The constant turnover in NCAA sports can be as beautiful as it can be frustrating. The most talented athletes may leave your school because of either graduation or an early departure for a big payday at the professional level, but each February, the revolving door of recruitment usually brings in a fresh batch of exciting prep stars eager to prove their mettle at the collegiate level.
As high school football recruits begin the matriculation process towards college and Spring Football continues to draw near, we now have a new crop of talent to assess as these incoming freshmen enter the 2011 Football Bowl Subdivision.
While many of the nation’s top wide receivers from last season just wrapped up a week of running and jumping tests in Indianapolis with hopes of being selected in April’s NFL Draft, we turn our attention to the most talented wideouts who will return for another season in the NCAA.
This slideshow is comprised of 10 wide receivers that stand a legitimate chance of catching 100 or more passes in 2011. Let’s start our tour of the nation’s top returning talent in Stillwater, Oklahoma….
The Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation’s top wide receiver) winner and unanimous All-American became the first wideout ever to be named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2010, and will return as a redshirt junior in 2011. Already considered a first-round selection had he gone pro this offseason, Blackmon will join returning senior quarterback Brandon Weeden as they build upon their already superb chemistry for one more year together in Stillwater.
Blackmon’s season of 111 receptions for 1,782 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns is considered the sixth-best statistical campaign ever by a college wideout, and he set an almost unbreakable NCAA single-season record: In 12 games, the Ardmore, OK native posted 100 yards receiving and a touchdown, and would have likely had a 13th had he not been suspended for an October victory against Kansas State due to a misdemeanor DUI arrest.
Barring injury or further trouble with the law, Blackmon is the surest bet in Division I to post stellar receiving stats a second year in a row. Blessed with a world-class athleticism coupled with a dose of humility from past misdeeds, expect Blackmon to challenge last year’s record by eclipsing the century mark in yards with a score in all 13 games next season, assuming the Cowboys get invited to a bowl game with 10 returning offensive starters.
As a 2010 Biletnikoff finalist, Broyles was narrowly beaten out by Blackmon for the coveted award, but is just as talented as his Big 12 rival. With the stud receiver joining 16 other returning starters in Norman this spring, OU seems destined for a return to contention for a BCS Championship.
Broyles led the FBS in receptions with a whopping 131 catches for 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Unlike Blackmon, Broyles suited up for every game in the Sooners’ march towards the Fiesta Bowl in 2010. Another season of catching passes from prolific junior quarterback Landry Jones should help to ensure that Broyles remains a top receiving talent in Division I in 2011, and will likely get snatched up in the early rounds of the 2012 NFL draft.
The former high school quarterback has turned heads with two impressive campaigns since he began his career as a slot receiver at Toledo. In 2010, he was as dangerous as he was consistent, scoring touchdowns in more games (seven) than not (five). Furthermore, he only logged one game in which he caught fewer than four balls, and in that Sept. 18 victory at Western Michigan, he found the end zone twice.
The 5’10", 180-lb. sophomore may not have a Heisman-caliber quarterback throwing him the ball, nor does he play in an explosive offense. But Page is the safest bet to move the chains when the Rockets need a first down, and has become the focal point of the passing game despite being relatively unheralded recruit in 2009. Having averaged 91 catches for 1,132 yards his first two seasons in Toledo, Page may very well take the next step and catch 100 or more in 2011 if quarterbacks Austin Dantin and Terrence Owens can get him the ball consistently in tight coverage.
Pollard gets a golden opportunity to take over as the lead playmaker in the potent Warrior passing attack with the departures of WRs Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares. The two outgoing seniors combined to post a ridiculous 207 receptions for 3,195 yards in 2010, and someone will need to connect with quarterback Bryant Moniz in order to fill that statistical void. Pollard, who has shown incremental improvement during his three years at Hawaii, makes the best fit with the most experience.
Despite being the third option in the passing attack, Pollard demonstrated big-play ability as the go-to guy in crunch time, especially during an impressive final drive of a 31-28 victory at Army last September. The junior also demonstrated consistency by scoring in each of the final three games of the season, and has earned the trust of Moniz after playing together for three years.
While Houston boasts one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the last decade, the Cougars will enjoy the return of star quarterback Case Keenum. The sixth-year senior was granted a medical hardship exemption from the NCAA, and received an extra year of eligibility after tearing his right ACL on Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl against UCLA just three games into the season. Joining Keenum for his college swan song will be then-senior, Patrick Edwards, coming of a second-consecutive 1,000-yard campaign and a season in which he scored 13 times.
