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2015 Position Previews: Wide Receiver

Will the next breakout star emerge from an unproven receiving corps?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After losing their top two receivers to graduation and eventually the NFL Draft, the 2015 Yellow Jackets seek to fill large holes left at the position.  While the WR position is not often touted as crucial by the media and those not readily familiar with Paul Johnson’s flexbone, the last six years of Johnson’s tenure on The Flats have shown that even its explosive run game is predicated on the passing game keeping the defense honest.

It’s basic football: if the offense has no pass threat, then the defense has less to worry about and can focus on stopping the run.  The most successful years of Coach Johnson’s tenure have been when players like Demariyus Thomas, Stephen Hill, and Deandre Smelter were able to emerge as dangerous targets down the field. Without a go-to pass threat, the years of 2010, 2012, and 2013 resulted in many Georgia Tech fans cringing as soon as the quarterback dropped back to pass.

Much of the time, a Georgia Tech WR is asked to block. Sometimes that means cracking a linebacker out of his shoes, but other times that means blocking a corner or safety the length of the field because a running back is sprung behind them. But sometimes a Georgia Tech WR is lined up in single coverage against a corner who’s 4 inches shorter and has no over-the-top safety help because his safety bit on the play-action.  When that happens, a WR in this offense can average 17 ypc like Darren Waller did, or an eye-popping 20.4 ypc like Deandre Smelter did last season.

The opportunity to be this offense’s next star at the position is there for any of these new and returning receivers, but who will emerge?  The 2015 Yellow Jackets return plenty of talent at the WR position, but not much experience.  The depth chart is as follows:

Position 1st String 2nd String
Wide Receiver Michael Summers Antonio Messick
Wide Receiver Ricky Jeune Brandon Oliver

The most experienced of the starters is 6’1" Michael Summers, who hauled in 7 catches for 45 yards last year.  Starting along side him is 6’3" Ricky Jeune, who has not yet recorded his first collegiate catch.  The second string has one collegiate reception between the two of them, and that was Antonio Messick’s 16-yard touchdown last year against NC State.  Don’t be surprised if underclassmen such as Harland Howell, Jalen Saunders, or especially incoming freshman Christian Phillpots earn some playing time this fall as well.

Michael Summers is the oldest of the receiving corps as a redshirt junior, and he returns the most in-game experience.  He’s expected to be the next go-to receiver in the offense, but with so much talent pushing for playing time behind him, it could be any one of the receivers deep on the depth chart.

While in-game experience would certainly help, the test of how quickly this unit can cohesively be on the same page as their quarterback might make-or-break the 2015 offense.  The entirety of the 2014 season saw QB Justin Thomas and WR Deandre Smelter operate as a single unit.  It wasn’t until the ACCCG against Florida State that we realized we had all been taking their cohesion for granted.  With Smelter out for the season, the championship game was all but decided on two different plays where Waller ran option routes.  Waller ran his routes for different coverages than his quarterback read, and the passes fell to the ground.

In Waller’s defense, it appears he worked is tail off with Justin Thomas between that game and the Orange Bowl.  Against Mississippi State, he was nearly impossible to cover and caught 5 passes for 114 yards and I TD.

Blocking can be taught. Blocking assignments can be taught. Running a crisp route tree can be taught. Getting out of press coverage can be taught. Being comfortable and so familiar with your quarterback that you run the correct option route, without a second thought, and all in the waning seconds of a conference championship game is something not learned as much from coaches, but from offseason repetition and putting in the extra time and effort outside of scheduled practices. Which one of these unproven and untested wideouts wants their starting position enough to do that? Time will tell, but so will Week 3 at Notre Dame.