Sun Belt 2010 Football Preview: Ranking The Receivers
The series of unit rankings of the nine Sun Belt football teams continues today with a look at the league's receivers and tight ends.
For a league so associated with the spread offense, receivers did not crunch the kind of numbers one might have expected in 2009. Only two receivers averaged more than five receptions and two averaged 60-plus yards per game last season.
By point of comparison, the SEC had eight 60 yards-per-game players last season.
Even those numbers appear difficult to equal this season, with several teams experiencing questions at their quarterback positions and switching emphasis to the run game.
Here's a look at which teams are most likely to overcome those questions.
The Trojans feature arguably the most dangerous receiver in the conference. Jerrel Jernigan was one of only two receivers to break 60 receptions last year (he tied for first with 71) and was the only receiver to break 800 yards (finishing with 1,101).
Jernigan's all-purpose versatility could make him the most serious competition to Dwight Dasher for Sun Belt Player of the Year.
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The transition from Levi Brown back to previous starting quarterback Jamie Hampton will be aided by a receiving group with plenty of experience, even outside the dazzling Jernigan.
Senior Tebiarus Gill actually led the team in touchdown catches, recording six to Jernigan's four. Gill's 47 receptions and 581 yards both ranked in the league's top 10.
Junior Chip Reeves and sophomore Josh Jarboe both recorded 60-yard receptions last season en route to matching 16.5 yard-per-catch averages.
Senior Jason Bruce caught 24 passes for over 300 yards, and 6'2" senior Austin Silvoy may be Hampton's biggest target.
2. North Texas
UNT finished second in the conference in pass completions last season, but was firmly middle of the pack in yards. Their dink-and-dunk style resulted in a team average of only 9.7 yards per catch, fourth-lowest in the nation.
The question this season revolves around who will get the ball to an experienced group that includes last season's QB, Riley Dodge.
Rising senior Jamaal Jackson tied Troy's Jernigan for the conference lead in receptions, but for 400 fewer yards.
This is not to say that Jackson lacks big-play ability, as two of his six scoring catches were longer than 30 yards. Jackson's athleticism is better reflected by his placing second in kick return average at over 27 yards per attempt.
Darius Carey was a large contributor as a freshman last season, tying for third in the league with 57 catches, totaling just over 500 yards.
Rising senior Michael Outlaw fell just short of the 500-yard plateau, missing the season finale against Arkansas State.
Outlaw's 41-catch, 473-yard season included UNT's only 100-yard receiving game. He accounted for 112 yards and a touchdown on seven grabs against Troy on October 24.
Junior B.J. Lewis, recovering from knee surgery that will cost him a couple of weeks of fall practice, may have to hold off Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford for the fourth starting spot. Lewis's 12.6 yards-per-catch average led the team.
3. Florida International
If Jerrel Jernigan isn't the Sun Belt's most dangerous wideout, then FIU's T.Y. Hilton almost certainly is. After being named a Freshman All-American in 2008, Hilton followed up with a 57-632-5 line last season.
In addition, Hilton led the SBC with a 28.8-yard average on kickoff returns and scored one of the Belt's two kickoff return touchdowns, against Alabama, no less.
The remarkable aspect was that, by several accounts, he was bothered by nagging injuries most of the season. A healthy Hilton could easily live up to his preseason All-Sun Belt billing.
Greg Ellingson actually recorded FIU's best single-game performance last season, with a 132-yard game against Western Kentucky.
The 6'4" senior has produced consistent numbers over the past two seasons, including last season's team-high 15.5 yards per catch, and possesses the ability to punish secondaries who shade too far toward Hilton.
Senior Jason Frierson was another 30-catch man last season, but he may face stiff competition from redshirt sophomore Junior Mertile and ESPNU 150 recruit Willis Wright for the third starting position.
Wright had a memorably tearful press conference where he chose FIU over West Virginia and Nebraska, and Golden Panther fans are anxious to see passes headed toward the 6'1", 200-pound newcomer.
Tight end Jonathan Faucher returns for his junior season, as does his backup Dudley LaPorte. Faucher caught 11 passes for 96 yards last season, but may be more valuable in helping FIU's shaky offensive line.
