Entering the 2020 season, one of the strengths of West Virginia’s offense was supposed to be the depth the Mountaineers had at receiver.
A dangerously young and inexperienced receiving group in 2019, WVU was returning all but one receiver for 2020. Seven players who caught at least 10 passes last season returned for 2020 – Sam James, T.J. Simmons, Sean Ryan, Ali Jennings, Winston Wright, Isaiah Esdale and Bryce Ford-Wheaton.
The hope was that the playing time from a year ago would help to alleviate some of those hardships and struggles heading into 2020. At the start of this season, however, a lot of those same issues stuck around.
Inconsistency and drops plagued the WVU receiving corps through the first half of 2020, leading to frustration from coach Neal Brown. Following a frustrating loss to Texas Tech last month, which featured several key drops from WVU’s pass catchers, Brown proclaimed that he was at the end of his rope trying to get the issue fixed.
“If I had an answer for it, it’d already be corrected,” Brown said following the team’s 34-27 loss to Texas Tech.
James, Simmons, Ford-Wheaton and Wright were WVU’s primary receivers to start the season. They all struggled with drops and consistency through the team’s first five games, with Simmons actually missing time with an injury. While the Mountaineers’ starters were struggling to make catches on the field, the depth receivers were fighting to just get on the field at all.
In the team’s first three games, Ryan, Jennings and Esdale combined for a total of three catches for 21 yards. Going into the team’s fourth game against the Kansas Jayhawks, offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said the team was going to make a consious effort to get more receivers involved.
That intention was not really realized until the loss to Texas Tech, in which Ryan, Jennings and Esdale combined for five catches and 51 yards. Two-thirds of the trio fell silent again the following week in a win over Kansas State, although Jennings caught two passes for 12 yards and a touchdown.
In the team’s most recent game against Texas, however, WVU’s full repitoie of receivers was finally fuly utilized. All seven of the returners from 2019 catugh at least two passes, with Esdale and Ford-Wheaton leading the way with six grabs each. Despite taking a 17-14 loss to the Longhorns, Brown said he was pleased the with receievers’ performance.
“We went into the year thinking it was going to be a strength and we’ve had our struggles,” Brown admitted after the game. “We’ve got some guys there that can play and I think we’ve been spreading the ball out pretty well. They’ve been better in practice and it’s showing up in games.”
On Tuesday, Parker explained that Jennings and Esdale specifically had off the field hurdles to overcome early this season.
“[Jennings] really had a good offseason…but his slow start was because, more than anything, an injury,” Parker explained. “After he’s gotten through a hamstring and gotten back to being healthy, he’s starting to come on a give us significant minutes and reps out there during the game and starting to do some good things.”
Jennings said he felt like his preseason injury, which held him out of the team’s first two games, set him back by a couple of months.
“I kind of got down on myself during camp because I worked so hard in the offseason to try and come back and make a huge impact,” Jennings said. “I felt like it kind of set me back two months behind everybody else. But I feel like these past few games I’m getting back to myself, better than what I was last year.”
Esdale did not have his first reception this season until the team’s fifth game, the loss to Texas Tech. Parker said Esdale has been able to change his practice habits this season, allowing him to get back onto the field.
“Really big compliments to Esdale for being able to stay the course,” Parker said. “We’ve played him at different positions – inside, outside, all over the place – and he’s embraced it. He’s changed his practice habits…Practices really hard, kind of had a no-nonsense mentality about it and that approach has let him to being involved and get a chance to really rotate in.”
Practices are one of the most important aspects for WVU’s receivers, Parker said. The effort and productivity they show in practice determines how much they will play on Saturdays.
“Every one of our guys play and they earn that right to play through how they practice, their practice habits and their ability to make plays and play with great effort,” Parker said.
This approach leads to competitive practices, acceding to Jennings.
“We all come in, we try and practice the hardest,” Jennings said with a smile. “We’ve got the GPS that tracks our player load and speed and we’re always looking at it, trying to joke and laugh about who had the fastest speeds, who had the highest player loads. We all try to motivate each other to keep pushing and keep getting better and that’s the biggest part about practice.”
Jennings said that the entire receiver room is supportive of one another, pushing each other to be better. This mentality among the group is what allowed them all to overcome their individual issues at the beginning of the season.
“We’re fighters,” Jennings said. “Things weren’t going our way but we kept our heads, kept fighting, kept pushing and we’re coming out on the brighter side of things.”