By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa entered football season with a distinct lack of proven playmakers at wide receiver. Only two of the Cavaliers’ returning wideouts caught more than three passes in 2010, and one of them, Kris Burd, was coming off ankle surgery. Redshirt sophomore Tim Smith also was returning from an injury, and wide receivers coach Shawn Moore had to replace Dontrelle Inman, who as a senior last season caught 51 passes for a team-high 815 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“I was a little worried about the group after Dontrelle departed,” Moore acknowledged Thursday in his McCue Center office.
Moore’s concerns proved unfounded. Heading into the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where UVa (8-4) meets Auburn (7-5) on New Year’s Eve, Moore’s wideouts have been more than solid. They’ve combined to catch 138 passes for 1,874 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The Cavaliers’ top threats are Burd (60 receptions for 810 yards, 1 TD) and Smith (33 for 565, 3 TDs). Another wideout, Matt Snyder (19 for 220), would have more impressive numbers had he had not missed the final six regular-season games with an injury.
Snyder is expected back for the bowl game, which will be his final appearance for the Cavaliers. Also out of eligibility come the new year will be two other receivers, Burd and Ray Keys. And so the Wahoos’ practices this month are critical, said Moore, who’s trying to accelerate the development of his young wideouts, including true freshmen Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell and redshirt freshmen E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch.
“Burd and Timmy have been so productive this year, I don’t really even need to see them in practice over these next couple weeks until we start prepping for Auburn,” Moore said. “So it’s really all about getting these young guys on the field, getting them repetitions and seeing what they can do, because a lot of them have a lot of potential.”
Neither Scott nor Gooch caught a pass during the regular season. The 5-11, 185-pound Scott returned 4 kickoffs for 97 yards, but medical issues limited him to two games. He’s back practicing again this month.
“He’s a great route runner,” Moore said. “The thing with him is just game repetitions and practice repetitions. Because of the sickness and because of the injury, he hasn’t even been on the field for practice. So it’s really hard, when you’re a receiver trying to play in this offense, to miss practice time and then expect to get in the game. But with him, we’re trying to get him as many reps as possible during these next couple days.”
Gooch, who spent the 2010 season as a reserve quarterback, is an imposing athlete at 6-3, 220 pounds. But he’s been unable to crack the rotation at wideout this season and plays primarily on special teams.
As a receiver, Moore said, Gooch has “gotten better, from the spring to the summer to now. But we’ve got four, maybe five [wideout recruits] coming in, true freshmen next year, and he’s going to have to step up.
“The thing that you have to accept with him is the fact that he hasn’t played receiver. He’s been a quarterback his entire life. He went through spring as a receiver, and he went through our training camp as a receiver, so he’s had two shots at it. Most of these guys, like E.J. and the young guys, even Timmy Smith, they’ve gone through it four or five times now, so it helps them just in terms of hearing it, lining up and doing it.”
Gooch has excellent size, and that’s a plus. But size does not head the list of the attributes Moore values most in his receivers.
“Here’s what I want: I want fast guys,” said Moore, whom many consider the greatest quarterback in UVa history. “I don’t care how big they are if they’re fast and they can block. Darius Jennings, he’s a small guy, but he’s tenacious. He’ll block the hell out of you, and he can run. If I had six of those guys, I wouldn’t be upset.
“I want guys that can flat-out run, because in order to really open this passing game up a little more, we gotta stretch the field. Everybody knows we’re very successful running the football this year, but we gotta be able to stretch the field out.”
Smith will go into the spring as the Wahoos’ No. 1 receiver. But Moore remains high on Jennings and Terrell, two of the jewels of the recruiting class that signed with UVa in February.
Of the two, Jennings has had a greater impact this season. He has 16 receptions for 203 yards and 1 touchdown, and he’s returned 28 kickoffs for 548 yards. In Virginia’s nationally televised win over ACC rival Miami, the 5-11, 165-pound Jennings turned a short pass from quarterback Michael Rocco into a spectacular 53-yard touchdown. He also had a 25-yard reception against the Hurricanes.
