College Football's Top WRs Entering 2016 Spring Practice
Spring is the perfect time for athletes all across the country play some pitch and catch—and we're not talking about baseball.
In college football, spring time means practices and scrimmages, where everyone starts to get a clearer picture of how a team's passing game will look in the 2016 season. This is when the quarterbacks and the receivers get to work more on their timing and chemistry in the context of an entire team practice.
Let's focus on the catching part of the college football passing battery today by counting down the top 20 wide receivers heading into 2016 spring practice. These 20 selections were based mostly on 2015 production—catches, yards and touchdowns—with their level of competition and work in any previous seasons coming into play as well.
Even though the game lost plenty of star names such as Baylor's Corey Coleman, TCU's Josh Doctson and Notre Dame's Will Fuller, there are still quite a number of established threats out wide for 2016. The Pac-12 still has two of the best receivers in the country, and a number of true freshmen stars from 2015 will be back for what they hope will be sophomore surges this fall.
Who do you think are the best wide receivers in college football heading into 2016 spring practices? Post your own lists in the comments section below.
20. Mack Hollins (North Carolina)
2015: 30 catches for 745 yards (24.83 YPC) and eight TDs
Hollins had 745 yards on just 30 receptions last season, which results in an average of 24.83 yards per grab. That was tops in the entire country for the 2015 campaign, when he scored eight touchdowns for the ACC Coastal Division champions.
At 6'4", Hollins is the ideal vertical threat who can turn any play into a potential touchdown with just one flick of a quarterback's wrist. He had three 100-yard games last year—including ones against in-state rivals Wake Forest and Duke—and his season high for catches was just five.
With Quinshad Davis no longer with the Tar Heels, Hollins could get even more catches as a senior in 2016. His story is as incredible as his game, and he should get plenty of attention from incoming starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky this fall.
19. Jehu Chesson (Michigan)
2015: 50 catches for 764 yards (15.28 YPC) and nine TDs
The more productive half of Michigan's deadly one-two punch at receiver, Jehu Chesson combined with Amara Darboh to come up with several highlight-reel plays for the resurgent Wolverines in 2015.
Chesson especially turned it on late last season, starting with a 10-catch, 207-yard performance against Indiana that featured a school record-tying four touchdowns. He quadrupled his touchdown total from 2013 and 2014 in a single game. All nine of his 2015 TDs came in the final six games of the year.
"I really feel like Jehu has everything it takes to be a great player, a great pro player," Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. "The only thing he was missing was tracking the deep ball and making those deep ball catches."
As Baumgardner noted, Chesson doesn't have that problem anymore, as he averaged more than 15 yards per grab as a true threat against any secondary he lined up against, including the talent-filled one at Florida at the Citrus Bowl. There's a chance he only scratched the surface in 2015 under Harbaugh.
18. Drew Morgan (Arkansas)
2015: 63 catches for 843 yards (13.38 YPC) and 10 TDs
Last year under first-year coordinator Dan Enos, Arkansas' offense became incredibly explosive in the downfield passing game. Drew Morgan was a key figure in that revolution, going from a receiver who only caught 10 total passes in 2014 to one that caught 10 touchdown passes in 2015.
One standout attribute of Morgan last year was that he played his best ball when his team needed it the most. His three 100-yard games were all one-possession SEC contests—and Arkansas won two of them. He combined well with veteran quarterback Brandon Allen to be one of the best pairings in the entire conference.
"When Dan Enos arrived from Central Michigan he anticipated Morgan being in the rotation," Eric W. Bolin of the Arkansas News wrote. "He was probably a No. 4 receiver, he thought. Instead, the junior led the entire Southeastern Conference in touchdown catches and made second-team All-SEC."
Arkansas' offense has to replace some key pieces in the backfield for 2016, but Morgan will be back as the new face of a receiving corps that brings back a good amount of experience.
17. Travis Rudolph (Florida State)
2015: 59 catches for 916 yards (15.31 YPC) and seven TDs
Florida State's quarterback situation was far from the most stable thing in the world, but that didn't stop Travis Rudolph from having a stellar sophomore season out wide for the Seminoles.
