By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
While all eyes have been focused on the gripping competition for the role of starting quarterback at West Virginia University, perhaps the most fascinating competition for jobs has been at wide receiver.
Indeed, if it seemed like a tall order to replace a quarterback in Geno Smith who threw for 4,205 yards, it was no less a difficult situation to replace Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods, who were on the receiving end of 289 of Smith’s 369 completions, accounting for 3,548 of those yards.
As last season ended, it appeared the cupboard was bare at receiver.
Where would a team that likes to use as many as eight receivers, often lining up four of them in a formation, find enough talented performers to make coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense go?
But now, just two days from Saturday’s noon kickoff against William & Mary, it would seem that Holgorsen found that rare receiver tree, gave it a good shake, and had bountiful harvest.
Oh, it took some finagling to put things together, and this group of receivers is now being led by two players with rather unbelievable stories to tell.
The first is the familiar face belonging to Ivan McCartney, who once was catching Geno Smith’s passes in high school along with Stedman Bailey, but who fell upon hard times last season and left the team for personal reasons.
Time at home gave McCartney the distance he needed to clear away the thoughts that had driven him to leave his teammates.
True, he knew he wasn’t being used as he wanted or expected, just nine catches all season, but he also came to realize that he had to bear the responsibility and, what’s more, come back and try to fill the void that had been created at outside receiver.
He returned a changed person.
“I’ve seen some differences in him. I think it matters a lot more to him now. Whatever issues he was dealing with last year, I don’t see him dealing with them this year,” Holgorsen said.
Part of it was the way he was handled upon his return.
His position coach again was Lonnie Galloway, who had been here in his first season before leaving for a couple of years after the Bill Stewart-to-Dana Holgorsen coaching change. The first thing Galloway did was sit him down and talk to him.
“I told him obviously it’s a new season. I know you. You know me. I recruited you. Let’s go. You’ve got one shot. Everything that happened last year, let’s forget about it. Let’s go forward.
“He’s done that. He’s moved forward and come out and competed,” Galloway said.
Like Holgorsen, Galloway has seen a different kid than the one he recruited into Morgantown.
“Obviously, he’s grown up, matured a lot. I was gone a couple of years and I don’t know what happened. I don’t care. Right now we need him to come in and have a role,” he said.
That role is the same one Bailey had. Can he be another Bailey?
“That’s hard to say,” Galloway said. “Stedman was a great athlete. Ivan is a great athlete, too. I’m not trying to compare Ivan to Stedman, but who’s to say? It would be great if he could, but we’ll let Ivan define his role after the season.”
Holgorsen, too, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“Is he going to be a difference maker? We will see on Saturday,” he said. “He’s had a good camp and has been able to maintain relative health. Has he had some sore limbs over the last three weeks? Yes. Did it prevent him from practicing? No, which is different from what I’ve seen over the last few years.”
Perhaps more important than McCartney’s return and progress has been the development of Daikiel Shorts, a true freshman who came in an outside receiver and excelled so much that when Holgorsen became displeased with his inside receivers he moved there and saved the day.
“Shorts has really impressed me. He’s just a true freshman, but he’s really impressed me so he’s going to be one of the first ones to be trotted out there,” Holgorsen said.
Clint Trickett, battling for his own job at quarterback, has been overwhelmed by Shorts.
“Daikiel was a pleasant surprise for me when I got here. When I was looking to change schools I was looking at the receivers they had. I didn’t know about him then, but I do now,” he said.
So does Galloway, whose praise is lavish for someone who has yet to play a game for West Virginia.
“Since Daikiel got here in January, he’s been a godsend,” Galloway said. “He’s played way more mature than his age. He understands the game. He can play outside, and obviously he can play inside because we moved him inside.
“He does a lot of things right. You tell him one time, and he gets it.”
To Galloway, you throw away the calendar with him.
“If nothing happens before game time, he’ll be the first one to go out there. He is a smart, smart football player.”
Shorts, who comes out of Maryland, even has something in common with McCartney, whose cousin is Chad Ochocinco (Johnson).
Shorts’ brother, Anthony Gorrell, played corner at the University of New Hampshire. His cousin Tiquan Underwood plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.