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Should we be concerned about WSU’s wide receivers in 2017?

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There are a lot more question marks than we’re used to.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver has been a position of pride for a long, long time for WSU fans.

From Gail Cogdill as a 6-foot-3 receiver long before it was cool, to Mike Levenseller and his hands, to the Fab Five and their beat-you-from-everywhere attack, to Jason Hill and all those TDs — and there’s more, but the list would be too long to name everyone — the Cougs have a long history of production from the guys who catch the throws.

And unsurprisingly, that’s continued under Mike Leach, whose Air Raid passing attack has led to his receivers taking a blowtorch to the WSU record book — first Vince Mayle, then Dom Williams, and finally River Cracraft and Gabe Marks.

However, all of those guys are now gone, and after what happened to the offense after Cracraft went down for the final few games ... well, I’m just a teensy bit worried about the state of the receivers heading into 2017.

Before we get too much further into my thoughts, here’s a table for your reference that includes every receiver Leach has signed at WSU, including walk-ons who saw anything more than token snaps.

(Two notes: That means this doesn’t include receivers signed by Paul Wulff — such as Dom Williams — for reasons I’ll make clear shortly. And while you can obviously see what’s in it on mobile, just a heads up: It’s going to be a lot more friendly for you if you view it on desktop, as you’ll be able to see it all at once, search it and sort it.)

Note: Walk-ons in italics.

WSU WR signings under Mike Leach

Year Name Composite Rec Yds TDs Exhausted Eligibility? Notes
Year Name Composite Rec Yds TDs Exhausted Eligibility? Notes
2012 Gabe Marks 0.9287 316 3453 37 Yes Leaves as WSU's career leader in all those categories
2012 Alex Jackson 0.8525 0 0 0 No Moved to CB, suspended and transferred to juco after 2 seasons
2012 Rahmel Dockery 0.8210 0 0 0 No Switched to defense, eventually transferred to OSU
2012 Brett Bartolone 0.0000 63 488 4 No Career cut short in sophomore year by injures
2013 Vince Mayle 0.8692 148 2022 16 Yes 2-year starter, left with a few single-season receiving records
2013 Robert Lewis 0.8690 117 1254 6 On track 3-year starter at inside receiver, 1 more season to play
2013 River Cracraft 0.8247 218 2701 20 Yes 4-year starter at inside receiver
2013 Charleston White 0.8082 0 0 0 On track Switched to defense
2013 Tyler Baker 0.0000 40 422 2 Yes Walk-on transfer from Ole Miss played inside receiver for 2 seasons
2013 John Thompson 0.0000 51 465 2 Yes Walk-on, eventually earned scholarship
2014 Sebastian LaRue 0.9341 0 0 0 No Texas A&M transfer switched to defense; kicked off team before ever playing
2014 Barry Ware 0.8660 0 0 0 No Transferred after redshirt season
2014 Zaire Andre 0.8553 0 0 0 No Transferred after redshirt season
2014 Calvin Green 0.8524 13 68 0 No 1 season at receiver, switched to defense, eventually kicked off team
2014 Keith Harrington 0.8509 0 0 0 On track Recruited as WR, switched to RB during redshirt season
2014 Daniel Lilienthal 0.0000 4 32 0 Yes Walk-on
2015 Kyrin Priester 0.8913 33 241 1 No Clemson transfer played 1 season, left team before 2016
2015 Tavares Martin 0.8677 80 852 8 On track Late signee; showed lots of promise as No. 2 target in 2016
2015 Kyle Sweet 0.8457 48 579 3 On track Spent first two years as backup at inside receiver
2015 C.J. Dimry 0.7819 12 141 0 On track Last-minute commit before signing day from juco
2016 Isaiah Johnson-Mack 0.8646 35 246 1 On track Promising first season, set to take over for Marks outside
2016 Renard Bell 0.8437 0 0 0 On track Redshirted in first season
2016 Grant Porter 0.8428 0 0 0 On track Redshirted in first season
2016 Dezmon Patmon 0.8375 2 19 0 On track Played sparingly as a freshman
2017 Jamire Calvin 0.8923 0 0 0 N/A Arrives Sept. 2017
2017 Anthony White, Jr. 0.8500 0 0 0 On track Prep early graduate, already enrolled; rated 4-stars by Rivals
2017 Easop Winston 0.8458 0 0 0 On track Midyear juco transfer, already enrolled
2017 Tay Martin 0.8080 0 0 0 N/A Arrives Sept. 2017
2017 Travell Harris 0.7842 0 0 0 N/A Arrives Sept. 2017

Annnnnnd we’re back. Did you play around with it? Notice anything?

Here’s what stood out to me:

  1. Leach’s most productive recruits were signed in the first two classes: Marks, Mayle and Cracraft. Williams obviously also did some huge things, but if we’re talking about Leach recruits (which we are, since that’s what applies to next season and beyond), it seems odd to me that since signing those three guys, only one guy — Tavares Martin — has shown himself to be someone with the potential to be special.
  2. A startling number of receivers either washed out or haven’t produced. At least, it looks startling to me. Maybe it’s normal. But when you sort it by “exhausted eligibility,” it doesn’t feel normal. WSU got almost literally nothing from its 2014 class, and the 2015 class has yet to cover itself in glory beyond Martin. Sweet has been OK, but he’s given you only a bit more than what a couple of former walk-ons (Tyler Baker and John Thompson) gave you.
  3. There’s a little bit of a correlation between recruiting ranking and production. With the exception of Cracraft, if you sort the table by the 247Sports “composite,” you’ll see the best producers have been among the higher rated guys by recruiting services. That’s interesting, and definitely runs counter to the popular We Do More With Less narrative of WSU recruiting.

