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Receivers coming to the rescue for West Virginia

October 6, 2010
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - Being a wide receiver at West Virginia mostly has meant throwing blocks to spring the Mountaineers' stable of speedy running backs on long runs.

That tradition will never end, but the team's current pass catchers are showing that they're more than just obstacles for defenders chasing Noel Devine.

Not only can these guys catch, they can do something after the grab, too.

First-year starters Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, along with seniors Jock Sanders and Devine, are helping No. 22 West Virginia balance its offense, which over the past decade produced a formidable ground game with mobile quarterbacks Pat White and Rasheed Marshall and running back Steve Slaton, along with Devine.

West Virginia has had many individual standouts at wide receiver before, most notably Sanders last year, Darius Reynaud in 2007 and Chris Henry in 2003 and 2004.

But it seems there's more targets making headlines, especially in September. West Virginia has three players among the top 10 in catches in the Big East.

''For being such a suspect group early in the season, they've come on pretty well,'' West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said Sunday. ''We're trying to spread the wealth. And these little guys are stepping up and making plays. They've grown.

''They've got a long way to go yet because we have some first-year starters out there like Stedman Bailey. But big plays are being made and I enjoy that and I think the Mountaineer faithful enjoy that.''

The run-based spread offense built by former coach Rich Rodriguez and used the previous two years by Stewart is getting tweaked more and more.

The ultimate lesson in finding balance in the offense was learned in Rodriguez's last game at West Virginia in 2007, when Pittsburgh shut down the Mountaineers' vaunted run attack. White was injured in the first half, West Virginia had no passing game and missed a trip to the national championship game.

In his first three starts, sophomore quarterback Geno Smith is proving himself as one of the Big East's emerging stars with 800 yards passing. He's completed passes to 10 different receivers.

''Geno has a lot of patience and he's confident and he knows what he's doing,'' Austin said.

It helps to have playmakers on the receiving end of the ball.

Austin, Sanders and Devine are among the fastest players on the team, and that equates to West Virginia (3-0) throwing balls downfield - and completing them - more often than in recent memory.

Sanders and Austin showed their speed after the catch in Saturday's 31-17 win over Maryland. Sanders had a 32-yard reception and Austin a 29-yarder, both after short grabs. Sanders also returned a punt 66 yards.

Stewart said he told Austin, a Baltimore native, and other WVU players with Maryland roots that they didn't have to play like super heroes, just give a focused effort.

Austin, a sophomore who converted from running back this season, played like one anyway, catching seven passes for 106 yards and two scores.

''Tavon had the cape on for a little bit because he sure made some nice plays,'' Stewart said.

Austin leads the Big East with 21 catches for 281 yards. Sanders (19 catches, 214 yards) is second in receptions and Devine (13 catches, 89 yards) is eighth.

Bailey, a redshirt freshman, had his first big game, catching four passes for 60 yards and two scores against the Terrapins.

Tight ends Tyler Urban, who missed the Maryland game with a knee injury, and Will Johnson give the receiving corps added backbone.

The Mountaineers will need it for their road game against No. 15 LSU (3-0) on Saturday night. The Tigers will be West Virginia's first ranked opponent of the season.

''I'm really pumped up to see what I can do and see what the team can do,'' Austin said. ''It's going to be something down there.''

Smith said he'll be ready for the challenge, too.

''We are confident in our abilities,'' he said. ''We've got to give it our best shot. To be honest with you, I just take things day by day because life is short. I don't think about any other game until it comes.''