Ranking the Best Receiving Corps for 2018 College Football Season
Gary Jennings and David Sills V combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and they'll both be back as seniors to give West Virginia possibly the best receiving corps in the nation.
It doesn't hurt that the Mountaineers also still have Will Grier at quarterback.
For each of these aerial assaults, we'll take a look at the star receiver, his supporting cast and the quarterback who will be primarily responsible for getting the ball to all of them. The QB situations were not explicitly considered during the selection process, but they were a factor in the final order of these receiving corps.
As was the case in last week's ranking of the best backfields for 2018, this isn't meant to be a projection of the 10 teams who will rack up the most passing yards. That would be a slightly different exercise that takes into consideration the difficulty of the schedule, as well as the strength of the running game and defense.
Rather, we're approaching this as a ranking of which collections of wide receivers (and tight ends and pass-catching running backs, where appropriate) you would take first if building a team from scratch.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Star: Stanley Morgan Jr. (61 REC, 986 YDS, 10 TD)
Morgan had a couple of good-not-great seasons while battling Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore for positioning on Nebraska's depth chart in 2015 and 2016. All three of those guys ran out of eligibility in 2016, though, finally leaving Morgan to become the go-to guy. He didn't disappoint, eclipsing 90 receiving yards seven times, including a 185-yard, two-touchdown performance late in the year against Penn State.
Other Key Contributors: JD Spielman (WR), Tyjon Lindsey (WR)
There are only two returning players in the Big Ten who had at least 800 receiving yards last year: Morgan and Spielman (830). Broadening the scope to include every conference, Nebraska and West Virginia are the only FBS teams with multiple returnees who accounted for at least 825 receiving yards in 2017. Despite the gigantic question mark at quarterback, that nugget of information was enough for the Cornhuskers to land on the list.
Watch out for Lindsey, too. He only made 12 receptions as a true freshman, but he was the No. 50 overall recruit in the 247 Sports 2017 composite rankings.
The Quarterback: Adrian Martinez (true freshman) or Tristan Gebbia (redshirt freshman)
The big question facing Scott Frost in his first season as Nebraska's head coach is: Pro style or dual threat? If he wants to stick with a McKenzie Milton type of quarterback who can do plenty of damage with his legs, Martinez is the clear choice. Either way, this arsenal of great receiving options will be at the mercy of a QB who has yet to play a collegiate game. That makes it difficult to gauge the ceiling for this receiving corps, but it's worth noting that both QB options were highly rated out of high school. It wouldn't be a surprise if this is a timeshare situation.
9. California Golden Bears
The Star: Vic Wharton III (67 REC, 871 YDS, 5 TD)
With the exception of Arizona State's N'Keal Harry, Wharton had more receptions and more receiving yards in 2017 than any other returning player in the Pac-12. After getting things started with a bang—five receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown in the season-opening win over North Carolina—the former Tennessee transfer had at least four catches and 44 yards in 11 of 12 games.
Other Key Contributors: Demetris Robertson (WR), Kanawai Noa (WR) and Patrick Laird (RB)
Running backs aren't usually considered a key part of the passing game, but Laird was one of just two players who both rushed for at least 1,100 yards and made at least 45 receptions last year. The other was Penn State's Saquon Barkley. Thus, Laird has to be counted as a significant part of this receiving corps.
Getting Robertson back should be huge, too. He had a great freshman campaign (50 catches, 767 yards, seven TDs) in 2016, but he only appeared in two games last year before undergoing season-ending surgery. If he can regain that 2016 form, Cal's passing game could be outstanding.
The Quarterback: Ross Bowers (59.0% CMP, 3,039 YDS, 18 TD, 12 INT)
Bowers had a hit-or-miss debut season for the Golden Bears. He had some great games against North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State and Colorado, but there were also major duds against the likes of USC, Stanford, Washington and Ole Miss. If his consistency doesn't improve, the Golden Bears may turn to South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain sooner than later.
