The Virginia Cavaliers 2023 offense will look drastically different than it did in 2023. Or, at the very least, the personnel will. The wide receivers room is no longer being led by Marques Hagans, while Dontayvion Wicks’ and Keytaon Thompson’s departures to the NFL, Billy Kemp’s transfer to Nebraska, and the tragic death of Lavel Davis Jr. mean that the top four receivers from the 2023 season are no longer on the team.
There is, however, a young core of wideouts on the Virginia roster who look primed for breakout seasons.
Before fall camp kicks off, there appears to be a group of three receivers above the rest for the Wahoo offense. Northwestern transfer Malik Washington, redshirt sophomore Malachi Fields, and sophomore JR Wilson should be the penciled-in starters at this point in time.
Washington, a grad transfer, spent four years at Northwestern and racked up 120 receptions for 1,348 yards. His 2022 season was most notable with a 65 catch, 694 yard, one touchdown year closing out his career as a Wildcat. The 5’9” Georgia native projects to be Virginia’s slot receiver this season, replacing Billy Kemp as a small but effective route runner who can move the sticks and provide the occasional deep threat.
Fields is probably the most exciting prospect the ‘Hoos have in the passing game. The 6’4” redshirt sophomore spent most of last fall recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the spring. But he impressed when he returned, notching five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown against Pitt in UVA’s last game of the season. He played in all 11 games as a true freshman, making 11 catches for 172 yards as he bided his time behind the more experienced pass-catchers ahead of him on the depth chart.
Fields is both a deep threat and a great target for the red zone. He’s physical at the catch point and has the perfect combination of speed and physicality to succeed on the outside. He should be a favorite target of Tony Muskett’s this fall.
JR Wilson may face challenges for his starting spot, but his production late in his freshman season makes him the favorite to be UVA’s third receiver and second on the outside. His five catches for 61 yards against North Carolina last year displayed what he can do given the opportunity, and he followed that up with another three receptions the following week.
Wilson provides more size. At 6’4” he’s another big, lanky target who is sure-handed in traffic. If he and Fields can establish consistency, their potential is legit.
The depth: New faces set to challenge
There aren’t many returning players who had an impact at wide receiver last season, meaning the room’s depth will largely come from new guys on the block. Senior Demick Starling could push for a starting job. His speed is real and he had a few impressive kick returns in 2022 along with a clutch 40-yard reception down the sideline against North Carolina. He could be the team’s best deep threat.
Ethan Davies similarly played his biggest role on special teams last season as the team’s punt returner when Kemp was out of the lineup (which was most of the season). He has just one career reception for seven yards, but he clearly has the coaching staff’s trust and could be an option in the slot behind Washington.
Beyond those two the players to watch at receiver are ones who haven’t stepped on the field for Virginia yet. Redshirt freshman and former four star recruit Dakota Twitty missed last season with an ACL injury, but he’s the wildcard for the Wahoo receiving corps. Twitty is yet another 6’4” wideout and is a jump-ball specialist.
True freshman Jaden Gibson is another name to watch. He made headlines in spring ball for impressing the coaching staff with his speed and elusiveness. The Georgia native has a complete skillset with the ability to get open in the blink of an eye, strength and decent size at the catch point, hands to make difficult catches, and the quickness and footwork to be featured in the screen game.
How fast Twitty, Gibson, and Virginia’s other young receivers catch up to game speed will determine how much competition there is for the players looking to lock down starting jobs.
There definitely isn’t as much pedigree or experience for this year’s receiving corps relative to last season’s. But the potential is there, and it should only take one or two players having the breakout year that should be expected of them for this group to be a success in 2023. There are a lot of unknowns on UVA’s roster, but the ones at wide receiver are more intriguing than they are concerning.