Yesterday we discussed our TE’s unit on the roster so let’s stick with pass catchers and discuss the ’18 wide receivers today.  This is an area where I think Pitt has taken a big hit over the offseason…. and one that depends almost solely on the caliber of the Quarterback a team has throwing the ball.

It has been since 2014 that we have had a star turn at this position.  Tyler Boyd’s production that season was top end with 78 catches for 1,261 yards (16.2 ypc) and 8 TDs.  One could make an argument that he did well in 2015 also but when a WR with speed only has a 10.1 ypc average that brings him down to the mortal level – even if he did have 91 catches.

I suppose one could also argue that Jester Weah’s 2016 season was star-quality also with 36 receptions for 870 yards (24.2! ypc) and 10 TDs… and at 39% of Boyd’s 2015 catch total Weah way out produced Boyd in both yards and TDs.

But still not total and real star-quality in my book.

Now we come to this new season.  Weah has left after a rather disappointing season for him with 698 yards and only 4 TDs and his WR2, Quadree Henderson, also left early (ill-advised I believe) after doing almost nothing at the position with only 17 catches for 186 yards and 0 TDs.

I’m not pointing a finger directly at those two players for their lack of production as our QB situation was such a mess with poor talent on hand and also, I believe, poor coaching management so it tied the hands of our receivers.  With that Weah and Henderson’s swan songs were off-key and lost in the noise of a losing season.

But as happens when some players falter other players step up and shine – and that is what WR Rafael Araujo-Lopes (“Lopes” for this writer) did when he showed up and caught 43 balls for 531 yards (12.2) and a couple of TDs.  Again, Lopes’ production would have been higher had we had any sort of decent passer behind center last season.

That was a big jump up from Lopes’ catching only three passes the year before.  As the most productive returning receiver we’ll expect big things from this JUCO transfer.  He has settled in well and even if his slight size at 5’9″ works  against the common pattern for big time receivers I think we’ll see him top our charts again.  He’s not the downfield threat that Weah and Boyd were; he’ll play more out of the Slot position, and if Watson can be led to understand that 5-10 yard catch by the Slot receiver, with the possibility of yards after the catch,  is twice as good as a normal 5 yard running play we’ll see him used a lot.

Our personnel after Lopes is where it starts to get interesting and in my opinion worrisome. Here are the returning WRs who had catches in 2017:

Rafael Araujo-Lopes SR 43 Rec, 531 Yds, 12.3 Avg
Aaron Mathews JR 16 Rec, 189 Yds, 11.8 Avg
Maurice Ffrench* JR 25 Rec, 272 Yds, 10.9 Avg

That is a sparse lot my friends so that leaves us with the unknowns to look forward to.

Pitt fans like to look at almost any recruit we get and feel that they are really talented, sometimes way more talented, than they actually are. That is normal because as fans we hope for the best… what we are not good at is preparing for the worse… and I do it too sometimes.  But what that does is skew our neutral outlook when projecting what might happen out on the field of play.  Looking at that short list of returnees is disturbing so let’s turn and look at newcomers (or roster kids who were injured).

Maurice Ffrench has been moved to the Defensive Back position and that leaves us with a total of two players other than Lopes who has played the WR position; Aaron Mathews and Tre Tipton.  That Ffrench move may not hold though if we have problems at WR  I could see him being moved back on offense because for one he’s the fastest WR on the roster.

Note: Ffrench might have been moved back to WR for 2018 so we’ll keep an eye on that in the spring practices.

I think we have all been waiting for Aaron Mathews to come into his own – he’s a big target at 6’4″ but he’s methodically slower than you’d like in a WR – I look at him as the ‘Mike Shanahan’ type and that is a compliment.  Mathews has good hands and is tall enough to high point any targeted passes thrown up that way.

rsJR Tre Tipton is a kid who had some playing time in 2016 but has been injured in both his seasons at Pitt so far – with that he’s unreliable at this point. He’s the makings of a good D1 receiver but hasn’t had the health to show us anything substantial. So who is left?

