With 2010's go-to receiver gone but many more options available, how will the wide receivers bounce back from last season's dismal showing?
There are seven weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each Thursday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011. So far we've covered the quarterbacks and running backs. Today, we'll look at the wide receivers.
USF'S WIDE RECEIVER HISTORY
Like with the running backs, this is a position where many good players have shared the wealth, and as a result no one has ever put up huge stats. In the early days of the program, it was players like Charlie Jackson, Clif Dell, Rj Anderson, and Scott McCready who kept the chains moving. (Let's also mention tight end Trevor Hypolite, who still holds the single-season yardage mark for his position from way back in the inaugural 1997 season.) As the offense transitioned to a spread attack in the Marquel Blackwell era, that created opportunities for Chris Iskra, Hugh Smith, and Huey Whittaker, among others.
This was also the era of DeAndrew Rubin, who might have become USF's first stat-monster receiver in the 2001 season if not for a turf toe injury that followed his spectacular effort in the Bulls' landmark upset of Pittsburgh (11 catches, 144 yards, two touchdowns). It limited him for the entire year, and by the time he was fully healthy, Blackwell had a full array of targets. Still, Rubin finished his career as the school's all-time leader in all-purpose yards, including 1,306 receiving and 2,583 in kick returns.
During the middle of the decade, only S.J. Green stood out at receiver as the Bulls leaned heavily on Andre Hall and the running game. Players like Amarri Jackson had flashes of brilliance, like his virtuoso performance against #9 Louisville in 2005 when he ran for two touchdowns and threw for another from the "Voodoo" offensive package. But it wasn't until Matt Grothe took over at quarterback that new targets began to emerge.
Grothe had several good receivers to throw to. He had Taurus Johnson any time he needed a clutch play. Jessie Hester is best known for catching the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime at Auburn. And there was Carlton Mitchell, maybe the best wide receiver in school history and one of the most underrated players ever at USF. Mitchell became a deep threat during his three years as a Bull and took full advantage of B.J. Daniels' bazooka arm when he took over at quarterback. In 2009, Mitchell set the single-season school record with 706 receiving yards and also broke the career receiving record with 1,648 yards. He could have easily put the career record out of reach, but he skipped his senior year and left for the NFL after the Jim Leavitt incident. (All's well that ends well, though, as Mitchell plays for the Cleveland Browns and is also wildly entertaining on Twitter.)
USF WIDE RECEIVERS IN 2010
Mitchell's departure was one of several major blows to the Bulls' receiving corps before a single snap was taken. Senior A.J. Love, who was being counted on to start opposite Dontavia Bogan, tore his ACL at the very end of the spring game without even being hit. Then Sterling Griffin, the only remaining receiver other than Bogan with any meaningful game experience, badly injured his ankle during player-supervised summer conditioning. Neither of them played in 2010, which left the receivers in a shambles and drastically affected USF's passing game. Bogan was the only healthy receiver in 2010 who had caught more than 50 yards' worth of passes in 2009, and he became the team's go-to receiver last year as a senior. He caught 47 passes for 685 yards and six TDs, finishing his career at #2 on the school's all-time receiving yardage list.
With hardly any experienced receivers to throw to, B.J. Daniels' issues at quarterback became a sort of chicken-or-egg dilemma. Was Daniels really struggling to adapt to a new, more traditional offensive scheme? Or was it that he had no one he could throw to in a pinch? Nothing against guys like Evan Landi, who was second on the team in receptions last year and caught almost anything that was thrown at him. But he was Daniels' backup at quarterback in 2009. Stephen Bravo-Brown went from walking on to the team in spring to starting against Western Kentucky. When Bogan was injured against Florida, the Bulls resorted to splitting tight end Andreas Shields out as a receiver. I think I might have played a few snaps as a slot receiver in the FAU game. It was a rough season.
As a team, the Bulls only threw for 164.5 yards per game in 2010, the third-lowest total for a season in school history. But out of that, some usable pieces emerged. Landi became a dependable possession receiver and a nice run blocker. Lindsey Lamar, a convert from running back, worked out of the slot and proved useful on hitches and screens where he could take advantage of his speed. Tiny Faron Hornes had a 70-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown at Cincinnati. Joel Miller was another reliable pair of hands who had some chemistry with Bobby Eveld when Daniels was forced to the sidelines with an injury.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
Both Love and Griffin should return this fall, and their presence will not only provide some experienced targets for Daniels, but it will also re-slot players like Landi and Lamar into roles they are better equipped to fill. The question, though, is how much will the two returning receivers be able to contribute? Love was mostly held out of spring practice while he completed his injury rehab, and Griffin struggled enough that Skip Holtz didn't even include him on the two-deep depth chart after spring ended (although he was added as a second-teamer later on).
If one or both of them aren't able to play a big role, there's no shortage of newcomers who might be able to help out. Deonte Welch had a strong spring after redshirting last fall, while two incoming freshmen -- Jefferson's Andre Davis and Robinson's Ruben Gonzalez -- could get a chance to contribute right away. Terrence Mitchell converted from defensive back to receiver as a freshman and may be able to spell Lamar as a slot receiver.
The passing game may continue to struggle in 2011, but if the receivers are able to establish themselves more clearly this year, at least we'll know where the issue lies.