As I sat watching the Hokies take on Alabama last September, two things became clear: I really wanted to change the channel, and we don't know how to catch a football. Anybody who has ever played football knows that the receiver is supposed to catch the ball with their hands, away from the body, when the ball is at it's highest point. Against Alabama some receivers were attempting to catch balls with their stomachs, at the last possible second, before eventually dropping them. Add in a few Homer Simpson doh's and you've got yourself a highlight video.
It was stunning how many drops there were. Granted, Logan Thomas throws pretty hard, but that's no excuse. Michael Vick threw a pretty fast spiral in his time too. First of all, wide receiver's gloves are tackified, and should give them the ability to bare hand a Mariano Rivera fastball, so why all the drops? The drops continued all the way through the season-ending Sun Bowl. First year VT WR coach Aaron Moorehead gave the group extra workouts on the JUGS machine, which is basically a football version of the pitching machine they now substitute for coach pitch in little league baseball, and it may have helped but it wasn't a complete fix. The Hokie WR corps was young (save for DJ Coles, who was nursing an injury) and had confidence issues due to their inexperience. It was easy to see many times that receivers were looking a bit too far ahead, worried about where they were gonna go with the ball, and who might be about to hit them. Hopefully that can be remedied with a year or two of experience, and the drops will go down over time. The drops were symbolic of the lack of discipline and failure to execute on offense this season, which led to a record low mark of just 22.5 points per game.
Looking beyond the outbreak of butter fingers, the WRs had a nice little year collectively. Let's examine:
- Joshua Stanford caught 40 passes for 640 yards and one score, and was consistently a go-to receiver on 3rd down. Those numbers were good enough to highlight the best freshman season for a Tech wideout in school history.
- DJ Coles was mainly used in the red zone and snagged 25 passes for 387 yards and an eye-popping six touchdowns. It's a shame his knee didn't allow him to play every down. He might have had a special year, and goodness knows Logan could have used him.
- In an unassuming year Demitri Knowles managed 45 catches for 641 yards and three touchdowns, and actual finally connected on his first deep balls with regularity. After having caught that huge pass vs Georgia Tech in the OT "thriller" on Labor Day night in 2012, he was nothing short of frustrating vertically.
- Willie Byrn caught a team high 51 passes for 635 yards and and two touchdowns. Very dangerous in the slot, Byrn might have saved the season with his johnny on the spot heroics vs Marshall.
We're Not Running The Single Wing Anymore So What Gives Here?
There were a few other players in the mix, but these four made up the core receiving group for this past season. As you can see the work load is pretty evenly distributed, and all return to assist the new starting QB in what expects to be another season with a significant amount of transition.
While it's beneficial to have depth, the Hokies tendency to mix it up brings me to my next point: In all of it's illustrious history, and through all these bowl games, Virgnia Tech still hasn't produced a WR that has gained 1,000 yards in a single season. Certainly the fact that the work is distributed evenly and the ball is spread around is a major contributing factor. When this is combined with a run first offense, the possibility exists that VT under Beamer might never get one."What, you ask? Surely we have to have one! Andre Davis didn't? Antonio Freeman? Jarrett Boykin?" No to one, no to all. Tech has had plenty of top-flight wide receivers, but never a 1,000 yarder, not even as the schedules have expanded from 11 to sometimes 14 games over the past decade. I
Some might say: "Well, that's terrible! We need to throw the ball more!" This would be a fallacy. We threw the ball too much the past two years, mostly out of necessity, and it lends to operating from a position of weakness. Virginia Tech's success is rooted in the run game. If I was a coach at Tech I would feel completely comfortable walking up to a recruit and saying, "Hi, welcome to Virginia Tech, we run the ball." Unfortunately the last two years, that would have made a liar of me. The question to ask is how much value-add we would've attained from having a guy reach that milestone. Would it attract more recruits? Would it have gotten guys drafted higher so that we could bank on the prestige? Would it change our perception even a little bit from being the guys who have a shaky, unreliable passing game?
A few Hokies have come close to the 1,000 yard mark, Boykin being the most recent. It's going to happen, maybe not until the playoff system drags seasons to the 16 game mark, but it'll happen. I think Moorehead has great energy and he will produce a 1,000 yard receiver before he is done at VT, perhaps more than one. He brings that Super Bowl pedigree (Colts 2007), which adds that credibility young guys long for in their mentors, that built in seal of approval. Not to mention his father was a champion with the '85 Chicago Bears.