We’ll most probably see some ‘new’ talent that has been either redshirted or is brand new come into play at WR this season.   Because WR is a almost a pure skill position it is where true FR can and do usually play and shine.  Yes there is work to be done on downfield blocking techniques and such with any FR but you can plug and play WRs, especially situationally,  if they are ready at a young age.

Which brings us to rsSO Ruben Flowers who was a class of 2016 4* recruit with great fanfare when he signed on with Pitt but he is morphing into a bit of a mystery.  His only play last season was in six games on special teams and who knows if he’ll crack the lineup this season. But we fans figured we’d see him early and often over the last two years and that hasn’t happened.

What we are going to be doing from now until September is much the same vein- pinning our hopes on WRs who we haven’t seen play yet… and there are a few who could really make an impact.  We just talked about Tipton and let’s keep our fingers crossed that he returns at 100% because we need his speed.  Flowers we discussed also – but who are the true FR who could come in and make an impact right away?

The first kid we turn our eyes to here is rsFR Michael Smith out of Florida. Now I don’t hold to the belief that every kid who comes from the Sunshine State is automatically better than kids who were recruited elsewhere but Smith looks to be one WR who could shake up the two-deep (or platoons). Here is a bit from his HS bio:

…led the Treasure Coast in every major receiving category with 66 receptions for 1,556 yards (23.6 avg.) and 24 touchdowns…his receiving yardage and TD catches set single-season records for the area…FloridaHSFootball.com All-State Class 8A (first team)…Associated Press Florida All-State Class 8A (second team)

I can get behind a 23.6 ypc average and 24 TDs.  We won’t see that from him this season but he’s been on roster and has had Watson’s playbook for a full year so hopefully he’s ready to contribute.  Another youngster, true FR Shocky Jacques-Louis is the kid everyone is wondering about in this early offseason.

He is a 3* recruit, another out of Florida, and has the speed and nice size (6’0″ and 170) to make an early impact.  When you have a 6′ kid screaming down the sideline or on a post pattern that’s a nice target if your QB has the arm to get the ball to him. What is impressive to me is that as an “ATH” he had so many catches – usually the number of those are cut into by their rushing plays.  From his HS bio:

Rated the nation’s No. 26 “athlete” by Rivals…earned status as one of Southwest Florida’s top prospects, ranking No. 6 in The News-Press/Naples Daily News “Big 15”…compiled 65 receptions for 966 yards (14.9 avg.) and scored 13 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Dunbar…had 45 catches for 652 yards (14.5) and six touchdowns as a senior…

For those fans who believe recruiting offer sheets tell the story (I don’t much) then a look at his will make your mouth water – Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, MSU, Oregon and Tennessee are just some of his 26 offers. My gut tells me if any WR is going to break out into true stardom-level play this season it just may be Jacques-Louis.

Now – I mentioned above about the QB throwing to these kids who this season will be SO Kenny Pickett.  One thing I noticed about him when I had a chance to watch that extended practice last spring, and again in his play over the 20017 season, is that he’s accurate and has a quick release on the short-intermediate passing plays.

If we look at his stats from last year we see he completed almost 60% of his passes (59.0) which is a benchmark of good accuracy.  But more impressive is that he had a good yards per attempt average of 7.7 and then also good play with a 13.0 yards per completion rate. Not bad at all for a true FR who saw limited playing time.

Pickett will be able to get the ball to these receivers quickly and on target – so we need players on the receiving end who can do something with those shorter passes.  Lopes was very good at that last season even though he isn’t all that fast.  Quickness is what is needed and I think if we can get that, a solid receiver who can get those all-important yards after the catch, then we’ll be OK.

I’m not jumping up and down about our receivers at this point, a bit nervous about this unit actually – but maybe after seeing how the QB and the WRs interact over spring drills and then into fall camp I’ll be smiling.  I hope so anyway…

Here are our roster Wide Receivers:

 

 

66 thoughts on “POV’s Take: Spring Drills – WR Position

  1. With Browne and Dinucci slinging the ball last year, even Fitz would have struggled to get to 50 catches! Keep that in perspective when you’re looking at last year’s numbers.

    Count me as one of those looking for Mathews to have a breakout season.