Edwards has proven to be a reliable albeit diminutive (5’9”) target for the Cougars’ cadre of quarterbacks the last three years. Even after Keenum went down against the Bruins, the receiver from Hearne, Texas continued to provide a steady set of hands for freshman backup QB David Piland throughout 2010. Now that Keenum is set to return in the fall, and should be recovered from his knee injury, expect these two seniors to connect early and often at the expense of their Conference USA rivals. Provided health is not as issue for either Keenum or Edwards, 100 catches seems like a definite possibility.
The Mustangs bring a potential 100-catch receiver to the discussion in Beasley. With another year to flourish in the pass-heavy Conference USA alongside quarterback Kyle Padron, the 5’9”,180-lb. junior has both the quickness and hands to reach the vaunted milestone in his final collegiate season.
Since he began his NCAA career in 2008, Beasley has seen his role in this well-oiled offense gradually increase, and in his senior season, he sits atop the wide receiver depth chart at SMU despite coming out of high school rated as merely a 2-star recruit. His primary obstacle to reaching the century mark in receptions may not necessarily be opposing defensive backs, but instead his teammate, sophomore wideout Darius Johnson, who tallied 78 catches in 2010.
Cardinal Nation rejoiced when quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Andrew Luck announced his intention to forgo tens of millions in guaranteed money by withdrawing from the upcoming NFL draft in April, and instead stay for his senior season in Palo Alto. Luck is widely considered the most NFL-ready quarterback in college football, and another year of seasoning in the newly-formed Pac-12 will only help him to gain confidence and maturity. He lost a couple of key weapons at the wideout position in seniors Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, but Owusu is a three-star recruit who is ready to step up and become Luck’s favorite target in 2011.
Blessed with excellent speed and shiftiness in the open field in addition to a 6’2” frame, Owusu boasts the skill set to find seams in coverage and provide a sizable target for the Cardinal QB. The Oaks Christian (Westlake, CA) graduate has the potential to not only finish the season as one of the better wide receivers in the Pac-12, but can also generate some draft buzz for himself in 2012 if he stays on the same page as Luck this season while continuing to tighten up his route-running skills.
Unlike many of the previously mentioned receivers that were National Signing Day afterthoughts, Woods came to Heritage Hall on NSD amid huge fanfare, and lived up to the immense hype in his freshman season. Although the Carson, CA native is still filling out his frame at 6’1”, 185 lbs., his potential is almost limitless even though he’s already shown flashes of how effectively he can take over a game.
On Oct. 9, Southern Cal almost shocked double-digit favorite Stanford when Woods busted out for 12 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He had four other games during the season with at least seven catches, and will be asked to take on an even bigger role in the receiving game given the departure of Ronald Johnson. With another year to improve his timing with talented quarterback Matt Barkley, expect Woods’ stats to jump across the board in 2011, and with his ability, 100 catches is not out of the question. However, much will depend on how he’s used in the offense and whether his involvement in the return game is scaled back.
When Scout.com described Jeffery as “this year’s closest thing to Calvin Johnson” coming out of high school in 2009, both Gamecock coaches as well as the South Carolina fanbase had big expectations for the four-star recruit. Once he received his opportunity to start halfway through his freshman season, he ended up leading the entire team in receptions despite limited playing time for much of the year.
With eight catches, two touchdowns, and 192 yards receiving on Sept. 25, Jeffery led the Gamecocks to a near-upset at Auburn the first time these two Southeastern Conference rivals matched up in September last season. From this point forward, the 6’4”, 233-lb. specimen had cemented his reputation as a big-game wideout given his immense size, his concentration, and surprising elusiveness after the catch. With 88 catches for over 1,500 yards a year ago, Jeffery may be the most dominant receiver in the SEC in 2011.
Given the Wildcats’ aerial attack coupled with an upcoming out-of-conference schedule replete with soft pass defenses, Criner may lead the Pac-12 in catches in 2011. Although the junior is expected to flirt with triple-digit receptions, he wasn’t always considered to be a feared playmaker. The 2-star recruit only fielded a small handful of offers from mid-major conference schools before he settled on Arizona.
Since Criner led the program with nine touchdowns his freshman season in 2009, his arrow has continued to point upward, and his 6’4”, 210-lb. frame provides a sizable target for quarterback Nick Foles as the tandem prepares for one final season together in Tucson. Although he is a dynamic offensive threat that can also give linebackers headaches on handoffs, the bulk of Criner’s damage on defenses will be done in Arizona’s passing game. The chemistry that he and Foles have developed over their years together could translate to a 100-reception campaign for the Las Vegas native.