Spring Practice Notes: Worried about Wide Receivers

Cooper Neill

Let's make the distinction right now between inside receivers (IRs) and wide receivers (WRs) in Briles' system. They're not the same thing. Sometimes we move players in between the two roles, but the roles themselves are different. I'm worried about the latter.

With Tevin Reese bringing his immense speed and solid production (957 yards and 9 TDs on 53 catches) back this season as the leader of Baylor's receiving corps and recruits like Corey Coleman and Robbie Rhodes waiting in the wings, some might think I'm insane for worrying about the wide receiver position in this offense. The history of developing guys like David Gettis, Ernest Smith, Kendall Wright, Lanear Sampson, and Terrance Williams (Terrence Williams) into potential-if-not-surefire NFLers buttresses that argument. But humor me, if you will, and let's talk.

Coming into 2013, Baylor has Reese, Levi Norwood (40 receptions, 487 yards, 1 TD), Antwan Goodley (17 receptions, 171 yards, 4 TDs), and Clay Fuller (3 receptions, 37 yards) returning as receivers who actually caught a pass in the 2012 season. We're losing Williams (97/1832/12), Sampson (52/646/6), and Darryl Stonum (3/51/1). The returning players thus represent 1654 receiving yards of the 4183 our WRs had on the whole last year, or 39.5%. Receptions-wise, we return 113 of the 264 passes our receivers caught for a slightly-higher 42.8%. Clearly, replacing over half your receiving yards and receptions in one offseason will be a tall task. The fact that nearly all of them come from the outside only makes it worse.

But that doesn't mean the guys we have right now won't be up for it. Projecting into 2013, I think it extremely likely that on the entire season, we throw the ball fewer times than the 475 from 2012. With a better running game featuring two of the best backs in the country in Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin and a QB better suited for the zone read in Petty, we will very likely run the ball more often in 2013 than we did in 2012, at least in the first half. And I expect us to do pretty well at it, to boot.

Assuming for a second that I'm right and we do pass the ball fewer times in 2013 by about 10%, that gives us 427.5 total passing attempts next year, almost exactly the number from 2011 when Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy (424). Round it up to 428. Let's also assume that we feature more short to intermediate passes in the offense due to Petty's relative inexperience, giving him a slight edge on Nick Florence's 61% completion rate. So put him at 65%.

That gives us 278 completions total to spread around all possible receivers, including running backs and tight ends. We can probably say that Petty's offense will deal with more dump-offs and check-down options than Florence's did (again, because of inexperience), so let's say those options get 40 catches over the course of the season. We're thus left with 238 receptions to distribute to our wide receivers, 26 fewer than in 2012.*

*Note: If any of these assumptions seems unreasonable to you, please let me know. I'm comfortable with assuming we throw the ball to our receivers 26 fewer times to our WRs in 2013, if not more, and the underlying points seem to follow. It's only a drop of 9.02%. A softer non-conference schedule could skew the numbers even further if we get up on teams and run the ball to burn time.

Returning 113 receptions and projecting 238 for 2013 means we have 125 extra receptions to allocate somewhere along the line. We can probably assume that Reese's production rises from 2012 to 2013-- it almost has to-- but he's still going to be an inside receiver as opposed to an outside threat, so I'm not comfortable going over 70 receptions for him on the season. His production the last three years has been relatively steady, as well, at 45, 51, and 53 catches, respectively. I'm afraid I simply disagree with those suggesting that he's going to launch into the stratosphere of Wright and Williams before him. He's not as flexible as Wright, who played all over, or as reliable as Williams. Levi Norwood is in a similar situation as the probable starter opposite Reese at IR, but he caught 40 passes in 2012, a huge jump from his 6 the previous year. The fact that he's being pushed by those around him makes me question raising him at all, and there's a larger issue of balance at play. If Reese's production on the inside rises, I'm not sure Norwood's will, too, lest we throw the ball too many times to our inside receivers. So I'm going to keep him at 40 until we hear something that makes me think he'll get more. Antwan Goodley seems like the biggest "winner" going from only 17 receptions in 2012 to much more, and I think we can pencil him in for a Sampson-like 40-45, as well, giving us 150-155 receptions from those three, a dropoff from the Big 3 in 2012 but still a healthy amount.

The ~85 receptions we have remaining have to be distributed somehow among uber-recruits Corey Coleman, who has been getting time at both IR and WR this spring, and Robbie Rhodes, who won't get here until the summer, upcoming-JR Jay Lee, and former walk-on Clay Fuller, not to mention redshirt freshmen Lynx Hawthorne and Kaleb Moore, both of whom are also reportedly receiving significant run in spring practice.

Of those guys, my personal hope is that Coleman and Lee get the lion's share, the former because he's Kendall Wright 2.0 if such a person ever existed and the latter because we need his size on the outside. Lee is particularly important to me because of that size; he's the tallest receiver we have on the roster and as much as it probably shouldn't, that matters. If I could choose to make it so, Lee would get 50 catches on the outside like TWill did in 2011, but I don't know if that's feasible. Something like 35 seems safe, though, with 35 also going to Coleman unless he starts vulturing catches from Norwood and Reese on the inside. That leaves ~20 for everyone else, and in reality, I'm probably guessing low on someone above.

Robbie Rhodes is going to have to come in and displace someone, I think, to get a real shot at not redshirting, otherwise the numbers don't justify the lost year. With the depth chart playing out like I expect, his best opportunity seems to be marginalizing the Hawthorne/Moore combo entirely and pushing Goodley/Lee for catches on the outside, where we need the most help, anyway. If we can get him something like 30 to 35 receptions (and Lee to more like 40), I'd: a) feel a lot better about the distribution of catches and b) be comfortable burning the shirt. One thing I definitely want to avoid is focusing too much on our IRs at the loss of the WRs, since the threat of each makes the other more effective.

In sum, that leaves us with something like this:
Reese-- 70
Goodley-- 40-45
Norwood-- 40
Coleman-- 35-40
Lee-- 35-40
Rhodes/Hawthorne/Moore-- the rest

I'm obviously speculating and massaging the numbers quite a bit in all this because I have no real way of knowing what Briles intends for 2013 or how things will actually play out. Petty may be twice (or half, really) the passer we think he is, or we may change our offense entirely to run the ball even more than I expect. It's also possible that someone, Lee, for instance, makes a bigger jump than I project or I'm wrong about Tevin Reese. But the point of writing this post was to plumb the depths of our WR position and make myself feel better, and I think I've succeeded there.

What do YOU think?

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