    Lots of positive vibes from the coaches about Dontavius Butler-Jenkins last fall. Hoping that turns into his emergence as well.

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  2. Lopes has a blue and gold tie on. +1 for him.

    Is there any information on the 40 yard times of the WRs – who’s got speed?

    Lopes appears to be quick. Ffrench appears to have some speed and runs well on the reverses. I’ve seen Mathews block well which is important for receivers at times.

    Tipton caught a few passes the year before last, so he has seen the field a little.

    Also, Clark (TE) appears to be fast for a tight end and could line up wide (like Gronk) at times. Though Clark needs to work on his hands a little.

    Flowers has size. Not sure what happened to him last year. Nagging injury? He has the size (if he adds 15 lbs) to play OLB. Though I’m not sure we need more experiments…

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    1. I remember reading ffrench’s freshman year that he was the fastest player on the team. I believe henderson said it in an interview?

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  3. 2 initial comments:

    1) your presentation, while always pretty good, continues to improve.

    2) I contribute Boyd’s lower YPC in 2015 to how OC Chaney used him. First off … Chaney’s offense was designed to stretch the field horizontally than vertically.. as many West Coast offenses do. And he often used Boyd as a decoy since he was continuously being double-teamed .. and I can remember him running short crossing patterns just to free up other receivers.

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    1. Agree regarding Boyd’s usage under Chaney. Lots of plays in space near the line. Perhaps that should have been the blue print for QH last season.

      Ford picked up the YPC in 2015 averaging nearly 20 on 26 catches. Orndoff too. I think Holtz exceeded his typical YPC that season.

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  4. A better QB can throw into tighter windows, so receivers Don’t need to be wide open.

    I think we should be surprised if our O-line gives sufficient time.

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  5. Reed, where did you read that Ffrench is being moved to DB? If you’re going by the roster designation DB/WR, it’s been that way since the media guide came out last summer. Yet, I don’t recall him playing DB at all last year.

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    1. I don’t recall him playing DB last year either. Ffrench did play corner in 2016. I recall him having played quite a bit in the second half against Syracuse. I remember seeing him in the game and wondering why Cuse didn’t appear to be targeting him since they had exploited everybody else.

      Still can’t believe that game. 76-61 with nearly a mile of combined offense.

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  6. Reed, I remember you didn’t panic regarding receiver production when Tyler Boyd moved on, and especially with a hopefully better QB throwing to them, I fully expect better production from the WRs and TEs this year. Also with a year under his belt, I’m hoping for better playcalling from Watson. Now if the OL will only do it’s part……

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    1. Peterman was the QB the year after Boyd left and I knew he was going to have a big passing year.

      I hope that’s the case with Pickett but who knows? Remember he threw 58 passes with only one shovel pass TD.

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  7. I think last year Dontavious Butler was scheduled for playing time but got injured, so I think he will be in the mix to get a lot of playing time. We’ll see.

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  8. PittPT.. Watson has worked with the veterans… Hopefully has will add scheming that worked well for Watson… I don’t think we will be seeing Matt Canada’s offense in 18

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  9. The wr unit needs Tipton to stay healthy, lopes to continue on previous success and a youngster to step up. I look for socky lewis to step up and be our top big play wideout. That’s a lot of needs for a very unproven unit hope some of these guys seize the opportunity.

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  10. Reed – excellent article, nice to put faces to the names.

    Couple thoughts:
    —I think Lopes is faster than you might think. I remember him returning a kickoff the year before last where he really turned on the jets. I had to double check because I thought it was Q. Henderson at first.

    —I think Ffrench will be the sleeper. Has speed and despite a couple drops, also made a couple Boyd-type “wow” catches.

    —Smith and Dontavius Butler-Jenkins (I hope he uses the full name – great name) are intriguing. As Richman said, Watson was raving about DBJ last year – how he seemed to have an instinct to get open.

    —And I still think Mathews is going to become a star as soon as they start targeting him more. (For some reason, and though it wasn’t a lot of attempt, Nate Peterman just didn’t make good throws when the target was Mathews…)

    Go Pitt.