Rudolph's numbers hinge on two huge games—a 191-yard performance against Syracuse and a 201-yard performance against Houston—but don't overlook his overall contribution to the passing game last year. He had four or more catches in all but three games last season and consistently helped move the chains.
The former blue-chip wide receiver is equally dangerous with and without the ball in his hands. He has the speed and athleticism to make defenders pay on routes, and he's hard to bring down in the open field. Against Syracuse, he delivered one of the stiff arms of the year. Against Houston, he was hard to tackle.
Now Rudolph will be a key figure in an offense that brings every starter back in 2016, which should mean bigger and better things from the No. 1 receiver.
16. Jordan Westerkamp (Nebraska)
2015: 65 catches for 918 yards (14.12 YPC) and seven TDs
If you don't know who Jordan Westerkamp is by now, where have you been? From the moment he came up with a ridiculous circus catch against Florida Atlantic in 2014, Westerkamp has been making big plays happen for Nebraska.
Last year, Westerkamp led Nebraska in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games, including a season-high 143 yards against Michigan State that included a pair of huge catches on quarterback Tommy Armstrong's game-winning touchdown drive.
"He tracks the ball well," Nebraska receivers coach Keith Williams said, per Mitch Sherman of ESPN.com. "He sees it coming in. And he completes the process. A lot of guys have good hand-eye coordination, but at the end, they don’t complete the process. The last 16 inches of the ball getting to your hands is when you should focus the most, and he does that."
If the ball is anywhere near him, there's a good chance Westerkamp is going to come down with it. That makes him such a valuable weapon on a team that is poised to bounce back from a losing season in 2015.
15. Kenny Golladay (Northern Illinois)
2015: 73 catches for 1,129 yards (15.47 YPC) and 10 TDs
Kenny Golladay didn't get as consistent of production as he might've hoped in his first season at Northern Illinois, but the Huskies wide receiver still finished high up in several national stat categories for 2015.
Golladay, who transferred from FCS school North Dakota after the 2013 season, scored 10 times and averaged more than 15 yards per catch last year. He had nine catches for 213 yards in a season-opening win over UNLV and then followed it up with a 144-yard, two-touchdown game against Murray State the next week.
The 6'4" Golladay has the look of a future NFL draft prospect, and he caught at least six passes in his first six games against MAC competition last season. He broke back out for 128 yards against Toledo and 141 more the next week against Buffalo.
If he can have a strong front-to-back season, Golladay will be a big-time name to watch from the Group of Five ranks this season. When he's on, defenses have a hard time slowing him down.
14. Gehrig Dieter (Alabama)
2015: 94 catches for 1,033 yards (10.99 YPC) and 10 TDs
Gehrig Dieter didn't produce the yardage or the touchdowns of NFL-bound teammate Roger Lewis last year in Bowling Green's high-octane offense, but he still made a good name for himself in 2015 at wide receiver.
Dieter led the team in receptions and came down with 10 touchdowns, with three of those coming in a single game against Toledo. Against Power Five programs Tennessee, Maryland and Purdue, Dieter had a combined 18 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
Now Dieter will look to bolster the offense for the defending national champions this season, as he'll transfer to Alabama later this year after he finishes getting his degree in sports management at Bowling Green.
Dieter is a proven playmaker out wide who knows how to thrive without being the No. 1 option. At Alabama, he'll be a valuable boost alongside the likes of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster.
13. Trent Taylor (Louisiana Tech)
2015: 99 catches for 1,282 yards (12.95 YPC) and nine TDs
Louisiana Tech's passing game went up a notch in 2015 with former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel at the helm, and his presence created more opportunities for Trent Taylor to make big plays for the Bulldogs.
Taylor matched his nine receiving touchdowns from 2014 and added more than 400 yards to his receiving yardage total. He fell just shy of 100 receptions on the season after having a career game against Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl—one of his five games in 2015 with double-digit catches and 100-plus yards.
On top of his great possession statistics, Taylor averaged nearly 13 yards per reception and still managed to hold down Louisiana Tech's punt returning duties.
