MORGANTOWN — If there was one deficiency in the West Virginia offense that the coaching staff targeted to improve it was the ability of the wide receiving corps to catch the ball.
In traffic or open, there were times when the worst thing that could happen was for the ball to hit them in the hands over the past two years and that just had to end.
And so, there was great pride in the fact that, as a group, through the spring and summer workouts and then fall camp, they caught more than 110,000 balls.
They bragged on it as if each one won the Super Bowl, although they never did say how many were thrown their way, be it by one of the Mountaineers' quarterbacks or by the new robotic passing machine they purchased, a tireless automaton that throws every ball right on the spot.
They were out there before practice or workouts, during practice, after workouts. If practice makes perfect, they were taking the right steps toward perfection.
But catching a ball in an empty stadium with no one keeping score, without ESPN's eyes glaring down upon you, is one thing and doing it when they are upon you, and it is being recorded for history, is quite another thing.
Now, as they face Maryland in College Park at 3:30 p.m. today, we'll find out if they can live up to the promise they brought with them to WVU and the promises they made to be better at catching the ball in a game situation against a strong Maryland secondary that they expect to play man-to-man a majority of the time.
This is going to be an early season test of their ability to get open and make plays against a team that is capable of smothering receivers in its man-to-man and if they pass this test it will give them confidence for a far more important test not far down the road, a trip to Oklahoma.
"Oklahoma plays more man," quarterback Jarret Doege recently said. "Everybody else doesn't really play that much. TCU plays a little bit of man, too. But this is a physical group and really good at man-to-man. They're lanky and they can cover well."
That will test all phases of the passing game — the receivers' route running, their catching ability, the offensive line's improvement in protection and Doege's mobility in the pocket as he will have to keep plays alive sometimes on plays when receivers don't immediately get open.
"They're going to play us man-to-man and they're going to get up on us," Mountaineer quarterback coach Sean Reagan said. "We're going to have to be on time in the passing game, protect and win versus man coverage.
"There's no secret. They're going to go Cover 1 at some point and tim in the game. I'd almost bet my wallet on. We have to be ready for it."
Cover 1 tells the defensive line that the coaching staff has confidence they can cover man-to-man.
It also tells the offense that there's an opportunity to make big plays ... which is something WVU — under Neal Brown — has not been able to produce with any regularity.
But this being Game 1, anything can happen. You try to get the defense ready, but they are still learning to play with each other, a number of new players on the defensive side, especially in the secondary.
"Game 1, there's going to be wrinkles," Reagan said. "You use fall camp to prepare for all those wrinkles. When we go against our defense every day, we've seen every zone coverage that you can draw up. If they go to zone coverage, we'll be ready."
But Reagan doesn't expect to see a lot of zone coverage.
"They're still a man team in my mind," Reagan said. "I'm counting on them being a man team. That's what we're preparing for, for the most part. If they come out in zone, we'll adjust."
The one thing WVU is certain about is that Maryland will challenge the receivers and make them prove themselves.
"They play the ball really well," Mountaineer offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. "They're aggressive and willing tacklers. They do a great job of being able to get on you and match routes in their man coverage and do a good job of disguising things. It's going to be a good challenge for our guys on the perimeter."
There is one advantage WVU has in that they have depth at wide receiver and a strong variety among the styles they play. They have bigger receivers in Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sean Ryan, speedsters in Winston Wright Jr., Sam James, backups Reese Smith, Sam Brown and Graeson Malashevich, senior Isaiah Ersdale.
In addition, Neal Brown has indicated running back Leddie Brown will be involved heavily in the passing game and that he wants to involve tight end Mike O'Laughlin more than before, if he has recovered enough from a leg injury to play in the opener.
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