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Meet the Mountaineers: Returning WRs Should Improve After Getting Experience in 2019 

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Meet the Mountaineers is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. Yesterday was all about the area where WVU’s offense needs the most improvement, running back. On Monday we will move away from the skill positions and take a look at the team’s situation at offensive tackle.

West Virginia’s receiving corps went through a lot in 2019. When David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms all left for the NFL following the 2018 season, it was a given that WVU would have to play some inexperienced receivers in 2019.

The Mountaineers’ new-look receiving corps at the beginning of the season included Sam James, T.J. Simmons, Tevin Bush and Temple transfer Sean Ryan. However, when Simmons and Ryan were forced to sit out with injuries and Bush entered the transfer portal, head coach Neal Brown had to turn to even less experienced receivers.

This new, new-look receiving corps was made up of James, Isaiah Esdale and Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who both had zero career receptions prior to the start of the season, and true freshmen Ali Jennings and Winston Wright.

The inexperience at receiver, coupled with the offense’s struggles running the ball, started to really take a toll on WVU’s offensive production midway through the season. In a three-game stretch against Iowa State, Oklahoma and Baylor, the Mountaineer offense failed to reach 250 total yards and only scored 14 points in each game.

While 2019 did not go the way WVU or its receivers wanted, the benefit to playing all those young receivers is that all of them will be back in 2020. The only contributing receivers who will not return to WVU this season are George Campbell, who graduated and signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets, and Bush, who transferred to Nicholls State.

Among those returning will be James, who led the Mountaineers with 69 receptions and 677 yards as a redshirt freshman. During last season, Brown said that he coaches James harder than anyone else on the team, because he believes in his potential.

“I coach him harder than anybody on our team,” Brown said after James’s 14 catch, 223 yard game against Texas Tech. “I think he has a huge ceiling. I’ve coached him that way really since I got here and we went to winter workouts. … I think you have to coach your best players the hardest.”

With James leading the way, Brown and new offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Gerad Parker should have both the depth of receivers WVU had last season and now also better quality depth with how much experience those young players got last year.

Key Departures:

George Campbell – Graduation, UDFA with NY Jets

Tevin Bush – Transfer, Nicholls State

Returning Players (2019 Stats):

R-So. Sam James (69 catches, 677 yards, 2 TD)

R-Sr. T.J. Simmons (35 catches, 455 yards, 4 TD)

So. Ali Jennings (19 catches, 192 yards, 1 TD)

Jr. Sean Ryan (19 catches, 219 yards)

So. Winston Wright (19 catches, 97 yards)

R-Jr. Isaiah Esdale (15 catches, 171 yards, 1 TD)

R-So. Bryce Ford-Wheaton (12 catches, 201 yards, 2 TD)

R-So. Randy Fields (1 catch, 6 yards)

R-Fr. Graeson Malashevich

R-Fr. Freddie Brown

Additions:

Fr. Reese Smith

Fr. Sam Brown

Fr. Devell Washington

R-Sr. Keion Wakefield (Louisville)

Camp Battles:

With so many receivers on the roster, it will be a fight for playing time for almost all of them. Last season Brown specialized most of the receivers to play either inside or outside, not both, so that could be a big factor in who gets snaps this season. If James and Ryan play very well on the outside, that hurts the chances for guys like Jennings, Ford-Wheaton and Esdale to find playing time. Louisville transfer Keion Wakefield should be in the mix at inside receiver, which could take away chances from someone like Wright.

Projected Starters:

R-So. Sam James

R-Sr. T.J. Simmons

Jr. Sean Ryan

James, Simmons and Ryan were WVU’s starting receivers at the beginning of the season last year. With all three back for 2020, they should be in line to start again. 

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Cody spent the last two years getting his master's degree in journalism from WVU. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2018 with a degree in digital media production. He was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

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