According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Taylor was ultra-reliable for Driskel, catching more than 75 percent of the targets thrown his way in 2015. He'll be back with No. 2 receiver Carlos Henderson in 2016, providing an ideal setup for whoever takes over at quarterback following Driskel's departure.
12. Richie James (MTSU)
2015: 108 catches for 1,346 yards (12.46 YPC) and eight TDs
A freshman All-American for Middle Tennessee State last season, Richie James made one incredible first impression on the Conference USA and anyone who watched the Blue Raiders play.
According to Aldo Giovanni Amato of the Tennessean, James was a 2-star recruit who played quarterback in high school. He arguably made the transition to the wide receiver position as well as he possibly could have, finishing tied for second nationally in receptions and 10th in total yards last season.
"He's got good people around him, and he's a very humble young man," MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said, per Amato. "He's an extremely hard worker and has shown that since he's been in our program. He's had a lot of good people around him to help him achieve what he has."
With six catches in every one of his games last year and 70 or more yards in all but one of them, James was an extremely valuable weapon for MTSU in 2015. His pairing with fellow rising sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill should only get better as the Blue Raiders look to climb the C-USA ranks.
11. Fred Ross (Mississippi State)
2015: 88 catches for 1,007 yards (11.44 YPC) and five TDs
While De'Runnya Wilson was the most famous name in Mississippi State's receiving corps last season, Fred Ross was the one who got the most receptions and yards for the Bulldogs in 2015. Now he'll look to lead a new-look offense that has to replace school legend Dak Prescott and Wilson.
Ross had four different games with double-digit catches, and all of them came against SEC competition—Texas A&M, Missouri, Arkansas and Ole Miss. He had a career night in a 51-50 shootout win over Arkansas that included this unreal one-handed touchdown reception.
"(Wilson) stretches the defense," Prescott said, per Michael Bonner of the Clarion-Ledger. "Now we have mismatches with Fred on the safeties with just his size and his quickness. Against linebackers, pure speed is going to beat them."
Mississippi State will look for the perfect complement to Ross this season as it prepares a new starting quarterback. The Bulldogs have been able to overcome sizable roster turnover in recent seasons thanks to returning players such as Ross, who can do it all out wide.
10. Artavis Scott (Clemson)
2015: 93 catches for 901 yards (9.64 YPC) and nine TDs
Few receivers in college football were as busy as Artavis Scott last season, especially after teammate Mike Williams went down in the opener with a year-ending injury.
Scott ranked 10th among all receivers nationally with 93 receptions, serving as the new No. 1 for Heisman-contending quarterback Deshaun Watson on a Clemson team that ran all the way to the national championship game. He had at least five catches in 11 games, including a 10-catch day against Boston College and a 12-catch one against Syracuse.
"Artavis Scott has turned double coverage into busted coverage," Mandrallius Robinson of the Greenville News wrote. "He has turned backfield flip passes into 60-yard touchdowns. He has turned tacklers into chasers."
With Williams coming back for 2016—along with Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and fellow receiver Deon Cain—Scott will be just a piece of what could be college football's most talented offense. He's been a catch machine in his first two seasons with the Tigers, and 2016 shouldn't be any different.
9. KD Cannon (Baylor)
2015: 50 catches for 868 yards (17.36 YPC) and six TDs
Although his numbers dipped across the board from a strong freshman season, KD Cannon is the top receiving weapon coming back for the top offense in the country. That combination alone should make him an easy choice for a top-10 receiver in college football for 2016.
Baylor had a nearly unstoppable force at wide receiver in 2015 with Corey Coleman, but Cannon still got plenty of work for the big-play Bears. He had 50 catches, a 100-yard game against Kansas State and a 210-yard, two-score game in a huge road win over Oklahoma State.
Art Briles' offense is reloading at wide receiver this season after the loss of Coleman and Jay Lee, and all eyes will be on Cannon to become a more consistent and reliable receiving weapon in the offense. He has the tools to do it, including the blinding speed that has become synonymous with Baylor football under Briles.
A healthy Seth Russell at quarterback for Baylor is a Heisman contender, and Cannon should be the biggest weapon he has in his arsenal for 2016. He'll have the opportunity to chase Coleman's numbers this fall.