4. Middle Tennessee State
The Blue Raiders definitely spread the ball around in 2009, as nine wide receivers caught at least 10 passes. Six of those players return, led by senior Garrett Andrews.
Andrews was either second or tied for second on the team in catches, yards, and touchdowns last season and recorded a team-high seven plays of 30-plus yards.
One thing the Raider receiving corps has in abundance is size. Aside from the 6'3" Andrews, 6'4" junior Shane Blissard and 6'3" junior Sancho McDonald give Dwight Dasher some attractive jump ball targets.
Blissard averaged almost 15 yards per catch last season, including four grabs of greater than 40 yards. McDonald was awarded the most improved receiver honor at spring practice, and his role should expand beyond last season's 24 catches.
Smaller receivers Tavarres Jefferson and Harold Turner are waging a battle for a slot position. Jefferson, a 5'9" sophomore, was one of the few bright spots in MTSU's lopsided loss to Troy last season, hauling in seven receptions for 79 yards and the Raiders' only score.
Turner, a 5'8", 160-pound lightning bug, had his own blowout game a couple of weeks later, recording six catches, 113 yards, and two touchdowns in the 62-24 throttling of Western Kentucky.
Another smaller receiver, junior college transfer Tyler Mason, stands only 5'7" and weighs 160 after a big lunch.
At Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., Mason rolled up approximately 1,800 all-purpose yards last season, lining up at receiver, running back, and returner.
That versatility may make it hard for coach Rick Stockstill to chain him to the bench, no matter how many bodies the Raiders have to choose from.
Unlike most teams in the SBC, the Ragin' Cajuns have a prominent weapon at tight end. Ladarius Green, a 6'6", 230-pound junior, missed three games with injuries, yet still recorded 533 receiving yards, ranking third in yards per game.
He returned from those injuries with a vengeance, grabbing 12 passes for 250 yards in games against ULM and Troy. The Troy game also yielded both of his TD catches on the season, including a conference season-long 91-yarder.
Senior Marlin Miller was a prototype possession receiver last season. He ranked second on the team with 37 catches, but averaged only 8.8 yards.
Senior Richie Falgout was the next most productive receiver last season, hauling in 18 passes for 221 yards.
Junior Pierre Hill showed a bit more big play capability last season when he caught a 42-yard score in the opener against Southern University. That was the only game in which he broke 30 yards last season, however.
He's coming into fall practice with the inside track on the split end position, and he'll need to prove he can make those big catches on a more regular basis.
Some observers are holding out hope for six-foot, 185-pound freshman Daryl Surgent to crack the depth chart and also make noise as a return man.
Surgent averaged 20 yards per catch as a high school senior with 11 touchdowns, and also recorded scores on a punt return and a kickoff return.
6. Western Kentucky
Like ULL, WKU may be led by their tight end this season. As a freshman, 6'5", 250-pound Jack Doyle finished second on the team with 37 receptions and 365 yards.
Doyle isn't renowned for his blocking, but he is known for his quickness and ability to separate from a linebacker. Look for him to catch more than the one touchdown that he managed last season.
Senior Quinterrance Cooper is expected to establish himself as the top outside target this season. Unfortunately for him, the same thing was said before last season.
Cooper caught 20 balls on the year, but for an anemic average of 7.6 yards per catch. Cooper's quicker than he is fast, and the Hilltoppers hope that he can shake defenders better than last year.
Redshirt freshman Willie McNeal was named MVP of the Toppers' spring game, accounting for 83 rushing yards and a score on some trick plays, also recording a 30-yard catch.
McNeal weighs only 158 pounds and can be muscled around by bigger corners (meaning most of them), but he possesses the ability to go a long way with a short pass in a short period of time.
Junior Derrius Brooks and sophomore Marcus Vasquez are both considered potential deep threats, but neither was terribly explosive last season in the Toppers' popgun passing game.
The two combined for 30 catches and three touchdowns, but also averaged only 9.5 yards per catch between them. It's hoped that coach Willie Taggart's new West Coast offense will get the ball to Brooks, Vasquez, and McNeal with some room to evade coverage.