“I wish we could have gotten the ball to him a couple more times [during the regular season], just in space,” Moore said. “Everyone in the country saw what he could do in the Miami game. [His 25-yard catch] showed the type of ability he has, and the touchdown was unbelievable. We got it blocked perfectly, but to run away from those guys [was impressive]. He by far has the potential to be the most explosive guy on the team.”
The 5-11, 170-pound Terrell’s most memorable moment came in overtime against Idaho on Oct. 1, when he caught a short pass from reserve quarterback David Watford, ran between the blocks of offensive tackle Morgan Moses and tailback Perry Jones, and raced to the end zone on a 27-yard touchdown play.
Terrell goes into the bowl, however, with modest receiving stats — 7 catches for 30 yards — and he struggled as the team’s No. 1 punt-returner, a job Jones assumed late in the regular season.
“I probably take responsibility for not getting him more repetitions [at wideout],” Moore said. “I think the last three games he was over 20 reps per game, which is pretty good for him. He didn’t get a lot of balls thrown at him, but just the fact that he’s on the field is good.
“I wish we could have gotten him 20 per game, because really if you look at the guys who did play this year who are returning, it’s Timmy, Darius and Dominique. So you wish you had gotten Dominique more reps, but he’s getting a lot this week in practice.”
Terrell will be better for the experience he’s gained and the obstacles he’s faced this season, Moore believes.
“Absolutely,” Moore said. “There was a lot of pressure on that kid, between handling punts and having to go in the football game. Because we basically forced him in the football game. We said, ‘Hey, look, you’re going to play this week. Here’s your role. You’re going to play 12-15 plays, and here’s the plays you’re going to play.’ It’s hard for a true freshman. I think it’s going to increase his confidence level.
“I think the punt returns will be better next year, and I think he’ll be better at catching the football. He’ll be better at knowing this offense, just having gone through it this year.”
Smith, a speedster who flashed his talent as a true freshman in 2009, played only two games last year before a foot injury ended his season. He has TD catches of 37, 60 and 37 yards this season.
Given Smith’s lack of experience, the “productivity he had this year surprised me a little bit,” Moore said. “He’s still got some things to work through. He’s still a young player. But I think having played the number of games he played this year, it’s going to make him a lot better player next year.”
Burd played most of the 2010 season with an ankle injury, but still finished the year with 58 catches for 799 yards and 5 TDs.
Moore said he wasn’t expecting similar production from the 6-1, 200-pound Burd this fall, “especially with the injuries he had. He missed the entire spring and almost missed the entire summer of preparation. Basically we got him ready the week before [the opener against] William and Mary. Yeah, I was surprised. But I think that’s just a testament to his football IQ. I’ve labeled him a number of times the Hines Ward of this team, and he didn’t prove me wrong this year.”
Snyder, a team captain, hasn’t played since breaking a bone in his left foot during practice Oct. 18, and Moore isn’t sure what to expect from him against Auburn.
“It’s tough when you play the receiver position,” Moore said. “It’s just tough, even coming back for one game, but I think it’ll help the group mentally, knowing that he’s going to be back, knowing that he knows all of his assignments and can get other guys lined up.”
Like Snyder, Keys came to UVa as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship. The 6-1, 215-pound Keys had 3 catches for 46 yards during the regular season, including a 24-yarder against Virginia Tech.
“I was worried about him, probably midyear, once he saw the repetitions of the two freshmen increase, and his decrease.,” Moore said. “But I told him at the beginning of the year that this was a year where Burd and Timmy and Matt were kind of the proven guys. Keys knew that I knew he was a dependable guy that could play every position, but he also knew that I had to get those freshmen ready for next year. So he accepted the role. I was really thrilled for him that he had that big catch in the Virginia Tech game, because it was a great catch, probably one of the better catches we’ve had this year from the group. He’s served his role well this year.”