at the receiver position means he's going to get all the action he can handle. While Simmons will likely be the number one target, particularly on intermediate routes and in third down scenarios, James has home run threat writ large all over his no. 81 jersey. West Virginia has had no shortage of big-play guys in recent years including Shelton Gibson, Marcus Simms, Mario Alford, Kevin White and, of course, the duo of Sills/Jennings. James fits that mold and has some size and length to use to his advantage, as well. It will be trial by fire for James, and while that may be a lot to bite off for someone with scant game experience, the Georgia native might be an overnight highlight reel. We'll just have to wait and see.
H - Jr. Tevin Bush 5'6" 170 lbs
It seems like forever ago that Noel Devine and Jock Sanders were causing pint-sized mayhem in the old gold and blue. It's a bit of a call-back, then, to see Tevin Bush play a similar type of game for the Mountaineers a decade removed from his explosive forebears.
The New Orleans native didn't produce on a consistent basis last year, due primarily to injuries and a crowded depth chart. When the ball was in his hands, though, Bush produced in spades to the tune of 15.6 yards from scrimmage to go along with a pair of touchdowns. If you wind the tape back to several of his big plays, specifically those against Oklahoma and Kansas State, it's evident that Bush is a nightmare in space. While he's limited by a short stride, he has exceptional burst off his first step and has the make-you-miss DNA that Devine, Sanders and-yes-Tavon Austin all flaunted. If nothing else, Bush will provide a great counter to both James and Simmons in terms of build and versatility. If the latter two are meant to keep defenses playing deep, Bush will be the quick-strike option that can line up anywhere from out wide, in the slot or in the backfield. If nothing else, Tevin Bush will be fun to watch in 2019.
X - Bryce Ford-Wheaton (6'3", 215) Redshirt Freshman
While the first official depth chart released by the team has Randy Fields listed ahead of Ford-Wheaton, my gut tells me that will change.
Ford-Wheaton, of Fuquay-Varina, NC, is the type of big body that West Virginia desperately needs to quell its David Sills shortage in the red zone and at 6'3" and 215 lbs, he most certainly is that. With regard to his overall ability, he was named team offensive MVP his senior year despite missing six games with a shoulder injury. That should tell you what he's capable of.
After a full redshirt year in the program, the multiple WVU legacy should be well-acclimated to the demands of the college game. He's not a burner and he won't stretch defenses the way James or Simmons will, however, he looks readymade to step into a possession receiver role and bully people inside the 20 yard line.
Z - r-Fr. Randy Fields 6'1" 196 lbs
Fields saw no action in 2018 but that is certain to change this season under Neal Brown's watch. Another Baltimore product by way of St. Frances Academy, Fields was a dominant, physical wide receiver at the high school level, his highlight being his 13 catch, 210 yard performance against no. 1 ranked McDonough his junior year.
Fields boasts a big, solid frame and, coupled with a long stride, should be a bear in the intermediate passing game. Watching film from his high school days, you can't help but see some parallels to former sure-handed Mountaineers receiver Daikiel Shorts. He provides a stark contrast to starting Z receiver Sam James and it will be interesting to see how co-OC's Chad Scott and Matt Moore and receivers coach Xavier Dye handle the rotation at this position. However, as is the theme across the rest of the position group, Fields will get more than enough chances to bulldog opposing defenders and move the chains in 2019.
H - Fr. Winston Wright 5'10" 167 lbs
Out of all the depth charts for the 2019 team that have been made available to the public, not a single one lists a backup at the H behind Tevin Bush. If we're to make any kind of educated guess who will spell Bush this season, I'm going with Wright.
A native of Pooler, GA, Wright amassed over 1,700 yards from scrimmage his senior year with 700 of those yards coming from rushes. He was also a dynamo in the return game, with his longest to-the-house moment coming in the form of a 75 yard punt return in GISA playoff game. Oh, it's probably also worth mentioning that he was one of the best in the state of Georgia in the 100 and 200 meter events in track. You don't get the nickname "Jet" by running an average 40 time.
