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Position Preview: Wide Receivers

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last year I previewed the wide receivers and I think my predictions were pretty accurate. The unit should be pretty strong again in 2020, having recruited well and returning quite a bit of experience.

Baylor, like every college football team, has lots of wide receivers. It is a position that usually attracts a lot of walk-ons so that practices can maintain a steady flow of fresh-legged receivers. So, I am not going to preview all 17 receivers listed on Baylor’s roster. Instead, I’m going to preview the guys likely to make an impact, and give some predictions as to what kind of impact that will be.

A brief look at recent history shows that a receiver depth-chart can be broken down into several pieces. To begin, you have The First Group, which is the one, two, or maybe three primary guys on a team who will far exceed the targets/yards/catches/etc. of the others. Next, you have the Primary Alternates, who can be either starters or backups who are clearly part of the weekly game-plan, but aren’t targeted at near the same rate as The First Group. Finally, you have the Group of Depth, who usually are only playing due to injury, fatigue, or a unique circumstance. Using this hastily constructed classification system, let’s analyze Baylor’s WR group.

*Note. Baylor’s passing game also includes passes to running backs and tight ends, but this preview will focus on the wide receivers.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The First Group

2019 First Group:

  • Denzel Mims, SR. 66 catches at 15.5 YPC.
  • Tyquan Thornton, So. 45 catches at 17.4 YPC.

In 2019, Baylor’s wide receivers accounted for 2,950 receiving yards (out of a total of 3,570 when you include running backs and tight ends). Mims and Thornton accounted for 61% of those yards. This is even more than in 2018 when Mims and Jalen Hurd accounted for around 50% of the receiving yards. Sneed was close to Thornton in catches (42 to Tyquan’s 45) but had fewer yards and wasn’t as much of a focal point in the offense. Mims and Thornton were the clear top-dogs in the 2019 unit.

2020 First Group:

  • Tyquan Thornton, Jr.
  • Josh Fleeks, Jr.

I expect huge years for these two. Fleeks was sort of out of place in Nixon/Thomas’s scheme in that they often deviated from the normal offense to try and get him the ball (e.g., they weren’t normally running slot sweeps, but would if he was in the game). In Fedora’s scheme he will become the focal point of the offense, as Fedora has always utilized quick and fast slot WRs in creative ways. Thornton remains Thornton, I expect him to have a similar year as he did in 2019 but just a bit more. I’ll predict somewhere around 55 receptions @ 15 yards per catch for Thornton, and 55 receptions @ 12 YPC for Fleeks.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Primary Alternates

2019 Primary Alternates:

  • RJ Sneed, So. 42 catches at 10.4 YPC.
  • Chris Platt, SR. 24 catches at 14.7 YPC.
  • Josh Fleeks, So. 25 catches at 10.5 YPC.

While Mims and Thornton accounted for 61% of the receiving yards, Sneed, Platt, and Fleeks accounted essentially all of the remaining 39%. Fleeks and Platt were largely co-starters, with Platt being more of a deep threat and Fleeks used primarily in the short game. Sneed was the 4th WR when Baylor played in 4 WR sets, primarily operating as a tough, sure-handed inside receiver valuable on slants and digs.

2020 Primary Alternates:

  • RJ Sneed, Jr. / Gavin Holmes, So.
  • Jared Atkinson, SR / Yusuf Terry, rFR.

So, this is cheating by using the slashes, but what can you do. In 2019, Baylor had 5 WRs who received the lions-share of receptions. In 2020 I expect that number to be 4. New offensive coordinator Larry Fedora utilizes many different formations on offense but tends to play almost exclusively out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) or 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs). Fedora will still be throwing the ball just as much as the previous staff did, but more of the receptions will go to running backs and tight ends.

My expectation is that Jared Atkinson and Yusuf Terry battle to be the starting WR opposite Tyquan Thornton. Atkinson is a big bodied, really fast (much faster than most fans realize) WR who has never put it all together; his other option is playing as the de-facto TE. Terry is coming off a redshirt and received a lot of unprompted praise from Matt Rhule last year, I liked him a lot out of high school as a tall possession type outside receiver.

I don’t think Gavin Holmes or RJ Sneed will be starters, but will fight to be the primary guy who gives Fleeks and Thornton a rest. Holmes is coming off multiple ACL tears but has a game very similar to Josh Fleeks—very fast, quick, dynamite with the ball in his hands. As discussed previously, Sneed is more of a possession type who is really tough and has the best hands on the team. The other option for Sneed is that he plays as the starting outside WR, but I do not expect that at this time.

Group of Depth

2019 Group of Depth:

  • Jared Atkinson, Jr., 7 catches at 11 YPC.
  • Marques Jones, SR., 1 catch at 19 YPC.
  • Jackson Gleeson, rFR., no catches.
  • Yusuf Terry, FR, no catches (redshirting).
  • Jaylen Ellis, FR, no catches (redshirting and coming off ACL tear).

Guys in this group usually need something to happen for them to get significant playing time, usually an injury to someone ahead of them. Last year I listed RJ Sneed in this group with the caveat that he could easily become a primary alternate if he healed well from his broken femur, and he did!

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2020 Group of Depth:

  • Jackson Gleeson, So.
  • Jaylen Ellis, rFR.
  • Seth Jones, FR.
  • Losers of position battles for primary alternates

Gleeson is a really fast outside receiver in the mold of Chris Platt. People peg him as a slot because of his speed (and perhaps other superficial attributes) but he’s really more of an outside guy because he’s faster than he is quick. Ellis tore his ACL in the spring before arriving at Baylor and I think was cleared to play towards the end of last season. He’s a guy who, if he is 100%, could easily become a primary alternate. He was a terrific prospect coming out of high school, he sort of plays like a Denzel Mims but 4 inches shorter, can really accelerate and attack the ball in the air. Jones will be a true freshman and redshirting, he’s a future outside receiver who plays bigger than his size (I compare him to Tylan Wallace).

A significant possibility is that, due to the structural changes in Baylor’s offense, after Mims and Fleeks the line between primary alternates and the group of depth becomes blurrier. Baylor will be targeting the tight ends and running backs in the passing game much more (I expect Trestan Ebner to have the 3rd most receptions on the team) which could lead to a handful of wide receivers having 10-20 catches instead of the primary alternates all having between 20-45.

Baylor’s 2020 Unit Will Be Strong Once Again

Almost every Big 12 team, including Kansas, tends to have good talent at the WR position. what separates teams is when they have a truly great guy who can demand shifts in coverage. Baylor has that in Tyquan Thornton who will likely open a lot of room over the middle of the field for Josh Fleeks to operate in. Losing Mims is a significant loss, but Baylor is primed to have a couple of the league’s best again.