8. Louisville Cardinals
The Star: Jaylen Smith (60 REC, 980 YDS, 7 TD)
Smith missed three games in the middle of last season with a wrist injury, but he still finished third in the ACC in total receiving yards. And while a lot of top receivers have a couple of gigantic performances to thank for their gaudy numbers, Smith was just consistently solid. He made at least five catches in nine of 10 games played. He also had at least 73 receiving yards in nine of 10 games. He should be the star of this Louisville offense in 2018.
Other Key Contributors: Dez Fitzpatrick (WR), Seth Dawkins (WR)
Heading into last season, there was no telling what Louisville's passing game would look like after losing leading receivers James Quick, Cole Hikutini and Jamari Staples. But it didn't take long for Smith, Fitzpatrick and Dawkins to prove that the Cardinals were still in good hands. These No. 2 and No. 3 guys on the depth chart put up similar numbers, combining for 87 receptions, 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the Week 6 loss to NC State—one of the games Smith missed—Fitzpatrick and Dawkins each had at least 133 receiving yards.
The Quarterback: Jawon Pass (69.7% CMP, 238 YDS, 2 TD, 0 INT)
If Lamar Jackson had returned for one more season, Louisville would probably be No. 1 on this list. As is, the Cardinals sneak in at No. 8 on the assumption that Pass will be able to utilize the weapons Jackson helped establish. The redshirt sophomore hasn't seen much of the field since arriving in Louisville, but the dual-threat QB was the highest-rated member of the Cardinals' 2016 recruiting class. Pass isn't going to make people forget about Jackson, but he has the potential to keep this offense from falling apart without its former do-it-all star.
7. Arizona State Sun Devils
The Star: N'Keal Harry (82 REC, 1,142 YDS, 8 TD)
When a power-conference player puts together a stat line like this, it's typically a foregone conclusion that he'll take his talents to the NFL draft. Fortunately for Arizona State, Harry was a true sophomore last season and didn't have that option. As such, the man who ranked second in the Pac-12 in both receptions and receiving yards is back to anchor this bunch.
Other Key Contributors: Kyle Williams (WR), Frank Darby (WR)
Arizona State lost two major targets this offseason, even though both are still on the roster. Jalen Harvey (33 catches, 558 yards) is switching from wide receiver to safety and John Humphrey (13 catches, 177 yards) has already been lost for the season to a torn Achilles. But the Sun Devils do still have last year's No. 2 option in Williams (66 catches, 763 yards, 7 TDs). They also still have Darby, who averaged 26.0 yards per reception as a freshman, albeit on just nine catches.
The Quarterback: Manny Wilkins (63.4% CMP, 3,270 YDS, 20 TD, 8 INT)
A lot of people thought Wilkins might lose playing time to Alabama transfer Blake Barnett last year, but Wilkins took almost every snap for the Sun Devils. And now that Barnett has transferred once again (to South Florida), it's clearly still the incumbent's job. Wilkins scuffled through much of October and November, but he finished strong with six touchdowns in his final two games. Can he build on that?
6. North Texas Mean Green
The Star: Jalen Guyton (49 REC, 775 YDS, 9 TD)
Guyton originally signed with Notre Dame, but he redshirted in 2015 before transferring to Trinity Valley CC, where he made 45 receptions for 968 yards and 12 touchdowns two years ago. North Texas snatched him up and immediately made him a focal point of the offense. Through the team's first six games, he had seven touchdowns and averaged 104.3 yards per game. He vanished over the second half of the season, but he could be one of the top receivers this year.
Other Key Contributors: Michael Lawrence (WR) and Rico Bussey Jr. (WR)
In addition to Guyton, the Mean Green had quite the three-headed monster with Lawrence and Bussey. All three receivers finished last season with more than 45 receptions and 650 yards. Their combined line was 158 catches, 2,271 yards and 20 touchdowns. And all three are back for another season, as is their gunslinger...
The Quarterback: Mason Fine (63.4% CMP, 4,052 YDS, 31 TD, 15 INT)
Fine isn't a household name, but perhaps he should be. No returning player attempted more passes nor threw for more yards last season, and his numbers aren't all that different from what Sam Darnold accomplished (63.1% CMP, 4,143 YDS, 26 TD, 13 INT) in the process of becoming the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft. Granted, there's a huge difference between doing it at USC and doing it at UNT, but Fine still put up big stats and is retaining all three of his favorite targets. He just might lead the nation in passing yards.