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  11. The solution to our WR questions is answered if Aaron Mathews decides to play like Tyler Boyd this season. He came to Pitt because he wanted to play on offense at the WR position. This coming season is his to prove that he can be the “go to guy” for Pickett. He’s not our only hope, but if you want to be good this year a 6’4″ guy packing 200+ lbs is the one that could be a difference maker for the Panthers if the light goes on for him this year.

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  12. A position that we will see new blood as the number 2 receiver…that’s what I am thinking but then I thought QH was going to develop last year…he obviously wasn’t
    a go to guy.

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    1. Reed – that’s an excellent tease! And you have the track-record to back it up…

      (But please keep in mind that I think most people realize that going after Ricky Town was a last minute, “holy-crap, we-got-to-get-somebody-in-here”, practically desperation move after QB DiNooch transferred out…)

      Go Pitt!

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  13. Hey, it’s Pitt’s Day-of-Giving today. I just made a donation to the School of Engineering and another smaller donation to Athletics. I love my school and my degree has allowed me to live a pretty good life. I can’t make gigantic donations, but aside from the amounts, I think it matters how many people donate.

    Plus, I was thinking the other day about how, despite all the grief a Pitt sports fan must endure, we also have gotten to enjoy some fantastic sports’ moments – thanks to Pitt! (Now a higher frequency of the really good moments would sure be welcomed…)

    Go Pitt!

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  14. Thanks for the series Reed well done. It sure is nice to talk football once again in at least semi earnest. Jay made a really great point the other day about how and why do some of us put our faith in relative unknowns? There are many times when we can maybe pass judgement on players like Whitehead and now P Ford. Speculation is meant for the armchair QB’s but when we really don’t know that much about a player, why do we put so much stock in liking the young man and expecting so much when we have never seen him play?

    I thought about writing a short piece on that subject but will let you all recover from my last attempt. Yet there is so much we do not know about this PITT offense going forward. Question marks dot almost every position until we take a much close look. and again that’s for another day. Today we are talking WR’s.

    First off and I agree with Smack above that we just might need to throw out all what we learned or actually didn’t learn about last years receivers that are returning this year. Even Weah and maybe Henderson as well as the TE had zero chance for a great year as Browne struggled to look downfield and connect.

    So another year with another unknown QB back this year with only one start under his belt, will the passing game be any better than last year under Watson? Well I think it will and that is how bad I think Browne played last year to start the season. … and yes, Max did play a tough schedule last year.

    Other than Lopes who did surprise last year there really isn’t a returning player to hang your hat on. or is there?

    Lopes is not slow and he is quick and smart enough to get open even for last years QB’s That’s a good start right there. I expect a good season from Loopes as the good Doc would say.

    Matthews is not slow, it does take him a while to reach full stride but I bet he would have dusted Boyd in a 60 meter race. I like the kids hustle and he showed lots of moxie covering punts 2 years ago. I do like AM a lot. I expect him to take Weah place and have better numbers than Weah did last year. He does have good hands as well.

    Has Ffrench moved to safety as his picture is above for the WR unit? A better replacement for Henderson as a receiver but maybe not so much as a returner. Ffrench has good speed and probably can do both, catching and runningcombined better than QH did last year.

    Tipton is in the mold of Rafi Lopes and Ffrench which is a good thing for depth. Played good two years ago but does get hurt a lot. He should be bigger and stronger after 2 years?

    Flowers may be the surprise out of them all. He played some last year indicating the coaches like him and one year can make all the difference in the world to a young man in the weight room and football classroom. I wouldn’t be surprise if he really surprises everyone and does well this year.

    Butler Jenkins, Smith, and Shockey could see important playing time giving decent depth while I just don’t think this unit is as weak as it appears on paper. If Pickett and Town can be more effective than last years QB starters, I believe there are WR’s in place to benefit greatly as will the over-all offense. ike

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    1. I think Reed just had a typo there. Ffrenchy had 25 receptions for 272 yards. 10.9 ypc
      Ffrenchy also carried the ball 9 times on the reverse or jet sweet for 71 yards.

