Bigger, Badder, Brasher Modeling themselves on Randy Moss and riding a revolution on offense, wide receivers are the new superstars of the college game

Oct. 06, 2003
Oct. 06, 2003

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Oct. 6, 2003


Bigger, Badder, Brasher Modeling themselves on Randy Moss and riding a revolution on offense, wide receivers are the new superstars of the college game

He was a junior varsity quarterback waiting for the day he'd be
handed the keys to the offense at fabled Permian High in Odessa,
Texas. Everyone in town knew Roy Williams. At 12, he'd run wild
from the tailback position, leading his little Bengals to
Odessa's Pop Warner championship. His older brother, Lloyd Hill,
had been a standout receiver on Permian's 1989 state championship
team. Soon it would be Roy's turn to star at the high school, and
he'd be running the whole show. Until the plan changed, that is,
four games into his sophomore season, in 1997. Seeking more
offense, the Permian coaches elevated Roy to the varsity and
moved him to wide receiver.

This is an article from the Oct. 6, 2003 issue Original Layout

Footballs came his way on Friday nights, and the field opened up
in front of him like a vast meadow. Defenders grasped at his feet
and came up with air. "It seemed like every time I touched the
ball I could make a big play," says Williams. "They throw it to
me, all I have to do is make one guy miss and then go the rest of
the way untouched. Pretty easy, every time. I could be the big
man on campus out there."

He still is, except the campus is bigger now. Williams is a
senior at Texas, a sculpted 6'3 1/2", 215-pounder with Velcro
mitts. He's the prime weapon for the 3-1 Longhorns, who routed
Tulane 63-18 last Saturday and are looking to knock off Kansas
State this weekend at Memorial Stadium in Austin, and then steam
into Dallas on Oct. 11 and end their infuriating three-game
losing streak to top-ranked Oklahoma. "He is a receiver who has
constantly changed the direction of games," says Texas coach Mack
Brown. "He takes over from out there."

Williams isn't alone. The receiver as every-play threat is the
hallmark of college football as it is played in 2003. The game is
dominated by Generation Wideout, breathtaking athletes who in
another era might have been running backs or linebackers but who
have embraced the trend and run with it, much as they do in a
broken field after a catch. "I've done high school football camps
all across the country," says Arizona wide receivers coach Mose
Rison, a former NFL assistant. "Everybody wants to play wide
receiver. If they can't play quarterback--the real glamour
position--they want to go out and catch the football."

Through the '70s and '80s, college football was dominated by
running backs. All but one of the Heismans awarded from 1973 to
'85 went to backs. That changed--slowly at first but more
recently with the speed of a broadband MP3 download. In the 17
years since Bo Jackson won the '85 Heisman, the sport has moved
from the ground to the air, and only five running backs have
taken home the statue. The new stars are players like
Williams--guys who combine a small forward's body with a
shortstop's athleticism and a linebacker's attitude. How they
came to be the go-to guys on the best teams is a story of
football evolution.

In 1975, when Oklahoma's wishbone ruled college football, teams
averaged an alltime high of 51.9 rushing plays per game and only
18.4 passes. Defenses played soft pass coverages, and says John
Robinson, who coached USC at the time and is now at UNLV,
"receivers were often medium-speed kids who could just catch the
ball." In response coaches began moving their best players to
defense and designing their schemes to stop the run. When Jimmy
Johnson arrived at Miami, in 1984, he upped the ante, making his
defense the fastest and most aggressive in the country by turning
linebackers into superfast linemen and defensive backs into
quick, punishing linebackers. Defensive innovators such as Bob
Stoops at Kansas State (1989-95) and then Florida (1996-98)
committed to the press defense, putting as many as nine defenders
in the box to stop the run. "We made a decision to take away the
run, pressure the passer and put our best athletes outside," said
Stoops early in his Oklahoma tenure. Every national champion from
1990 to 2002 followed the run-stopping recipe.

The only sensible response was to pass the football. Beginning in
the mid-'90s various forms of the spread offense emerged, with
four- and five-receiver packages. Last season college teams ran
just 39.5 times per game--the lowest since the NCAA began keeping
those stats in 1937--and passed 31.1 times, just short of the
record of 31.6, set in 2001. This year rushes are down to 39.1
per game, and passes are being thrown at a record rate of 31.9
per game. "The way defenses are playing, with a lot of blitzes
and a lot of receivers in one-on-one situations," says Wisconsin
wideouts coach Henry Mason, "the only way to move the football is
to get it down the field to the wide receivers." Adds UNLV
assistant Bruce Snyder, "You can't win a championship without a
guy who can make clutch catches. The receiver now changes the
scoreboard more than any other position."

The new wideouts walk in the footprints of Jerry Rice, Cris
Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens. But most of all they
idolize the man who made the wideout a star. "Randy Moss set the
trend," says Andre Johnson, the former Miami receiver who went
third overall, to Houston, in the 2003 draft. "When he came into
the league there was no one like him."

