The biggest question coming into the 2012 season for the Ohio Bobcats offense was the perceived crater-sized hole at wide receiver.
Head coach Frank Solich admittedly was uncertain about the receiver position coming into the year, and with good reason. The Bobcats had lost their top two wideouts in LaVon Brazil and Riley Dunlop to graduation, and junior Donte Foster was the only returnee who saw significant playing time.
Brazil set school records in 2011 with 1,150 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns while Dunlop was second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
“We lost some really good receivers last year and obviously we needed some of our younger guys and guys who have been in the system for a couple years to step up,” said Solich, now in his eighth season at the helm of the football program.
It’s safe to say the group has risen to the occasion.
Through the season’s first four games, the quintuplet of Foster, Ryan Clark, Tyler Futrell, Bakari Bussey and Landon Smith have combined to catch eight of the team’s 11 receiving touchdowns and provided an array of options in the passing game, something the team did not have last season.
“Last year we knew that those two (Brazil and Dunlop) would be the primary guys,” said Bussey.
But with the departure of their top two pass-catchers, the receivers knew they had an opportunity to fill the void as a group.
“We made it imperative this offseason to get out here with the quarterback and work on our timing,” Bussey said.
The growing process began in the spring. As the leaves bloomed, the connection between starting quarterback Tyler Tettleton and his playmakers strengthened. Even when the suffocating summer heat wave weaved its way through Athens, it couldn’t stop the chemistry between quarterback and receivers from developing.
“We were out here all summer catching passes from Tyler…we put in a lot of work,” said Foster, recalling the drills in scorching 90-degree heat.
Timing between quarterback and receiver is built through repetition, which takes time. And when the game is on the line, Tettelton must rely on the trust gained during those workouts and throw the football with confidence, knowing his receiver is on the same page.
“Tyler knows where we’re gonna be, so the offseason was a big part of our success right now,” Foster said.
The hard work is paying dividends. Ohio has the highest-rated offense in the MAC with the passing attack led by Foster’s 18 catches for 188 yards and four scores. The junior from Guthrie, Okla. has been battling a painful thumb injury suffered in practice two weeks ago, but has fought through the discomfort and continued to make plays. Coming into the season, Foster knew it was his time to step up.
“I feel like I had to play a bigger role and lead the younger and inexperienced guys and show them how to do it.”
“Donte has the most experience so they key on him and forget about us and that’s a big mistake on their part,” said Clark, a senior who switched from cornerback to receiver before the season and has 10 receptions for 123 yards, including the game-tying touchdown on fourth down against Marshall.
With Foster beginning to require more attention from defenses, Futrell (eight receptions for 112 yards), Smith (four catches for 122 yards), Clark and Bussey (10 catches for 76 yards) will have even more chances to burn the opposition.
“That’s the beauty of it. The defense doesn’t know who to double,” wide receiver coach Dwayne Dixon said thoughtfully. “They’ve got to play honest defense.”
“There’s not one guy that we just go to,” said Solich, as opposed to last year’s team, which saw Brazil dominate touches and haul in over a third of the team’s touchdown receptions.
Besides being a deep, talented bunch, they are also a tight knit group that hangs out frequently and celebrates the accomplishments of the unit as a whole.
“We all hang out on the weekends whenever we have down time, go to lunch and dinner. We just try to keep that camaraderie going,” said a smiling Bussey.
The receivers are also trying to continue a legacy of acrobatic, leaping grabs that fans have become accustomed to seeing over the past few seasons.
“We’ve got this saying ‘Flight School’ when we break (from the huddle),” Bussey said.
“(Former receiver) Terrance McCrae told me about it…he basically told us whenever the ball is in the air we got to get it just like a flight school,” said Foster, who has made his fair share of highlight-reel catches in his Ohio career.
If the receivers continue to make plays and the wins keep piling up, the entire team will be flying high by season’s end.
All quotes were obtained first-hand.