Can WVU Receivers Improve This Spring?
We began our Spring camp coverage of the West Virginia Mountaineers by looking at the team’s focal points. Then, we progressed through the quarterback room, the running back room, and the improved offensive line room. Now we shift our focus to the receivers and tight ends. The group returns all but two of its 2019 contributors, and a room that started very young two years ago now has a more veteran look. But the big question, given the group’s inconsistency last year, how much can the WVU receivers improve this Spring?
Developing Veteran Leadership
Among the wideouts, West Virginia returns five bodies who had over 100 receiving yards in each of the last two years. Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Winston Wright, Sean Ryan, Sam James, and Isaiah Esdale no longer carry the badges of inexperience. Instead, they will be viewed as veteran contributors and leaders in the locker room and on the field. All have had their bouts of inconsistency in the past. According to Coach Gerad Parker, however, the leaders are embracing these roles and the need more improved production. They are not, in his words, making any excuses.
That could prove a big difference between last season and next. Each of these players had his share of drops at critical junctures that left big chunks of yards and points off the board. But each of these players has also flashed significant talent that, when applied consistently, could lead to a significant improvement in the pass attack.
According to Head Coach Neal Brown, Ford-Wheaton “could be one of the best receivers in the Big 12.” The only potholes in the road are consistency and confidence, which Brown tells us Ford-Wheaton is developing. “He had a really strong winter.” Indeed, a strong winter with Mike Joseph seems to have benefitted the whole room. Parker says the entire group just “look[s] different.” That, he says, will help the group build confidence. That confidence will start at the top.
As for the tight ends, the Mountaineers return all three contributors from last season. Mike O’Laughlin leads the way. He has been a consistent blocker at the position, but he has also developed into a consistent receiving threat, piling up 329 yards in a COVID-shortened season. Behind O’Laughlin, the room features T.J. Banks, the former blue chip recruit, who Brown calls a “great athlete.” Used more effectively, Banks could prove a weapon.
Improving Through Returning Depth
While the leaders will continue to emerge in the wideout and tight end rooms through Spring and Summer, the Mountaineers also return depth in both groups.
For the receivers, West Virginia welcomes back Reese Smith, who proved to be a reliable possession receiver last year. They also return blue-chip recruit Sam Brown who piled up 140 yards in limited time. According to Coach Brown, he is ready to take the next step. By all accounts, he appears to be the vocal leader for the underclassmen. Randy Fields and walk-ons Graeson Malashevich and Preston Fox also provide depth in the room. As a group, their contributions on the field may still be small (in total, they combined for just under 350 yards last season), but we would anticipate one or more of them to carve out an increased role.
For the tight ends, the Mountaineers also return Charles Finley. In limited burn, Finley showed versatility in the position, with both a blue-collar blocking mentality and an affinity for finding space and getting tough yards. We would anticipate his role to continue to grow, particularly as Brown will look to incorporate more 12 personnel looks into the offense.
Adding New Talent
West Virginia also adds talent in both rooms this year. We will no doubt discuss blue-chip true freshman Kaden Prather multiple times through the Spring and Summer. Both Brown and Parker mention him specifically in their own comments exclaiming how quickly he is learning and “becoming a guy.” His teammates like him, and his work ethic improves daily. Prather has had big days in practice, and it appears that he will enjoy some early playing time as a result.
Additionally redshirt freshman Devell Washington, who is a big-bodied receiver out of Michigan, is also going through his first Spring. Parker notes that Washington is also making big strides and improved his body significantly going into Spring. Washington could play multiple roles at receiver, but the staff and fans will no doubt welcome his big frame in short-field situations. Washington’s size and strength make him capable of winning jump balls against bigger defenders, and that is something the Mountaineers always seem to lack. They have typically won those battles with athleticism. Now, they have more weapons to win those battles with strength.
Speaking of which, the new bodies in the tight end room also look impressive, especially Victor Wikstrom. According to Brown, Wikstrom certainly has a lot to learn. That said, he possesses strong measurable. At 6’4″, 250 pounds, Wikstrom has the size. According to the team, Wikstrom has also run multiple 4.4-second 40s at camps. The fastest laser-timed result we find is 4.51, which is still upper-tier speed for the position. Wikstrom also played goalkeeper in high school (in Sweden, where the game is played more competitively). By all accounts, he has plenty of raw athleticism to go with that size.
Additionally, the Mountaineers add Treylon Davis to the room. Davis will benefit tremendously from his decision to enroll early, and he is learning the ropes as a true freshman going through his first Spring.
Will the Improvement Follow?
The staff certainly sounds excited about getting back on the field and crafting the talent in these two position groups. By all accounts, the players have bought into the program and are working hard to compete. Fans have heard that story before, though. No doubt, then, that many of them remain guarded with any optimism reserved for these groups. We do not blame them. Indeed, we cannot wait to get a look at the players in the Spring Game later this month to see how their work translates in simulated game action. That, of course, will not fully answer our question of whether the WVU receivers improve this Spring going into Summer and Fall. But we will have a better sense of where to look as next season rolls around.