8. James Washington (Oklahoma State)
2015: 53 catches for 1,087 yards (20.51 YPC) and 10 TDs
James Washington didn't need as many total catches as most of these receivers in order to crack the top 10 heading into 2016 spring practices. In a conference that had Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson, Washington made a name for himself with his big-play ability.
He averaged 20.51 yards per catch last season, which was the most by any player with at least 50 receptions. In back-to-back wins over Texas Tech and TCU, Washington recorded just 10 catches for an insane 303 yards and five touchdowns. Athleticism is the name of the game for the former small-school standout who is now stretching defenses to their limits in the Big 12.
"You can't dispute running 21.4 (in the 200)," Oklahoma State wide receiver coach Kasey Dunn said, per John Helsley of the Oklahoman. "You can't dispute jumping 23 feet. I mean, the guy won the triple jump. Then he plays tennis and basketball. In these videos, he's 360-jamming the basketball. Now, how often do you see a 6-foot guy do that?"
With Oklahoma State returning nine starters on offense for 2016, Washington is in the ideal spot to create even more vertical passing insanity this fall. He's primed to take over as the Big 12's best receiver.
7. Christian Kirk (Texas A&M)
2015: 80 catches for 1,009 yards (12.61 YPC) and seven TDs
If this was a list of best all-around skill players heading into 2016 spring practices, Christian Kirk might have had a better ranking. And on receiving production alone, Kirk wasted no time in cementing himself as one of college football's best talents out wide.
Kirk had more than 100 yards in three of his first four games of his college career, with four touchdowns in that span. While his numbers trailed off at the end of the year, he came down with 10 receptions for 84 yards in a close bowl loss to Louisville, giving him 80 catches and breaking the 1,000-yard mark.
"With another full season in the system, the former early enrollee has the chance to be become the focal point of a new-look offense under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone that could feature him in a variety of ways," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote.
Kirk has outstanding speed and route-running abilities, and, like others on this list, he has time to get even better in the early days of his college career. Perhaps more stability at the quarterback position will lead to an even better 2016.
6. Taywan Taylor (Western Kentucky)
2015: 86 catches for 1,467 yards (17.06 YPC) and 17 TDs
Western Kentucky has had one of the best offenses in college football for the last couple of seasons with Brandon Doughty at quarterback. Last year, Taywan Taylor was Doughty's top receiver, breaking out onto the national stage with huge numbers in yards and touchdowns.
Only two wide receivers—Keyarris Garrett and Roger Lewis—had more yards last season than Taylor, and neither of them could match his 17 touchdowns. According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Taylor caught 86 of his 115 targets last season, and he averaged nearly 13 yards per target.
"Taylor was particularly ridiculous," Connelly wrote. "He caught at least five passes in 11 of 14 games, and he had at least 94 receiving yards in 10."
Western Kentucky needs to replace Doughty and several key players from its prolific offense, but Taylor will be back to build on his stunning numbers from the 2015 campaign. If he can continue to produce at that level, the Hilltoppers' chances at repeating as Conference USA champions are fantastic.
5. Isaiah Ford (Virginia Tech)
2015: 75 catches for 1,164 yards (15.52 YPC) and 11 TDs
Isaiah Ford had a massive breakout season in 2015, posting more than 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns in a Scot Loeffler offense that ranked a lowly 92nd in yards per play.
Even with inconsistent quarterback play, Ford lit it up for the Hokies, becoming the first 1,000-yard receiver in Virginia Tech history. He's completely rewriting the receiving record books for Virginia Tech, and his numbers could go through the roof in 2016 with new head coach Justin Fuente and the uptempo offense that made Memphis a Group of Five power in recent seasons.
Ford is a supreme athlete, and his former high school coach told Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com that he was once a bigger deal on the hardwood than current Duke basketball star Grayson Allen, his old AAU teammate. On the football field, Ford uses those skills to get great separation and burn defenses all across the ACC.
Now Ford has the opportunity to become the No. 1 receiver for the third straight season at Virginia Tech, which will run something similar to the scheme that wasn't shy about passing back in Memphis.
