With sophomore Sean Ryan out indefinitely and redshirt freshman Sam James questionable for Saturday’s game, West Virginia’s depth at wide receiver could be tested against Iowa State.
Head coach Neal Brown said that’s a natural part of college football — it’s disappointing to see players get hurt, but it leads to opportunities for others.
“When somebody goes down, we feel really bad for that, and we hate that as a teammate and don’t like it as coaches as well, but it does provide an opportunity,” Brown said. “Now, the opportunity is what you make of it.”
It’s likely that redshirt freshman Bryce Wheaton and true freshman Ali Jennings will see more targets in Ryan’s absence.
Jennings, who was expected to redshirt this season, has caught six passes for 46 yards and scored a touchdown against NC State. Wheaton also stepped up late in the game against the Longhorns, scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter after going without a catch in September.
Brown said he was encouraged by what he saw from Wheaton late in the Texas game.
“[He] caught two big plays — one of them on a third down, one of them on a fourth down for a touchdown — and really set himself up to be a guy for us moving forward this year,” Brown said.
But the most encouraging performance of any receiver during the Texas game was produced by T.J. Simmons.
The Alabama transfer caught seven passes for 135 yards and a score last week — arguably his best outing as a Mountaineer.
“He’s been in kind of a leadership role,” Brown said. “He’s a little bit older, but he’s also a guy that you can coach, you can correct — he doesn’t take it personal. He’s a guy that you can push and he understands that you have what’s best for him in mind, so I was pleased with how he responded. He had some big plays there across the middle.”
Simmons has lined up primarily in the slot this season, but played out wide most of last year. Brown said Simmons could shift back out wide as needed with Ryan sidelined.
“Ever since high school, I’ve played all over the field, so I’m pretty used to playing on the outside and on the inside,” Simmons said. “I’m pretty comfortable in both positions, so it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m inside or outside.”
While Simmons led all players in receiving yards against Texas, he made other significant yet less noticeable contributions in prior games.
After the loss to Missouri, Brown demanded an improvement in blocking from the offense, including better blocking on the perimeter by receivers. Led by Simmons, Brown has noticed that improvement.
“If you look at our last three games, we’ve blocked on the perimeter really well, and he’s set the standard for that,” Brown said.
That’s another responsibility Simmons embraces.
“If I can make a big block, whether it’s on the line of scrimmage or downfield to set up one of my teammates to score a touchdown, and they get a highlight, it feels the same as me getting one,” Simmons said.