Editor's Note: Because of Moorehead's background of winning in the NFL, I have been worried about him growing easily bored with the Groundhog Day kind of atmosphere Frank Beamer fosters. The one where he configures his weeks Day 1 - Day 7 (or 11 if the Thursday bye) for preparation purposes. Nobody ever knows what day it is, and therefore there is never a truly "NEW" day. Anyway, it wouldn't surprise me to see Moorehead move along to another position soon.
Stanford appears to be the favorite of all the returning candidates. And it would be amusing to have a Canadian break the chain. He's certainly explosive, and always seems to be open.
So What's Next Then?
In years past, a lot of our skill players were listed as athletes upon being recruited, this meant that the coach hadn't designated their position yet. Some kids had played two ways in high school, and coaches would move players around. QBs became WRs (Marcus Davis, Marcus Vick), OL become DL and vice versa, and I even heard about this one time we moved a tight end to quarterback. Did that work out? I was trying not to watch. Finally it appears that we have a group of WRs that are natural to their position.
Editor's Note: Had a hard time here not saying "This One Time" as though we were exchanging band camp stories.
This year, Moorehead went on the recruiting trail, and it looked like he kicked some tail and took some names, some very good names. Tech got commitments from four receivers this year: four-stars Javon Harrison and Cameron Phillips, as well as three-stars Jaylen Bradshaw and Kendrick Holland. Greg Stroman, a two star recruit, is listed as a WR on some sites and a CB on others. We'll see where he ends up. This is some fine work by Coach Moorehead. It's also the best recruiting class in terms of true wide receivers in Virginia Tech history. Only two classes in recent years have come close: 2004 which featured Eddie Royal, and 2008 which featured Coles and Boykin. It appears good days are on the horizon for the passing game. Combine this class with all the young guys from the last two seasons, and we are going to see some stiff competition at the receiver spots. Are we going to see the next Andre Davis or Antonio Freeman in the next few years? We very well might, though it would be about 13 years before we can say we saw the next Freeman since he had the 5th best receiving career in Packers history (3rd best when he retired before the NFL went to two hand touch). Moorehead still has a tremendous amount of teaching to do, and for the unit to be considered improved the group will need to eliminate last year's mistakes and begin to make some bigger plays.
Last Editor's Note: Worried about rumors of a last minute Bradshaw decommit, but VT is in on Isaiah Ford (a Louisville decommit) and Isaiah McKenzie (former Notre Dame commit). Both are four-star recruits. More on this a bit later today on GobblerCountry.
Sometimes It Takes More Than Talent
Kevin Sherman coached the Hokie receivers from 2006-2012. A quiet presence it was difficult to figure him out. He brought in some talent, and seemed to do just fine coaching at the beginning, but at the same time he made some mistakes. Your Honor, I call Marcus Davis to the stand. Davis was a monster. Many of us thought he was going to be the next Calvin Johnson. We were wrong. He had so much size and talent. He showed flashes of brilliance in his early games. I can't put all the blame on Sherman, but he could have handled the situation a lot better than he did. In his senior season, Davis got a little lazy at times, sometimes refused to block his man, and showed flashes of an attitude problem. I can't claim to know the goings on behind the scenes, but the failure to even block for your teammates left a sour taste in my mouth. Something that simple could have been remedied by making the player run after games, or simply by talking to him. Where was Sherman?
My next witness is D.J. Coles. He is another receiver who never saw his potential realized due to his knee problems. There were always poor decisions regarding his return from injury made by either him, the coaches, or both. He got re-injured against Georgia Tech in 2012 and was never the same again. In 2013 he was mostly brought out for goal line situations that required a tall receiver to catch a jump ball in the back of the endzone. We can't blame Sherman for injuries, but could it have been handled better? Dyrell Roberts experienced a similar fate. Another talented receiver whose career was marred by injuries. Getting hurt is part of the game. Getting a receiver back into game condition, and recognizing if they are truly ready to go, that falls on coaching. Hopefully, having a new voice at the controls, and having a deeper corps than 2012 and 2013 will mitigate against any need to make rushes to judgement on players' health.
By sheer volume this will be a monster of a recruiting class. It will be a nice addition to the young talent we already have. Somewhere in the sea of orange and maroon, a 1,000 yard receiver is waiting. If Tech can get the running game going again to open up the passing game, VT will finally strike the run-pass balance necessary to take the offense to the next level(s) (we're pretty far down there). After two years of interceptions, dropped passes, and a stagnant offense, change is coming. It won't be long until we see the next version of Antonio Freeman (or Andre Davis) streaking down the sideline towards his reservation for six in the endzone.