Fall camp officially kicked off for the Virginia Cavaliers last Friday, and we continue our preseason position previews with a deep dive at the wide receiver position.
Considering that a RB (Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell) led the Hoos in receptions last year, a discussion about the WR corps could be depressing. But with Mizzell gone, that discussion could also be very interesting. Here’s the biggest (obviously) question facing Virginia’s pass offense this year: Who is going to replace Mizzell’s production?
The obvious answer is Olamide Zaccheaus, who finished second in receptions, just one behind Mizzell. There’s also Doni Dowling, who finished third, just one behind @LlamaDay (definitely my favorite twitter handle on the team). Fourth place finisher Keeon Johnson was just one catch behind Dowling, but he’s trying to hang on with the NY Giants right now (which is unlikely, but that’s a different discussion).
As a team, the Hoos totaled 266 receptions. The quartet above totaled 202 of those, or over 75% of them. Of that, 101 came from Smoke and Keeon. In total, almost half of UVA’s 266 receptions in 2016 came from players who are no longer on the team.
As Frank Sinatra once said, “that’s life.” And such is life in college football: new guys have to step up every year. So let’s return to Virginia’s top returning receiver, Zaccheaus. Right now, he’s listed at HB. Last year he was listed at WR. That certainly hints to Robert Anae using him in a similar role to Mizzell’s from last year.
In my opinion, OZ is almost undoubtedly the most talented pass catcher on the team, and is a good candidate to lead the team in receptions. I say “almost undoubtedly” because of the presence of Joe Reed. Reed had a limited impact as a true freshman last year. His biggest impact actually came at KR, where he finished 21st in the nation (and third in the ACC) with over 25 yards per return. As a pass catcher, he had just four receptions, but averaged almost 20 yards per catch. He’s the deep threat this year, especially with the departure of David Eldridge (now at JMU). I think Reed could be a revelation for UVA this season, and I think we’ll be talking about him much more in next year’s preview.
Here’s UVA roster at WR. I’m including OZ regardless of his official position on the roster. I’m not including Devonte Cross, because he’s a QB moonlighting at WR. Some preseason reports have Nebraska transfer (and lottery winner) Chuck Davis working at WR. He’s still listed as a CB, so I’m not including him here.
Seniors: Doni Dowling, Andre Levrone
Juniors: Olamide Zaccheaus, Ross Gardner (walk-on), Ben Hogg (walk-on), Braedon Urie (walk-on)
Sophomores: Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, Warren Craft, Cole Blackman
Freshmen: Terrell Jana, Darnell Pratt, Shawn Smith, Ethan Blundin (walk-on, redshirt), Davion Zeno (walk-on), Hayden Mitchell (walk-on), Shaine Eilers (walk-on)
WR positions are highly fluid, and can change from play to play. And although the skillset for a slot receiver can be vastly different from that of a split end, teams will find a way to get their best WRs on the field together, regardless of fit. With that said, the UVA coaching staff puts out a weekly depth chart with 4 WR positions, so that’s what I’m providing below:
2017 Wide Receivers Projected Depth Chart
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|X (Split End)||Doni Dowling||Hasise Dubois|
|Y (TE/Slot/Inside)||Andre Levrone||Cole Blackman|
|H (H-back/Slot)||Olamide Zaccheaus||Shawn Smith|
|Z (Flanker)||Joe Reed||Warren Craft|
(For more information on the differences between WR positions, scroll down a bit in this Wikipedia article.)
At first glance, this depth chart isn’t going to strike fear in opposing defenses. Dowling and Zaccheaus have proven they can contribute in the passing game. Levrone looked dangerous in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, but he’s had trouble staying healthy since then. And although Joe Reed has proven he can play at this level, he hasn’t done much as a pass catcher. Incidentally, Levrone may actually be back next year if he can get a medical waiver from the NCAA for 2015, when he played in the opener and then missed the rest of season with an injury.
There is, however, quite a bit of talent at the position. Sure, it’d be nice to have an elite 5-star recruit here. But the truth of the matter is, 5-star wideouts don’t head to Virginia these days. All of these guys were consensus 3-star recruits. Do you know who else was a consensus 3-star recruit? Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. There are obviously better measures of talent than recruiting rankings.
The trio of Joe Reed, Cole Blackman, and Hasise Dubois all played as true freshmen. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is that these guys are all very good. Reed is a big play waiting to happen. His top-end speed is outstanding, he can jump and he’s strong enough to beat press coverage. Dubois and Blackman don’t have the speed that Reed has, but they’re both fast enough. All three have great size for a WR, which makes them strong red zone threats. Redshirt sophomore Warren Craft fits that description as well. He started three times last year, totaling eight catches for 97 yards and a TD through four games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.
Just like 2016, the Hoos also brought in three WRs for this year’s class. This trio, though, is a completely different breed from last year’s. The trio of Darnell Pratt, Terrell Jana and Shawn Smith are all smaller, fast-twitch guys. Pratt was a track star, Smith looks to have great top-end speed, and all three are very quick in their breaks. All three could be used in the slot. Smith and Jana may also get some looks as punt returners. Considering the depth in front of them, we may not see any of them this year. Smith, though, may be too good to keep off the field.
If you’ve been paying attention to preseason chatter, you may be wondering why I haven’t discussed Devonte Cross yet. After all, he’s listed on the official roster as “QB/WR” and he cross-trained at WR during spring and summer. He’s almost definitely going to see time at WR. He’s immensely talented, with speed and quickness and good size. Personally, I would prefer to see him remain at QB because his future there is very promising. Maybe he’s on the Marques Hagans career path, which worked out very well for both Hagans and the Hoos. Cross certainly opens up the opportunity for some fun trick plays.
This may actually be the best position on the team, top to bottom. No other position has the combination of proven talent and depth. Even with eight players on the 2-deep there are guys who could find themselves on the field. This includes walk-on Ben Hogg, who was regularly on the 2-deep last year and saw extensive playing time on special teams. And although fellow walk-on Ethan Blunding may not see the field, his father was pretty good (that would be former UVA QB Matt Blundin).
Considering only one or two (depending on Levrone’s status) of the 17 WRs on the roster are projected to graduate, the position looks well stocked for next year. And with only one more leaving the following year, the future actually looks very bright beyond 2018 as well.
If Levrone is able to stay healthy, he very likely starts all year and ends up among the team leaders in receptions. He and OZ could be back next year as seniors, coming off big years. Add in the continued development of Reed/Dubois/Jana/Smith and the other underclassmen, and next year’s WR corps could be very good.