By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Before last season, West Virginia had produced only two receivers with 1,000-yard seasons — David Saunders with 1,043 yards in 1996 and Chris Henry with 1,006 yards in 2003.
Then last year, when Dana Holgorsen came in as coach, the Mountaineers had two players surpass 1,000 yards— Stedman Bailey at 1,279 and Tavon Austin with 1,186 yards to rank Nos. 1 and 2 all-time in yardage gained in a single season at WVU.
So what do you do for an encore?
Well, try this on for size. Until last year no WVU receiver had ever caught 100 passes in a single season. Or 90 passes. Or 80 passes.
The school record was shared by Saunders and Shawn Foreman, Foreman having set it at 77 receptions in 1997 and Saunders tying his record the following year.
That record, of course, was demolished in Holgorsen’s first year as coach as Austin gathered in 101 passes.
So what’s next?
How about TWO players catching 100 passes in the same season?
Never, you say?
Never say never.
“That’s possible,” Bailey said during this week’s interviews as the Mountaineers prepared for Saturday’s noon opening game against downstate rival Marshall at Mylan Puskar Stadium.
“This year, I believe it is possible,” Austin added.
Austin, of course, took a school record-tying 12 receptions in the Orange Bowl rout of Clemson, 70-33, to surpass 100 receptions while Bailey came up 28 catches short for the year.
Why do they think they both can catch 100 this year?
“The opportunity is here to do that,” Bailey said. “We know a lot more than we did a year ago.”
“Last year, we were new to the offense. Now we’re more comfortable in it,” Austin said.
In understanding why this will be difficult you have to understand those two players’ roles in the offense.
Austin often comes out of the backfield and takes short passes, sometimes even just glorified handoffs that are often big gainers. He is a prime target on short routes, the coaches trying to get him the ball in space where he can take advantage of his shiftiness and his speed.
Bailey, on the other hand, is the receiver who stretches the field with deep routes. He plays taller than his 5-11 and has huge hands that catch anything within reach, often making acrobatic and crucial receptions.
He also has a way of getting loose after catching the ball and turning 15-yard gains into 30, the result being the record-setting yardage a year ago.
As a deeper receiver, he is a tougher man to hit as it takes more time and he will often draw double teams. Austin gets the ball so quickly that they cannot double him and this year that could be even more of a problem as freshman slot receiver Jordan Thompson is almost a clone of Austin starting on the other side.
“Every time he’s on the field, they got to double him so I get a lot of single coverage,” Austin explained.
Bailey knows that if he manages to catch 28 more balls this season, it would mean a whole lot of yards.
“With 30 more, I don’t know what I would have ended with in yardage, but it would have been pretty big,” he said.
Why do they believe a second year in the offense can make a major difference?
“We know a lot more about the offense, things like sight adjustments we can make. We have a lot of answers for now for the way they played us last year that we didn’t know in our first year of running the offense,” Bailey said.
“There’s a lot of freedom in the offense. The coaches just tell us to find the grass in the field. It may not be in the play call, but if we find grass it might work out.”
There is one other reason Bailey might be able to push himself to 100 catches and that is he has worked diligently to improve his skills in the off-season.
“I feel like I had a pretty good year all around last year but I will try not to drop any balls this year and try to improve on each part of my game. I want my blocking to get stronger and I’ve been working on my cutting skills, trying to get more like Tavon,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.