5. Buffalo Bulls
The Star: Anthony Johnson (76 REC, 1,356 YDS, 14 TD)
Only Oklahoma State's James Washington (119.2) hauled in more receiving yards per game in 2017 than Buffalo's Anthony Johnson (113.0). The transfer from Iowa Western CC wasted no time in establishing himself as an FBS star, racking up 11 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against Minnesota. It was the first of six times that he had at least that many yards in a single game. And Johnson ended with a flourish, totaling 21 catches for 468 yards and eight touchdowns in Buffalo's final three games.
Other Key Contributors: K.J. Osborn (WR), Antonio Nunn (WR) and Tyler Mabry (TE)
Buffalo lost last year's No. 2 in receiving yards (Kamathi Holsey), but this unit is otherwise well intact. Osborn ranked second on the team in both receptions (35) and touchdowns (four), Nunn led the team in yards per reception (20.1) and Mabry made at least one reception in 11 of 12 games—far from the norm for tight ends in college football in 2017. Johnson is the clear-cut primary target, but the Bulls are more than just a one-man show.
The Quarterback: Tyree Jackson (60.3% CMP, 2.096 YDS, 12 TD, 3 INT)
Jackson is half man, half mountain. Listed at 6'7" and 245 pounds, he is easily one of the biggest and strongest quarterbacks in the country. (He's also a mortal lock to become this year's Josh Allen, as NFL scouts are bound to fall head over heels in love with this off-the-radar big man with a huge arm.) Jackson used to do a lot of scrambling, but a knee injury forced him to become more of a true pocket presence at the end of last season. In the process, he averaged 340.8 passing yards per game with nine touchdowns in his final four games.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
The Star: Marquise Brown (57 REC, 1,095 YDS, 7 TD)
Nearly 25 percent of Brown's yards came in one game against Oklahoma State, ensuring his spot in Sooners lore. "Hollywood" exploded for 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns—one from 77 yards out, the other from 84 yards away—in the Bedlam rivalry. He also finished the year strong, racking up 11 catches for 201 yards and two scores between the Big 12 championship and the College Football Playoff.
Other Key Contributors: CeeDee Lamb (WR), Mykel Jones (WR), Grant Calcaterra (TE)
Despite losing tight end extraordinaire Mark Andrews, Oklahoma is still loaded with playmakers. Nine Sooners accounted for at least 10 receptions and 139 yards last season, and six of them are back, including two running backs who aren't even listed here.
Brown and Lamb (46 catches, 807 yards, 7 TDs) are the obvious candidates to lead this assault, but the potential breakout star to keep an eye on is Mykel Jones. He only made 16 catches as a sophomore, but six of them went for at least 30 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown strike in the Big 12 Championship Game.
The Quarterback: Kyler Murray (85.7% CMP, 359 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT)
Replacing the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft and the most efficient quarterback in college football history is no easy task, but Murray is talented enough to give it a go. He was a 5-star recruit back in 2015 when he began his college career with Texas A&M, and he clearly has the necessary targets at Oklahoma to finally tap into that potential. He was extremely efficient in limited (garbage-time) opportunities last year, but we'll see what he can do as the starter.
3. North Carolina State Wolfpack
The Star: Kelvin Harmon (69 REC, 1,017 YDS, 4 TD)
Prior to Harmon, it had been a hot minute since North Carolina State had a 1,000-yard receiver. You have to go all the way back to 2002 and 2003 to find Jerricho Cotchery as the most recent name on that list. And the remarkable thing is that Harmon got there primarily in small chunks. He only had three receptions of 40 or more yards, none of which went for at least 50. Yet, he had at least 100 yards in six games.