Today's uberwideout must have "speed and the ability to run after
he catches the ball," says Louisville offensive coordinator Paul
Petrino. He must also be "big and physical, to give smaller,
quicker corners trouble," says Georgia coach Mark Richt. He has
to be able "to beat a bump-and-run," says Brown. There's more.
Star receivers are creative and spontaneous, inventing plays on
the fly in response to defenses' aggression. "I don't want to say
you're playing sandlot football," says Clemson offensive
coordinator Brad Scott, "but there are a lot of reads and a lot
of little feel routes and a lot of slants and little hot throws.
That's what the game has changed to." Receivers aren't just
players but performers, bringing NBA attitude to the field. Says
Texas senior B.J. Johnson, a solid complement to Williams, "I
love the way Michael Irvin used to make a big catch and signal
first down."

Williams has all these skills in abundance. In high school he
high-jumped seven feet, long-jumped 25'6" and ran the 100 meters
in 10.30 (the last two wind-aided), each good enough to earn him
a track scholarship and point him toward the Olympics. Teammates
and coaches who've watched him for four years have seen countless
mind-boggling plays. Last year against North Carolina he ran a
streak route down the sideline, reached back for an underthrown
pass and caught it behind his helmet without turning around. (He
was whistled out-of-bounds on the catch.) "I saw him make a catch
earlier this year in which the ball hit his hands and fell toward
the ground," says Texas receivers coach Darryl Drake. "Before it
hits the ground, he just bends over and snatches it up into his
chest and rolls over sideways. Impossible. That's a drop, period.
And he caught it."

Like the rest of the Generation Wideout elite, Williams is
subjected to a weekly diet of double teams and brackets, even at
the risk of leaving others open. Also, like most of his gifted
peers, he gets a variety of hitch passes and bubble screens that
give him a chance to create something from very little, trying to
make one guy miss, as he did back in Odessa. "Make 'em miss or
run 'em over," Williams says. "Either way."

His dreams are taking shape--winning the Biletnikoff Award,
earning an invite to New York City as a Heisman finalist and
leading the Longhorns to a BCS bowl. "I see us winning nine more
games this year," he said before the Tulane game. "After that I
see myself being the Number 1 pick and then going up against
Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson next year. I can't wait."

He doesn't have to. Williams and his counterparts at college
football's hottest position have the future in their hands.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL MOSS APPEAL Williams and the new breed emulate the Vikings star (above).COLOR PHOTO: DILIP VISHWANAT/ICON SMI (MOSS) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES PITT BULL Fitzgerald, who leads all wideouts in yards per game, hauled in three TD passes against the Aggies.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO HORN OF PLENTY Williams holds every significant Texas receiving record and is eager to build on his numbers in the NFL.

Along with Roy Williams these four superstar receivers are
changing the college game

6'3", 225, Soph.
2003 stats: 32 catches, 583 yards, 9 TDs

The son of a Minnesota sports editor, Fitzgerald learned to run
crisp routes from Cris Carter and Randy Moss as a ball boy for
the Vikings. Unstoppable on the fade, he leads the nation in
receiving yards per game (145.75) and has caught at least one
touchdown pass in 10 straight games. He keyed Pitt's victory at
Texas A&M last Saturday with three spectacular TDs, the last a
49-yard over-the-shoulder catch in the midst of three Aggies.
"He's as good as it gets," says Miami coach Larry Coker. "He's
got size and smarts. If there's a ball in the air, he's going to
get it."

6'4", 225, Jr.
2003 stats: 28 catches, 415 yards, 4 TDs

A former high school triple jumper, the Huskies' Williams can
outleap and outmuscle opposing defensive backs. He's also one of
the best around at catching balls in traffic. In his first two
seasons Williams set Huskies career records for catches and
receiving yards. After a somewhat slow start this year, he broke
out last Saturday for 10 receptions, 138 yards and two scores
against Stanford. Says Washington State coach Bill Doba, "He's
like a defensive back playing receiver, because he'll hit you and
drive into you, and he'll block. I had a pro scout tell me that
he's not just the best receiver in the Pac-10, he's the best

6'2", 190, Sr.
2003 stats: 30 receptions, 502 yards, 9 TDs

Sure-handed and lethal in the open field, Woods is the most
explosive wideout in the nation. Against SMU on Sept. 20 he set
an NCAA record with seven touchdown catches in a 52-6 win. With
246 career catches, he's within sight of the alltime NCAA mark of
300, set by Arnold Jackson of Louisville from 1997 to 2000. An
avid fisherman, Woods dreams of someday joining the pro bass
tour; in the foreseeable future, though, he'll be otherwise
engaged. "This guy is a cut above," says Wyoming coach Joe Glenn.
"He just goes up over everybody. He's a can't-miss guy."

6'5", 230, Soph.
2003 stats: 27 catches, 394 yards, 4 TDs

Williams honed his skills by catching 100 tennis balls a day over
the summer. Though not blazing fast, he has a knack for big plays
and catches anything thrown in his direction. Rangy and muscular,
he racks up heaps of run-after-the-catch yards--a single DB
trying to tackle him in the open field is a sorry sight. On one
screen against Cal last Saturday, Williams caught the ball behind
the line, was hit almost immediately and still dragged five
defenders with him for a nine-yard gain. Oregon coach Mike
Bellotti says, "Roy Williams is the fastest, Reggie Williams is
the most physical, and Mike Williams might end up being the best
of the three."
More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and a photo gallery from the week, at