So, now that the final two of Leach’s Most Productive Trio have now moved on to try their hands at professional football, I’m left to wonder: Can we count on receiver to be a strength again in 2017?

I’m skeptical.

For projection’s sake, let’s assume this is probably the starting four:

  • X: Tavares Martin (Jr.)
  • H: Robert Lewis (R-Sr.)
  • Y: Kyle Sweet (Jr.)
  • Z: Isaiah Johnson-Mack (So.)

That looks an awful lot like the group that couldn’t get open against Colorado, Washington or Minnesota ... except without Marks. And for as much as we love to talk about the system being plug-and-play with receivers, those three games showed us plainly that the route concepts can’t do it all.

Which of those four guys do you trust to be good enough to regularly win battles and get open on his own merits?

One thing I’m sure of: Martin is a beast, and is going to have no problem taking the mantle of Stud Outside Receiver from Mayle, Williams and Marks. He’s going to be awesome.

After that, I’m not really sure of anything, as virtually nobody else who is returning has flashed any kind of game-breaking ability.

In terms of the rest of the guys we’ve actually seen, Lewis is probably the best of the guys who are left. I hold out hope he’ll surprise us with a big year, because I think he’s got that ability, but for whatever reason, “H” has been a position of limited production in this version of the Air Raid. It won’t really matter how he plays if the ball isn’t thrown to him.

Sweet is a useful piece, but I think those last three games showed his limitations. Of course there’s still room for him to grow and improve, but I’m not going to sit here and count on that at this point when so far I’ve seen a guy who is a bit limited, athletically.

Isaiah Johnson-Mack? He showed some promise as a true freshman, especially as he displayed an increasing willingness to play with physicality. I’m still not sure exactly what we’ve got, but I’m willing to be cautiously optimistic because of the physical tools.

The two other guys who played and return are C.J. Dimry — who probably backs up Martin again and I would put in the same category as Sweet (useful but not special) — and Dezmon Patmon — who obviously played as a true freshman, but I have no actual recollection of him doing so.

Which leaves a handful of redshirts and the 2017 class.

Renard Bell and Grant Porter each sat out their first years, and while I want to be excited about what they might provide, my excitement is tempered by the fact that neither one of them could beat out guys like Dimry, Sweet and John Thompson for reps. (This also is how I feel about Patmon.) Perhaps they could have by the end of the season, and Leach didn’t want to burn a year of eligibility. But again ... I’m skeptical.

Of the incoming guys, it’s reasonable to expect Easop Winston and Jamire Calvin — the highest rated receiver recruit since Marks — to play immediately and make some catches, but the only two guys under Leach to make what you’d consider to be an immediate impact as first-year players are Marks and Cracraft. (Although, as a commenter below points out that Brett Bartolone had a pretty good first year, too.) The odds are against them. Anthony White, Jr. is also highly thought of in some recruiting circles, and since he’ll be enrolling early, he’ll have the chance to find a spot on the field.

That said, Winston and Calvin are presumed to be headed to inside receiver, and there is definitely an opportunity there, particularly at Y. Sweet figures to start the year at No. 1, but there’s no clear backup at the moment*.

*Yes, I know Ky Priester is supposedly back. No, I won’t count on it actually happening.

Beyond the acute and pressing issues of 2017, I’m just wondering in general about WSU’s ability to recruit the position. WSU has landed just one impact guy there since 2014 — and Martin only ended up in Pullman in 2015 because he stole some stuff and West Virginia told him he couldn’t come. Their loss was our gain (and, as far as I know, Martin has been a model citizen), and this is one of the ways WSU has traditionally had to lure exceptional talent to a school not known for that.

But back to my original point like 1,000 words ago: Why aren’t excellent receivers beating down our doors?

While we often can’t go head to head with the big boys when it comes to recruiting, WSU coaches have generally been able to unearth guys who can more than hold their own in the Pac-8/10/12. (Chris Jackson, who didn’t play organized football until he was in junior college, remains my favorite.)

However, while Mike Price was/is indeed an O.G. of the spread offense, never has the allure of catching balls in Pullman been greater than it is under Mike Leach and the Air Raid.

There are a number of ways you could define “most prolific passing offense in the country,” but one might be sheer number of completions, a category that WSU has led for four consecutive seasons. That means there are a lot of balls to be caught! In 2014, Vince Mayle finished fourth nationally in receptions. In 2015, Marks finished fifth. Things dropped off a little in 2016, when Marks finished 15th ... with 89 catches, which was still second most in the Pac-12.

In theory, west coast wide receivers should be pulling a hamstring trying to grab a scholarship offer from WSU, the way Marks did shortly after Leach was hired. And yet, that hasn’t really happened — until last week, Marks had been the only four-star receiver to sign with WSU.

Beyond that, WSU hasn’t really done much recently with the scholarships it did hand out to recruits. So many defections and guys switched to defense led to guys such as Dimry (a signing day flier two years ago) and Thompson (former walk-on) playing significant roles, which makes me wonder about the scouting the staff is doing.

The way WSU closed in the 2017 recruiting cycle — particularly the signing of Calvin — gives me hope. But I feel like a have a lot more trepidation about this unit than I should from a group of Air Raid receivers.