4. Corey Davis (Western Michigan)
2015: 90 catches for 1,436 yards (15.96 YPC) and 12 TDs
College football types who don't pay much attention to #MACtion might be surprised to see Corey Davis' name this high on a list of best wide receivers. However, his last two seasons have been some of the best of any wideout in the country.
After a 1,408-yard, 15-touchdown performance in 2014 for Western Michigan, Davis stepped up all of his numbers except for touchdowns, as he helped lead the Broncos to their second straight bowl game for the first time in school history. He was fifth nationally in receiving yards and finished the year on a streak of seven straight 100-yard games.
"A departure by the Broncos standout would have been completely understandable after an eight catch, 183-yard performance in the Bahamas Bowl," Daniel Uthman of USA Today wrote. "But Davis will be back, and he will bring a nation's-best 110 receiving yards per game with him."
Davis won't have wide receiver tag team partner Daniel Braverman with him this fall, but he'll still get plenty of balls thrown his way thanks to the chemistry he's developed with starting quarterback Zach Terrell. While he won't be one of the biggest names in college football due to his conference, Davis is one of the best receivers around.
3. Calvin Ridley (Alabama)
2015: 89 catches for 1,045 yards (11.74 YPC) and seven TDs
Alabama needed to replace its top three receivers from the 2014 campaign last season, including Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper. As a true freshman, Ridley stepped in and produced better reception and yardage numbers than Cooper did in his breakout 2012 season.
Ridley saved some of his best stuff for the biggest games of the season. His four 100-yard games in 2015 were against Georgia, Arkansas, Florida (in the SEC Championship Game) and Michigan State (in a College Football Playoff semifinal). He set multiple career highs in the 38-0 rout of the Spartans that put the Tide one step closer to another national title.
"As the year's progressed, you can see his confidence grow, and the quarterbacks and play-callers' confidence in him," Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said about Ridley, per David Ubben of Sports on Earth. "It's hard to believe this is his first year out there."
Ridley has size, speed and an incredible catch radius that should continue to only get better in the next couple of seasons for Alabama. The Crimson Tide will break in another starting quarterback once again this fall, but he'll have one of the best safety nets in the country out wide with Ridley.
2. Gabe Marks (Washington State)
2015: 104 catches for 1,192 yards (11.46 YPC) and 15 TDs
Some may breeze over Gabe Marks' statistics because he is the No. 1 receiver in the nation's pass-happiest offense, but the Washington State star deserves more respect on a national level.
Marks had the fourth-most catches and touchdowns in college football last season, and his great numbers never took a week off. Five receptions for 51 yards in a multiscore win over Wyoming made up his "worst" stat line of campaign that broke multiple school records. Not bad for a player who took a redshirt in 2014 after a concussion and an off-field incident.
"A couple months in (to his redshirt season), he dedicated himself to improving his skills as a player—working extremely hard as a player," Washington State head coach Mike Leach said, per Todd Milles of the Olympian. "And he had an offseason where he was extremely hungry for improvement and that example rubbed off on others as well."
Marks decided to stay in school for another season instead of heading to the NFL, where he'll continue to spearhead an effective Air Raid attack with the efficient Luke Falk at quarterback. When the Cougars get into a rhythm, Marks is virtually impossible to stop.
1. JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC)
2015: 89 catches for 1,454 yards (16.34 YPC) and 10 TDs
Many of the top wide receiver names that dotted All-American lists last season are now off to the next level, but USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster will be back to lead the way for the Trojans offense in 2016.
Smith-Schuster ranked fourth nationally in total receiving yards last season and came down with 10 touchdown receptions. He had 55 or more yards in all 14 games for USC in 2015 and recorded six 100-yard games in the span of eight weeks.
"You're talking about a great player—fast, very athletic and physical," Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton said of Smith-Schuster, per of the Journal Sentinel. "He is everything that cornerbacks hate."
The rising junior was one of the nation's most productive receivers last season, and even though he will have to adjust to a new quarterback this fall, his numbers could go up even more, as the Trojans return almost everyone else at wide receiver. That means defenses won't be able to just key on Smith-Schuster, who has the all-around tools to completely take over any game.
All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.