Ranking nation's top 10 receiving corps
July, 31, 2012
By Travis Haney | ESPN.com
Jeff Lewis/Icon SMIThere isn't a better receiver duo in the country than USC's Robert Woods, left, and Marqise Lee, right.Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon became the second two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award in December, and Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles was a repeat finalist. Who, then, will emerge as the new class of top-flight receivers?
There are candidates, literally, from coast to coast, each enhancing the productivity of his team's offense.
Here's a look at the nation's best receiver groups, led by the key receiver we think has a good shot at a 1,000-yard season (some have already logged them).
Important note to remember: It's often the second and third receivers that can separate an offense and help that No. 1 receiver get open more frequently.
1. USC TrojansKey receivers: Marqise Lee, Robert Woods
The Trojans were atop our list of the country's best running games on Monday. Well, with Matt Barkley and a pair of All-Americans at receiver, they throw it better than they run it. That's among the reasons why they're a preseason favorite in many pundits' minds.
Woods had a strong freshman year, catching 65 passes for 792 yards, when he was joined last season by Lee to provide Barkley with essentially two No. 1s. The combined damage the two inflicted on defenses last season: 184 catches, 2,435 yards and 26 touchdowns. Each surpassed 1,000 yards. Neither Woods (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) nor Lee (6-foot, 195 pounds) is beastly, but they're subtly strong and they have knacks for getting open regardless of the coverage they're facing.
Coach Lane Kiffin is like you; he marvels at the ability of Woods and Lee, but he wonders what's beyond them, in terms of depth. That's something of a recurring theme in Kiffin's mind, given USC's scholarship-depleted roster.
George Farmer, ESPN's top receiver in the 2011 recruiting class, struggled to make an impact as a freshman (catching just four passes for 42 yards), but his time could be now. Any progress in the spring was curtailed by a hamstring injury, but that allowed for junior De'Von Flournoy to turn Kiffin's head. Where the Trojans have some enviable depth is at tight end, where Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer are both NFL prospects.
Kiffin has said highly regarded freshman Nelson Agholor will be considered a running back, but that doesn't mean he can't move around a la Percy Harvin while he was at Florida.
Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin
If it wasn't already clear, the Orange Bowl highlighted what the Mountaineers receivers are capable of, and in particular the speed of Bailey and Austin.
Neither Austin nor Bailey cracks 6-foot, but that in some regards makes them more dangerous. In Dana Holgorsen's wide-open scheme, he can line either up at all sorts of different positions. That makes it difficult for a defense to account for one, let alone both, on a given play.
Just ask Clemson, which saw the pair combine for five touchdowns (four of them by Austin). Austin also touched the ball four times as a running back in that 70-33 rout.
Bailey and Austin joined Lee and Woods as the only teammates from an AQ school to complete 1,000-yard seasons. Bailey (1,279) broke the single-season school record for yards, as did Austin (1,186).
Don't forget completely about junior Ivan McCartney, who had 49 catches for 585 yards and three scores a year ago. It's often that No. 3 who vultures catches from the over-covered Nos. 1 and 2.
The Big 12 might be more of a challenge for the Mountaineers' program in a lot of ways, but there is no reason to think that Bailey and Austin's performance will tail off in a league that specializes in speedy skill players and pitch-and-catch. "They'll be just fine in this league, with all that speed," one Big 12 coach said last week.
Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers
Are the Vols too high on the list? Perhaps this isn't high enough. Derek Dooley, who begins this fall squarely on the hot seat, sure hopes that is true.
Rogers has had some issues off the field, but he has been emergent on it. Hunter was on pace to one-up Rogers last season until a September knee injury prematurely ended his sophomore year. With both Hunter and Rogers, as well as an experienced quarterback in Tyler Bray, it has been a summer of raising eyebrows about the Vols' potential in the passing game. "It's getting a lot of publicity," Dooley said. "That's a good thing. It means we have some talent there."
The head coach is still cautious, even with the outside becoming more bullish. "We have some ability, but we haven't proven we can do it," Dooley said. "That's what we're trying to do."
Senior tight end Mychal Rivera, who caught 29 passes last year, could provide an underneath safety blanket for Bray. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson and freshman Drae Bowles could provide immediate help to UT's top two targets.
Five returning linemen should give Bray time to find Hunter, Rogers and the rest of the receivers. Subtly, one thing that could really help Hunter, Rogers and the UT passing game is its running game. Again, sophomore Marlin Lane will benefit from running behind a veteran line.
Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins
Clemson fans had long been frustrated about a misusage -- or under-usage, really -- of the team's playmakers. It did not take long for that to change under Chad Morris, whose arrival as coordinator coincided with freshman Watkins' enrollment.
Combining for 296 yards in consecutive weeks in September against Auburn and FSU made Watkins an early-season Heisman candidate. Even if that chatter eventually subsided, the 6-1, 200-pound Floridian made his mark as a rookie. "We devoted a lot of time that week to stopping him," said one coach who faced Watkins last year. "We didn't."
It isn't just Watkins in an offense that averaged seven more pass attempts a game with Morris running it. Hopkins and Jaron Brown developed, and Dwayne Allen was one of the top tight ends in the game. The Tigers will miss Allen, but Hopkins and Brown (1,384 career yards, combined) have a wealth of experience.
Production seemed to fall off for everyone late in the season, and a couple of opposing coaches surmised that some of Morris' nuances were more and more available on film. As a result, quarterback Tajh Boyd began telegraphing passes and Watkins was not as open as he was early in the year.