      Had not hit pay dirt yet, so he needs to step it up since he’s leader of the Pitt’s Ffrench Connection.

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  15. Good read….Reed.

    I will miss QH in the kick return spot. Not so much as a WR. While he speed was great, he became a bit of a one-trick pony with the jet sweeps and teams were looking for it everytime he was on the field. Unfortunately, he was not blessed with great hands as a pass catcher.

    In light of our collective concerns about how the OL may perform, one could imagine that Pickett will need to rely on his quick release and I hope he demonstrates an ability to make quick reads too. Would hate to rely on his legs all year!

    Rah Rah Lopes is a great possession receiver. Dependable hands, which is what was lacking in both Weah and Chris Clark last year. In my opinion, we need another guy – like a Mike Shanahan type – who will catch what is thrown to him.

    Identifying the most reliable guys in camp would seem to be key for passing game success early in the season – perhaps more so than blazing speed?

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  16. in college FB where most players have a maximum 3 year life of PT, there is a lot of turnover and thus there is a lot of unknown. I say 3 years because if the players gets a lot of PT right away, he will be likely leaving after 3 years. Otherwise, a player is not likely to get much PT until his RS Soph year on average.

    And then when you factor in the players who rarely or never see the field, the PT average is under 2 years. And even if they do see the field early, there still are question marks.

    Good examples are Matthews and Ffrench who has been on the field a fair amount of times the past 2 years … but when you consider (1) there is only one football, (2) Weah and Henderson were also on the field, and (3) Pitt is primarily a running team …. reception numbers will not be high.

    Not sure if what I wrote here many any sense to you

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  17. Wait until you guys see Michael Smith in action. Hopefully, Watson uses his full potential as long range threat. If KP has the time to throw downfield look for this kid to be the real deal. The question still is, can the line give KP the time to throw deep. Great read-Reed…..

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  18. NP excelled at hitting the right spots on the correctly run routes. I get the sense in watching KP that he has that ability which includes a quick decision, quick release, and anticipating the spot.

    It is incumbent on these receivers to run good disciplined and precise routes. That’s probably expected of the more seasoned guys (as well as the 4/5 stars if you happen to have any).

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  19. One thing to consider it that Pickett isn’t a big, strong armed QB like in the Tom Savage mold but more like Peterman with good decision making, quick passes and moxie. It will be interesting to see what we do with the deep passing patterns in the beginning of the year.

    One thing that we have seen in all three years of Pat Narduzzi at the helm is that he is deathly afraid of turnovers – so we may see a safer conservative passing game well into the season. When Pickett can prove he can handle the starting job without a bunch of INTs then I think it will open up some.

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  20. WR is one of my biggest concerns for this year. But I remember being pleasantly surprised during 2016 so hopefully someone will step up. WR is a position Narduzzi has struggled in recruiting more so than others.

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  21. We’re going to need some receivers with sufficient gray matter between the ears to show up this year. What do I mean by that? With Pickett’s ability to get outside the pocket when pressured there will be many opportunities for passes to be completed on broken plays. The grey matter comes into play on such occasions as the WR’s will have to run to some open spaces to give Pickett the chance to get them the ball. Many WR’s never learn that facet of the game and thus are destined to under perform in that type of atmosphere.

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  22. Reed, you should know by now that this board contains a lot of very hungry Panthers desperate for any morsel of information to feed on. That “Town tease” is not something any hungry Panther should be made to have to wait on.

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  23. We need two WR’s to be above average – Ra Ra Lopes was our best receiver last season and proved to me to be above average.

    Tre Tipton, when healthy has proven to me that he is above average and he makes all the catches. Unfortunately, with all his injuries, we have not enjoyed his presence on the field.

    I’m excited to see the Florida recruits and I’m a big fan of Mathews and Flowers. Don’t Be “Shocked” if the Ffrench connection is a real thing in 2018.

    H2P!

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  24. Had no idea they are switching him to DB. With our lack of any productive experience at that position other than Lopes and to a minimal extent Matthews. Kind of crazy that they would switch Pitt’s 2nd leading returning WR from last year.

