Neal Brown thinks his team is deepest at the wide receiver position.
That might not be the hottest take to many fans. West Virginia lost just one receiver after 2019, while most of their top contributors will be back in the Old Gold and Blue for 2020.
Depth among pass-catchers, however, looks a bit different than it does in other positions. Brown, a former wideout himself, knows this and gave a detailed description of what he wants in that position group after Friday’s practice.
“We kind of look at four different body types. We want a guy that’s bigger-framed that has good twitch but really has phenomenal hands,” he told John Antonik of WVU Athletics. “We want a little, make-you-miss guy, and we’d like to have a bigger, physical guy inside who knows how to use his body, and then we’d like to have a long, fast guy – somebody that can take the top off it and really go get the ball.”
Brown further indicated over the weekend that all of his receivers fit some way into one of those four molds, and he started with sophomore Sam James, who broke out on to the national scene as a freshman in 2019.
“Obviously, Sam James is a speed guy,” Brown said. “He’s a guy that can run and take the top off of it.”
James led West Virginia with 677 receiving yards last season after showcasing the ability to score with both his feet and hands. That ability to “take the top off” was best showcased against Texas, when he burned a Longhorn cover man BJ Foster for a first quarter touchdown down the sideline. For that play, he really had to go get it, making the grab as he dove over the goal line and onto the turf.
As for body control, Brown immediately pointed to sophomore Ali Jennings.
“He really can vertically get off the ball, and he understands…how to position his body kind of like a basketball player and make difficult plays,” Brown said.
Mountaineer fans didn’t see much of Jennings in 2019, as he made 19 catches for 192 yards in 11 games. One of those catches, though, did go for a touchdown after he jockeyed for position in the end zone on a slant route against NC State.
While speed and body control are very important for receivers, Brown looks to his most experienced man when he needs a little toughness.
“TJ Simmons is a big, physical kid that has courage and catches the ball across the middle,” Brown said of his senior leader.
Simmons’s 35 catches last season was the second-most among wide receivers, with many of those catches coming over the middle. He was no stranger to contact, either, shrugging off tacklers in three of his four touchdown catches.
With speed on the outside and physicality on the inside, Brown also needs longer guys that can catch the ball downfield. For that, he turns to Sean Ryan and Bryce Wheaton — two players looking to make a bigger impact in their second year at West Virginia.
“Bryce is a little bit faster probably, Sean’s got a little bit more wiggle to him, but both those guys can probably stretch it,” Brown said.
Wheaton appeared in 11 games last season as a freshman, making an impression in the Mountaineers’ road upset over Kansas State with the game-winning touchdown, making a deep catch after WVU’s play seemed to break down. Ryan, on the other hand, was a steady role player for WVU before missing four games in his sophomore season due to injury.
Finally, Brown gave a shout-out to sophomore Winston Wright, a staple on special teams for WVU last season before seeing his role grow on offense as his quickness became more apparent.
“Winston Wright is a guy that can make you miss,” Brown explained. “He’s got a good initial burst and he can make you miss.”
Wright caught 19 passes last season and brought back the only kickoff return touchdown of WVU’s season against Baylor.
Where West Virginia has skill, they lack experience. Simmons is the only Mountaineer to have played multiple seasons in Morgantown, while James was the only one to complete a full season. This is apparent to Brown, and maturing those players is a priority ahead of the 2020 season.
“A lot of them are young, and we’ve got to continue to grow ‘em up,” he said after Friday’s practice. “I think Gerad (Parker) has done a great job with those guys.”