All of this is to say that Wright, while one of the greenest talents in the receivers room, is incredibly dynamic. Similar to how dangerous Tevin Bush has shown he can be in space, Wright has the same potential only with greater top-end speed. There's an enormous ceiling for Wright and it will be exciting to see him make the climb.
Notables: r-Sr. George Campbell 6'4" 183 lbs
This is where it starts getting interesting.
Campbell, of Clearwater, FL, was considered a five-star recruit and the no. 26 overall player in the nation during his senior year in 2014 before pledging to Florida State. As a freshman in 2015, he contributed solidly on special teams and seemed primed for a giant leap forward in 2016 ...then came a redshirt year. Then followed more injuries the following two seasons that limited him to only eight games across that span. His career-best performance as a Seminole came in 2017 against NC State when he was able to haul in three catches for 85 yards, including a beauty of a 60-yarder from the hand of James Blackman.
With a final year of eligibility, combined with the transfer portal being in en vogue, Campbell is now primed for one last ride as a Mountaineer. To say he's sitting atop a mountain of unrealized potential would be an understatement. Campbell has the toolset to be one of, if not the, best receiver in college football. Fortunately, West Virginia has had some success with addled former blue-chip prospects. Will Grier obviously made the most of his time in Morgantown, but more notably was the resurgent year had by Kenny Bigelow in 2018. Also a former five-star, Bigelow resurrected himself on West Virginia's defensive line and is now vying for a roster spot with the New Orleans Saints.
So, the blueprint for Campbell's success exists. In a year when Neal Brown is trying to lay down a foundation of excellence and there is no established star at the receiver position, Campbell has a more-than-perfect opportunity to take the Big 12 by storm. It would be an incredible story. Whether he supplants one of the starters at the H or Z position remains to be seen but with Campbell on board, and assuming the Mountaineers field solid quarterback play, West Virginia may just have one of the most potent secret weapons in the nation.
So. Sean Ryan 6'3" 198 lbs
Another potential gem from the transfer portal, Sean Ryan joins the Mountaineers after a solid freshman season with the Temple Owls. A native of Brooklyn, Ryan saw action in 11 game last season, tallying 12 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown in his brief tenure in Philadelphia.
While there's no official word yet on Ryan's status with regard to immediate eligibility, the Mountaineers would be grateful to have his services in the 2019 season. Like fellow transfer Campbell, Ryan is a tall, long athlete that runs and moves well in space. Where he would feature in this Chad Scott/Matt Moore offense is anyone's guess, although he's clearly built to play on the outside where his length and athleticism would make him a problem on deep balls. If granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, Ryan and Campbell could become an out-of-nowhere tandem capable of causing some serious havoc in the Big 12.
Fr. Ali Jennings 6'1" 181 lbs
Like another former Virginia product also named Jennings, the Highland Springs standout comes to Morgantown brimming with potential.
Jennings earned all-state first team honors during his senior campaign where he hauled in 40 catches for an impressive 874 yards and seven touchdowns. Jennings is another long, fluid athlete that can highpoint the ball and, while he's not the most explosive athlete off the line, has good open field speed. Not to force the similarities between this Jennings and the one that is currently a rookie with the Seahawks, but it's easy to see what the Richmond native can develop into given his size and the ease with which he runs his routes.
Originally a pledge from the Dana Holgorsen era, Jennings remained true to his commitment despite the changing of the guard and Neal Brown assuming head-coaching duties. By all accounts, Jennings is a high-character prospect that works hard on and off the field. If you ask me, that just oozes leadership potential. As the season wears on and the coaching staff tries out different sets and rotations, it would be an extreme surprise if Jennings was not able to work his way onto the field and contribute early. Alongside Wright, Ford-Wheaton, Fields and James, West Virginia has a potentially deadly nucleus of receiving talent starting to develop. For Neal Brown, Xavier Dye and the rest of the staff, that can only be good news. For those of us not mixing it up inside the Puskar Center, it's a wait-and-see game that will play out until the season kicks off on August 31st against James Madison.
Stay tuned for the rest of the positional previews here at DubVNation.