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  25. Ffrench played both WR and DB last year. Not much at DB but did play both. Not sure but I think he got banged up and it cut short his DB playing. He needs to stay on offense. Actually his numbers the past two years aren’t too bad considering where he was on the depth chart.

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  26. Nice work Commander. Very thorough analysis.

    I do see a lot of talented players at WR. Really hard to predict the starters beyond maybe Lopes.

    A big part of their success obviously will revolve around the guy who is chucking them the rock. Statistically we will see improved numbers from the WR crew simply because Pickett is our QB this year. Assuming that HCPN and OCSW take the training wheels off and let him throw it.

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  27. On a secondary note… to Iek. I was in 7th grade when the Gap Band released “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” As part of our Phys Ed curriculum, we formed small groups and had to choreograph a dance routine. I can still remember the guys in the group, and part of the routine. If I tried some of those moves today, I’d likely have to be hospitalized. Thanks for the memory.

    Like

      1. We use to cut thru the Sanctuary from usually the Keg/CJ Barney’s over to Peter’s Pub. Unless there was
        someone(s) who caught our attention during the cut thru process 🙂

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  28. Mr. Negative here to bring some “reason” to this discussion..

    I love what Lopes brings to the table but if a 5′ 9″ guy is your top target, you’re in trouble. We better get productivity on the outside from Matthews or “Shockey” or someone.. or were in trouble. Having a “deep” guy like Weah allowed Lopes to run underneath.

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  29. True Jay but it works both ways. Having Lopes as a viable threat underneath will open up big plays down field as well? It takes a village…. iek

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  30. Reuben La Fleur gets my vote for 3rd best tie knot.

    So, Ra Ra Lopes WR1, Tre Tipton WR2 and Reuben WR3.

    Since Shockey Jacque-Louis doesn’t have his roster picture yet, I believe he pushes these three with a nicely tied tie, not to mention his athleticism at the WR spot.

    QB La Pickett will have many choices for his best man when the season starts. Chemistry is important –

    Out of the backfield, the receiving options will be plentiful as well –
    Qadree Ollison was 4th on the team in receiving last season with 23 receptions, 194 yards, 8.4 ave., 30 longest and 2 TD’s.
    Darrin Hall had 16 receptions, 157 yards, 9.8 ave., 23 longest and 1 TD.

    In 2016, George Aston caught 22 passes for 169 yards, 7.7 ave., 23 longest and 5 TD’s.

    The Ffrench Connection could be a fun group to watch if OC Watson can orchestrate a winning playbook.

    H2P!

    Like

  31. I’m going to try this again.. I feel like Bill Murray on February 2nd..

    WR- ONE returning player with productive play in COLLEGE football. Throw in a few that have played or produced SPARINGLY. Add in a couple HIGH SCHOOL players that APPEAR to have good size, speed and talent.

    So, for the “optimists” here we will hear things about the STRENGTH of this position. That is ABSOLUTE ABSURDITY! For a “pessimist” to say they CAN’T be good would be just as absurd.

    The realist? A realist would call it what it is.. Our WR core looks to have some potential. And, if returning players like Matthews or Ffrench can make more consistent contributions or freshman Jaques-Louis or Butler-Jenkins can make an immediate impact, we could have an effective passing game. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of TALENT, but it has to be demonstrated ON THE FIELD. So, it would be “reasonable” to say, “I can’t say how it will turn out, but the pieces appear to be there. I’m hopeful.”

    See that? I’m HOPEFUL. That’s not the same as claiming the WR position a “strength” with ABSOLUTELY ZERO historical basis. These are not returning players with 75 catch or 900 yard seasons and the freshman are not 5* recruits.

    It appears that not only “HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL” but so might mental illness.

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  32. Jay I think the passing game can be better this coming year maybe not so much great and the only reason I say that is I ‘think” the QB may be able to distribute the ball much better but even that is a little to much hoping considering we really don’t know all that much about Pickett.

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  33. I’m not sure that I THINK it will be better.. but I certainly HOPE it will be better (not necessarily the same thing.) It will NEED to be better if we hope to win more than 3-4 games. I HOPE we’re good this year. I THINK we’re gonna be awful.

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