7. Florida Atlantic
Unlike most of the remaining schools on this list, the Owls actually return a little bit of experience to their receiver corps. Unfortunately, they don't return a ton of 2009 production.
Five of FAU's top six receivers have moved on, and 6'3" senior Lester Jean inherits the go-to receiver mantle almost by default. Jean hauled in 38 passes for 501 yards and four scores, including two against Western Kentucky.
The next most productive returnee is speedy, spindly senior Avery Holley. The six-foot, 150-pounder has an injury-prone reputation, but didn't miss a game last season en route to 22 catches for 224 yards.
Redshirt freshman DeAndre Richardson battled a case of the drops in spring practice, but he may still be able to contend for Holley's starting spot. After those three, depth appears to be an issue.
According to FAU beat writer Ted Hutton, three receivers quit the team between spring and fall practice, although two of them are still listed on the Sun Belt media guide roster.
The tight end gets opportunities in FAU's pro-style offense, as Jason Harmon and Jamari Grant combined for 75 receptions, eight touchdowns, and approximately 950 yards last season. Now both are gone, and 2008 backup Rob Housler inherits the starting position.
Housler, who caught 32 balls for 519 yards in 2008, was actually named to Athlon's preseason All-SBC second team, perhaps more because of a lack of qualified tight ends in the league than Housler's own talent.
Backup Darian Williams averaged over 15 yards per catch last season, accounting for eight grabs, 106 yards, and two scores in back-to-back games against ULM and Wyoming.
ULM doesn't return a lot of experienced production with dangerous duo LaGregory Sapp and Darrell McNeal departing. Third-leading receiver Luther Ambrose inherits the go-to position after racking up 34 catches for 455 yards and four scores last season.
Ambrose gave Warhawk fans what they hope was a glimpse of coming attractions in last season's finale, when he lit up Middle Tennessee for 107 yards and two scores on seven receptions.
Ambrose's speed is clearly evidenced by his third-place 100-meter finish at the NCAA outdoor championships.
Junior Anthony McCall was a producer in 2008, catching 28 balls for 406 yards and six scores, but he disappeared last season with only seven catches.
Sophomore Brent Leonard and juniors Tim Taylor and Julian Griffin can't even say they've had that good of a season so far, but one or more will have to begin producing if ULM's passing game is to be a factor.
Redshirt freshman Tavarese Maye is listed as a backup on the depth chart, but may appear in an expanded role if guys like Taylor and McCall can't produce.
Senior Alvin Jordan returns at tight end after snagging 24 catches for 250 yards last season. However, despite being listed on Phil Steele's All-SBC fourth team, he isn't even listed as ULM's number one TE.
Sophomore Keavon Milton is listed as the starter, partially due to his imposing 6'4", 267-pound frame. Opening lanes for Frank Goodin to run through appears to be more of a priority for the position.
9. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves lost their top five receivers from 2009, and need to completely rebuild. Sophomore Taylor Stockemer appears to be a prototype player to build around. The 6'4", 195-pound receiver had 16 grabs for 347 yards, an impressive 21.7 average.
The rest of the returning wideouts combined for a not-quite-whopping nine catches and 85 yards.
Seniors Lucious Henderson and Jonathan White and sophomores Allen Muse and Andre Smith will all get opportunities, but the biggest impact of the bunch may come from Smith filling in as a Wildcat quarterback.
Newcomers may have to play important roles in Jonesboro this season. Junior college transfer Dwayne Frampton caught 77 balls for 1,230 yards and nine touchdowns for Los Angeles Harbor College, and is getting an early shot at a slot position.
Freshman Raheim Alford, out of Warren, Ark., could be another under-the-radar prospect for 2010. Alford hauled in 68 passes for 1,005 yards and 13 scores last season.
Former fullback Jeff Blake will convert to tight end, where he and projected starter Kedric Murry probably won't see a large quantity of passes.
The Sun Belt has a handful of established star receivers, but it's likely that many of the big stories of this season will come from currently anonymous players.
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