Watkins missed the North Carolina State game, a stunning 24-point loss, and averaged 61.8 yards a game in his last four contests. It will be intriguing to see how he begins the year, given the bull's-eye on him. Coach Dabo Swinney has not announced yet whether Watkins will have to sit the opener against Auburn after a drug-related arrest this offseason.
Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu
Jeff Fuller received the preseason buzz a year ago, but in the Ags' up-and-down year it was Swope who was healthy and thus performed far more consistently. And it's Swope who decided to return for his senior season, even amid the coaching and conference switches. Now he figures to be one of the beneficiaries of playing in a pass-dependent system like Kevin Sumlin's, provided that sophomore Jameill Showers (or whichever QB ends up winning the Aggies' starting gig) winds up being a sufficient successor to Ryan Tannehill.
"It was tough," Swope said of the coaching change, "but coming back is something I wanted to do, and I know this is the perfect offense for me to make plays in and make an impact." Given his 89 catches and 1,207 yards in Mike Sherman's pro system, it's difficult to argue Swope's sentiment.
Given that Sumlin's Houston team had two 1,000-yard receivers last year, perhaps the real winner here is the No. 2 target, Nwachukwu. When Fuller was dealing with injuries, Nwachukwu emerged as a solid secondary option, catching 50 passes for 639 yards.
A&M and Missouri's styles will be a culture clash with SEC secondaries that aren't used to seeing so many passes -- or snaps, generally -- in a game. It will be interesting to see how that plays in a league that has produced a number of shutdown corners in recent years, especially at Western Division powers Alabama and LSU.
6. Baylor BearsKey receivers: Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese
No Robert Griffin III. No Kendall Wright. Baylor will slink back to the middle of the pack in the Big 12, right? Maybe not. Not with the remaining level of skill players, especially at the receiver position.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has already taken notice of Williams, whom he named the top returning senior receiver prospect in the country. Williams quietly had 957 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, including Griffin's signature throw, the TD to defeat Oklahoma in the final seconds.
Reese is a speed demon who lines up inside and can go get the deep ball. Senior Lanear Sampson (42 catches last season) is something of the "papa bear" of the group.
Rashad Greene, Willie Haulstead
There's a lot of speed here, without question, but a lot of unrealized potential. Greene, Haulstead and Kenny Shaw, among others, have demonstrated a lot of ability. Injuries and inconsistency, however, have limited overall production.
Haulstead is a great example. The junior was forced to take a medical redshirt a year ago due to lingering effects from a concussion, and yet he is FSU's only representative on the preseason Biletnikoff watch list. At 6-3 and 233 pounds, he's a tough matchup for ACC corners -- or any league's corners, for that matter.
As a freshman, Greene led the team with 596 yards and seven touchdowns. He might turn out to be the Noles' top award candidate, depending on how he continues to mesh with QB EJ Manuel.
Even without a proven star, FSU shines with its depth. Senior Rodney Smith and sophomore Christian Green, the second- and third-leading receivers a year ago, combined for 1,011 yards in 2011.
Kenny Stills, Trey Metoyer
Stills has been something of an enigma, a big-play magnet one week and a ghost the next. He struggled as the No. 1 when Broyles went down in November with a knee injury. There's some hope in Norman that Stills has wrapped his mind around the expanded role.
With six catches for a team-high 72 yards in the spring game, Metoyer (6-2, 194 pounds) demonstrated he's ready to help Stills with the burden of replacing Broyles. Coach Bob Stoops said last week that a physical comparison to Blackmon wasn't off the mark.
The incoming class took a bit of a hit this week when JUCO Courtney Gardner did not make the necessary grades for enrollment at OU -- he plans to arrive in January -- but Metoyer, Durron Neal and Sterling Shepard are all newcomers capable of immediate play. That's a boost, since reserves Trey Franks and Kameel Jackson have spent the summer in Stoops' doghouse -- and they might not emerge.
The Cougars have to make it on this list since they add a pass-happy coach to a unit that included Wilson, who had 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as a sophomore. Can Wilson's numbers go even higher with Mike Leach on the sideline and the potential of more stability at the quarterback position? (How well senior Jeff Tuel, oft-injured but very talented, plays could determine the success of this group.)
Wilson is the proven product, but Leach still has more talent left in the cupboard. Dominique Williams (6-2, 180) is a big freshman who could get a lot of snaps. Sophomore Kristoff Williams (6-2, 206) also possesses that type of size. The Cougars are hopeful freshman Gabriel Marks can step in as a slot guy.
Leach was a star-maker at Texas Tech -- we'll have to see if the same holds true in Pullman.
10. Missouri TigersLead receiver: T.J. Moe
The Tigers' inclusion, the addition of yet another SEC team, hinges on just how good true freshman Dorial Green-Beckham is right away. He's 6-6 and 220 pounds, his size and physicality akin to Andre Johnson when he was at Miami.
Moe was a preseason All-Big 12 receiver a year ago, but his 649-yard junior season was something of a dud. How he performs alongside Green-Beckham is something of a mystery, but he proved himself adequate in front of a camera in Mizzou's first SEC Media Days appearance. His attitude and one-liners had reporters rolling. The breadwinner: "They say the girls are prettier here, the air's fresher and the toilet paper is thicker."
Like Texas A&M, how will going against SEC-level athletes on defense alter the success Missouri has had offensively in the Big 12? It remains to be seen, but if the Tigers are to have success in their first season in a new league, their passing game will have to play a pivotal role.