By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There are those who will tell you that West Virginia University may just have the best package of receivers in the nation, a group as varied as Tavon Austin is from Tyler Urban. They are swift and athletic and sure-handed ... or not.
A week ago, in defeating Connecticut, 43-16, three of them surpassed 100 yards, four of them caught touchdown passes, and the decision from the coaching staff was that they ... weren’t anywhere near where they can be.
They know it, this group that includes Austin and Urban, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney, Bradley Starks and Ryan Nehlen, Devon Brown and Willie Milhouse.
They know they are good but have not yet reached greatness. If they do?
“The sky is the limit,” said Bailey, who already has set a school record with four consecutive 100-yard games. “We have pretty much put up some big numbers. I put up 174 yards last game, but I probably could have had 200. The numbers would be a little better if I had a perfect game, and we’d have a few more points on the board.”
Shannon Dawson, the wide receiver coach, used the same term, “the sky’s the limit,” in talking about their potential.
Talking about them now ... well, let’s just say they’re flying about 20,000 feet, hardly reaching that limit in the sky.
To Dawson, the 469 yards they just put on the board against UConn was deceiving.
“I think the receiving corps as a whole reads some of this stuff about 1,000 yards and about what they are on track to do and in their mind they have the notion that this thing is way above average,” Dawson said. “Well, the bottom line is, let’s get back to reality. Everywhere we’ve been, this has been the production we have gotten. They are doing about average for what our system entails.
“They need to understand that. They are not doing anything Superman-like. Are they good? Yeah, they are on track to have a good year, but there’s a lot of things we’re not doing right,” Dawson continued.
“Are their numbers good? Yeah. Are they the best in the world? No, they’re not. They may be the best, but I’m not talking about a typical offense. I’m talking about what we’ve done through the years.”
To Dawson, and to head coach Dana Holgorsen, the system is king, not the players. It is in many ways an egotistical way to approach things, but the facts do seem to back them up, for the system they use has worked at too many different places to be simply a credit to the players.
In the end, yes, the players have to perform, but the system that Holgorsen has given them is a nearly perfect environment in which to operate, basically simple yet diabolically effective.
Dawson says they have to understand that.
“We shouldn’t get our heads inflated about being the greatest receiving corps to ever walk the Earth because we aren’t even close to that,” he said, issuing a warning. “If we don’t start doing things better, then we’re going to end up causing this team to get beat because we don’t do the little things right at receiver.”
So what could be better when you are breaking records left and right?
“Catching balls and getting yards is great, but let’s get to the other things. We had eight drops on Saturday. Is that good? No, that’s not good. Eight is a lot. It’s like the most I’ve ever had as a receiving corps. About five of them bounced right off our facemasks. It’s embarrassing,” Dawson said.
“We have given away a turnover in every game, three in one game, I think. Did we make some big plays to help the Connecticut game get out of hand? Yeah. I’m not saying we don’t make good plays, but I’m looking at consistency, not things like catching a post pattern when no one is around you. Hell, I can go out and do that half the time.
“I’m talking about blocking your (butt) off when you’re supposed to, catching the ball when someone is hitting you and squeezing it. I’m talking about not fumbling when someone hits you from the back. Things like that are unacceptable.”
They do those things and then read in the newspaper the next day only about the things they did right, then see the highlight clips of great catches on television and the mistakes slip from their minds.
“Things like that get fogged up in their minds when we have three 100-yard receivers and score 43 points. Well, I’m not even looking at that. I’m looking at why aren’t we doing these other things right. Let’s not get complacent and let these little things be, then we get beat by someone because we gave up three turnovers and dropped 10 balls again.”
So film sessions become not a highlight reel but lowlight real as well. The point is Dawson wants to make them aware that there is room to improve.
“The way I look at it is here’s a game Saturday where we threw for 450 yards but if we don’t drop eight balls that might have been 700 yards. Four-hundred and fifty? We’ve had a lot of guys throw for over 400 yards, but have we had anyone throw for 700 yards? No.
“So if you want to get to the supernatural, to the really good, don’t drop any balls.”
Bailey, who has emerged as the most dependable of the receivers, understands where Dawson wants to take the team.
“Forty-three points is a nice score, but when we break it down on film we see things we missed. We realized we could have been even better. We try to fix what’s wrong for the next game,” he said.
And if they fix all those things and become what Dawson wants?
“It is a scary thought. I kind of hope we can pull it together and have a perfect game and see what we can do,” Bailey said. “Time will tell.”
Until then, Dawson will stay on them.
“It’s easy when you are 5-1 and catching balls to think, ‘I’ve arrived; I’m the man.’ Well, you aren’t. This isn’t it,” Dawson said. “Let’s work on the things we need to work on; let’s improve and keep in mind the ultimate goal. It’s not for you to get 1,000 yards receiving. It’s for us to win out and go to a big bowl game and win it.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.