- Brandon Chatmon, College Football
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It is the question that has been on everyone’s mind when handicapping West Virginia’s offense heading into the 2015 season.
Who is going to replace Kevin White?
The projected top-15 NFL draft pick was the Big 12’s top pass-catcher in 2014, recording 109 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. White was the centerpiece of the Mountaineers' passing attack with his ability to beat defenders deep or take a short pass for a long gain.
When West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was asked how he planned to make up for White’s absence this fall, he didn’t sound like a man who has spent plenty of sleepless nights pondering the question.
“The same way we replaced Stedman Bailey," he said
Holgorsen has experienced this before during his time in Morgantown, West Virginia. It wasn’t that long ago that these same questions were being raised about Bailey, who embarrassed Big 12 defenders on his way to 114 receptions for 1,622 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2012.
Replacing White won’t be easy, but it’s not like trying to convince Jim Harbaugh to wear jeans. WVU will use the same game plan that saw White rise to stardom as a senior.
“You recruit, you get guys here, you rep the heck out of them, and you see how good those guys can get,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t think anyone would say Kevin White was going to be Kevin White two years ago. Kevin White as a senior was different than Kevin White as a junior. I like our receivers [on campus], and we’ve recruited three good ones.”
The X factor could be running back Wendell Smallwood. Replacing White means replacing his big plays and finding a playmaker who can consistently create mismatches or force double coverage. Smallwood has the potential to be that guy.
“He’s probably our most dynamic offensive guy right now,” Holgorsen said. “He’s had a great spring. He’s dynamic in the backfield; we can line him up at receiver and he’s our best receiver. You’re taking a guy who had been a good player for two years and has the chance to be a great player now. He’s got a chance to take that next step.”
While Smallwood can make plays in the running game or short passing game, Holgorsen could turn to Shelton Gibson to fill White’s deep threat. The No. 198 player in the 2013 ESPN 300, Gibson appears ready for a bigger role on offense as a sophomore.
“Shelton Gibson is extremely fast, maybe the fastest kid I’ve coached,” said Holgorsen, who coached a pair of pass-catchers in White (4.35) and Tavon Austin (4.34) who displayed eye-popping speed at the NFL combine. “He plays really fast and got a lot of good experience on special teams last year. He’ll be able to step in and make some plays downfield.”
The most productive returning receivers -- Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts -- could be ready for increased roles. Thompson enters his final season with 85 career receptions for 861 yards and two touchdowns. At 5-foot-8 and 159 pounds, Thompson doesn’t bring the physical presence that White brought, but has the quickness to cause havoc between the hashmarks.
“Jordan Thompson has made plays in the Big 12 for three years,” Holgorsen said. “He has a knack for making big plays; he’s probably made more big plays this spring than any other guy we’ve got.”
Shorts has been an impact player since he stepped on campus two seasons ago, with 69 receptions for 841 yards and four touchdowns in his career. Yet the junior hasn't shown he can change games on his own.
“Daikiel is another guy, like Wendell, who has been a productive player but has the chance to take that next step and be more of a difference-maker type of guy,” Holgorsen said.
Saturday’s Gold-Blue spring game is the chance for the receivers on campus to cement a role heading into the summer. And they could need it because several highly regarded receiver signees, including signing-day flip Gary Jennings, are poised to join the competition this summer.
At this time last year, White was just one of several candidates in the Mountaineers' search for a legitimate game-changer at receiver. This spring WVU finds itself in the same position, one reason why Holgorsen and the rest of the Mountaineers' staff doesn't seem overly concerned about filling the void.
“Where we stand right now, it would not surprise me if it looks different when we line up to play Oklahoma in our first Big 12 game,” Holgorsen said. “We have some good ones now and we have some good ones coming in. The competition is going to be good.
“It’s going to be fun to watch and see which one of these guys steps up to be the guy.”
West Virginia finds itself in familiar territory, having to replace a big-play receiver with several talented but unproven commodities.