Nine different receivers finished with 100 or more receiving yards in 2020 and a dozen caught at least one pass. Regardless of who was out on the field at the position, one thing seemed to stayed consistent — dropped passes. They plagued the corps all season so consistency was the top priority this spring.
“I think we’re talented in that room,” Coach Brown added. “We’ve got to do a better job of controlling our emotions and our response when things do go poorly we’ve got to be better. We can’t let a mistake or one dropped pass affect another play. We’ve got to show growth.”
Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Gerad Parker tasked his room with “getting lost in the work” this off season. The group showed improvements week to week and even caught the attention of the Mountaineer defenders.
“Every day we go out there and practice I know during one-on-ones there is never a rep when I can relax because they bring it every time,” cornerback Nicktroy Fortune said this spring. “I know every time I step on that field I’ve got to have my A-game on and if I don’t they’re going to expose me. Those guys give me great work.”
Here’s a look at WVU’s pass catchers, starting with the top returners at the position.
Winston Wright — junior
When you think of Winston Wright, that 95 yard kick return at Baylor in 2019 is probably one of the first plays that comes to mind. That was his collegiate touchdown. Then another big time play came as a sophomore when he reeled in the longest pass of the season. It came in the form of a 70 yard touchdown at Oklahoma State, WVU’s only TD of the day. It also saw his season-best 127 yards
In his sophomore campaign, he led all receivers with 553 yards and two touchdowns on 47 receptions. He also ranked No. 5 in the league in receiving yards per game (55.3). Coach Brown spoke vey highly of Wright’s progress this spring, saying on a number of occasions he just continues to do to the right things. That hard work was recognized by the coaching staff this spring as Wright was named the offense’s most productive player — he shared that title with fellow receiver Isaiah Esdale. In the spring game, he was the Gold team’s leading receiver with four catches for 43 yards. He was targeted five times.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton — redshirt junior
This spring was all about confidence and consistency for Ford-Wheaton. In a number of press conferences, players and coaches said they believe he can be one of the top receivers in the Big 12 in 2021 if he takes that leap mentally.
“He’s uber-talented,” Coach Brown said. “He’s intelligent. He knows our offense in and out. And I think it’s time. I think he’d tell you the same. I think he’s ready to take that next step, and I think he could be one of the better receivers in our league, I really do believe that.”
Ford-Wheaton even said in April he needs to work on the mental aspect so he can reach his full potential. He finished as the second-leading receiver with 27 catches for 416 yards and a trio of scores. His best game was in Morgantown vs. Kansas State, finishing with three catches for 104 yards. That game saw the second-longest pass and catch of the season (58 yards). After starting in two games in 2019, he held that starting role for all games in 2020.
He was targeted three times in the spring game and caught two passes for 18 yards.
Sam James — redshirt junior
James has been a big contributor to WVU’s pass game over the past few seasons. In a starting role, he was the leading receiver in 2019 and finished as the fourth last season with 31 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns. The year prior, the stat line was 9 catches for 677 yards and two scores. He started every game that season and was also averaging 56.4 receiving yards per game compared to 33.3 per game in 2020.
He had a few touchdowns during live action in the spring and impressed Coach Brown in some one-on-one situations.
Isaiah Esdale — redshirt senior
Esdale was tabbed one of the most productive players this spring. In eight games last season, he caught 12 passes for 115 yards. His best game was in Austin, he had some great catches in crucial situations. He had six receptions for 60 yards.
In 2019, Esdale reeled in the game-winner at TCU. The go-ahead 35-yard touchdown pass gave WVU the win, spoiling TCU’s hopes at a bowl game in the process.
Sean Ryan — senior
After transferring from Temple, Ryan earned a spot in the starting lineup in his Mountaineer debut in 2019. He started eight games that season and missed four due to a shoulder injury. Through the first five games, he caught 15 passes for 168 yards, including a season-high 70 yards vs. Texas before leaving the game with an injury.
In 2020, he finished with 25 receptions for 264 yards. He did miss some time this spring with an injury.
Sam Brown — sophomore
He started the season opener in place of Sam James. In that game, he caught four passes for 43 yards. He saw action in seven total games and finished with eight receptions for 92 yards. His second-best showing was in the Liberty Bowl where he reeled in three passes for 42 yards.
During the scrimmage portion of the spring game, Brown impressed when he and quarterback Will Crowder teamed up for a 65-yard touchdown, forcing a tiebreaker. He was targeted five times and finished with two receptions for 69 yards, the most of all pass catchers.
Reese Smith — sophomore
Smith had a lot of attention on him when he joined the Mountaineers. He attended the same high school as Neal Brown, Boyle High in Danville Kentucky, and broke the record set by his now-head coach.
He earned some valuable reps in 2020, finishing with 11 catches for 128 yards. He had 32 yards in the season-opener and a season-best 50 on two catches vs. Kansas, including a season-long of 39 yards. He was targeted seven times in the spring game and finished with three catches for 26 yards. He was named one of the team’s most improved first-year players.
Graeson Malashevich — redshirt sophomore
Redshirted in 2019 and was named the offensive scout team champion vs. Kansas State and also to the Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team. Malashevich had one catch for 30 yards in 2020 and it came in the season opener vs. Eastern Kentucky.
The West Virginia native was named this year’s Tommy Nickolich Award winner, given to the program’s most outstanding walk-on player.
“I love the kid, and I love everything he’s about,” Coach Brown said. “He’s one of the hardest-working players on the team, and I think he’s going to work himself into a role this year.”
Kaden Prather — freshman
Prather was one of the top players in the 2021 signing class and Coach Brown tabbed him as someone who has the ability to make an immediate impact. He impressed just after just one spring practice.
“I think Kaden Prather is definitely talented,” Coach Brown said. “He’s hungry, and I will be eager to see how he’s going to progress throughout the spring.”
He caught a couple of touchdown passes during that first day of work and continued to grow from there. He also earned high praise from fellow receiver Ford-Wheaton who was his mentor this spring, calling him “pretty advanced.”
“He’s way ahead of where I was my freshman year in college and he came in mid-year. I think he’s going to be a playmaker throughout his career here, and I think he’s getting better every day,” Ford-Wheaton said.
Prather was the second-leading pass catcher in the spring game. He caught all three passes intended for him, inlacing a 51-yarder. He finished behind Same Brown with 62 yards. His high school did not compete in 2020 due to COVID-19 but he caught 42 passes for 895 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.
Departures: TJ Simmons (NFL) and Ali Jennings (transfer)
Simmons, who signed as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay, caught 86 passes for 1,197 yards and nine touchdowns during his career in Morgantown. As a redshirt senior in 2020, he led all receivers with four scores to go along with 23 receptions for 401 yards. In two seasons in the Old Gold and Blue, Jennings reeled in 19 passes for 240 yards in two scores. Last season, he had seven catches for 48 yards and one trip to the endzone.