Other Key Contributors: Jakobi Meyers (WR), Stephen Louis (WR)
Replacing the versatile Jaylen Samuels (75 catches, 593 yards, 4 TDs) won't be easy, but the Wolfpack do have three returning wide receivers who accounted for more than 580 yards each in 2017. Louis has eclipsed that mark in each of the last two seasons, and Meyers got there by recording at least seven receptions for 76 yards in four of NC State's final five games.
And you can just about take it to the bank that the backfield will feature prominently in the receiving game, as per usual. Nyheim Hines had 89 receptions for nearly 1,000 yards over the last three seasons, and he was just the latest in a long line of pass-catching rushing options for the Wolfpack. True freshman Ricky Person could be a big benefactor here.
The Quarterback: Ryan Finley (65.1% CMP, 3,514 YDS, 17 TD, 6 INT)
The Boise State transfer has thrown for at least 3,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, and there's a strong case to be made that he's the best quarterback in the ACC for the upcoming campaign. He doesn't get a ton of touchdowns, but he also isn't going to make many back-breaking mistakes. Finley didn't throw his first interception until NC State's eighth game last season, and three of his six on the season were desperation heaves either right before halftime or at the end of the game.
2. Ole Miss Rebels
The Star: A.J. Brown (75 REC, 1,252 YDS, 11 TD)
Every national conversation about wide receivers in 2018 begins with Brown. After what he did as a sophomore, he's the top pass-catcher in virtually all of the way-too-early 2019 draft projections. And why not? Despite a midseason change at quarterback and no opportunity to play in a bowl game, Brown led all SEC players in both receiving yards and touchdowns. He had five games with at least 150 yards and a score, each of which resulted in a win for the Rebels.
Other Key Contributors: DaMarkus Lodge (WR), D.K. Metcalf (WR) and Dawson Knox (TE)
Despite losing Van Jefferson (42 catches, 456 yards) to Florida via transfer, the Ole Miss receiving corps is pretty much the same as last year. Lodge and Metcalf each accounted for seven touchdowns and more than 600 yards last season, and Knox emerged late in the year as something of a preferred security blanket for Jordan Ta'amu. Of his 24 receptions, 20 came in the final six games.
The Quarterback: Jordan Ta'amu (66.5% CMP, 1,682 YDS, 11 TD, 4 INT)
The Rebels began 2017 with Shea Patterson at QB and would be an easy choice for No. 1 if he hadn't suffered a knee injury and subsequently transferred to Michigan. But Ta'amu has already shown that this passing game is still in good shape; he threw for more than 360 yards in each of his first three starts. Incoming freshman Matt Corral could come in and immediately vie for the job, but that might just motivate Ta'amu to be even better.
1. West Virginia Mountaineers
The Star: David Sills V (60 REC, 980 YDS, 18 TD)
It's hard to believe Sills fell short of the 1,000-yard plateau, because he shot out of the gates like a bat out of hell. In West Virginia's first six games against FBS opponents, Sills had 44 receptions for 718 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had at least six catches, 89 yards and two touchdowns in each of those games. Sills sputtered to the finish line and didn't even record a reception in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but there are only a couple of returning wide receivers more notable than this one.
Other Key Contributors: Gary Jennings (WR), Marcus Simms (WR)
West Virginia had more than 4,000 passing yards last season, and more than 93 percent of it was contained to four receivers: Sills, Jennings (1,096), Ka'Raun White (1,004) and Simms (663). Three-fourths of that quartet is back this year for what should be a lethal Mountaineers air attack.
The Quarterback: Will Grier (64.4% CMP, 3,490 YDS, 34 TD, 12 INT)
Much of the 2017 offseason was spent waiting to find out whether Grier would be eligible to play, as he still had a few games left on his suspension when he transferred away from Florida. But he was clearly worth the wait, as Grier threw for at least 285 yards and two touchdowns in all 10 games played prior to a season-ending finger injury in mid-November.
It didn't much matter who he was targeting, either. With Grier behind center, Sills, Jennings and White each had four games with at least 114 receiving yards. And he still had room to hook up Simms for at least 50 yards seven times. Losing White might hurt a little bit, but it should just be a "next man up" situation with Grier running the show.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.