WSU Pre-Spring Glance, Wide Receivers Edition

What up Cougs?  With the calendar flipping over to March, MLB spring training is in full force, and the WSU baseball team is off to a fantastic 6-0 start……but hey, did you realize we’re less than a month away from the beginning of spring football?  Amazing.  And with the hoops team strugga-LING down the stretch, all I can say is HOORAY football!

That said, let’s take a pre-spring practice look at the good hands people, aka the wideouts, in the third of a series prior to spring ball (check out the QBs here, and the running backs here).  How do things look as we head towards the start of practices later this month?  Read on……

First, the top returnees at receiver, with 2009 stats:

Jared Karstetter 38 540 14.2 64 6
Gino Simone 36 330 9.2 22 1
Jeffrey Solomon 25 298 11.9 46 1
Johnny Forzani 9 265 29.4 99 2
Daniel Blackledge 23 212 9.2 24 1

Notes:  After last year, I think it’s pretty clear Karstetter showed he can handle the load as the #1 wideout.  Not a burner, but definitely fast enough, he’s a large 6-4 target with decent hands and athleticism.  He led the team in catches (38), yards(540), and TD catches(6).  After a frosh season where he caught only six passes, 2009 was awfully promising for where he might be headed in his remaining time at WSU.  I know I have always held out hope that he could be evolving towards a Jeff-Samardzija type (sans mullet), with the soft hands and quickness as well as the size and leaping ability.  And what a weapon he can be in those goal-line fade situations!  Three of his six TD catches last year were of that end-zone fade variety (vs. Stanford in the picture above, and both TD’s vs. Notre Dame, which you can see in the first 45 seconds of video right here:)

Simone might not have blown people away with his frosh season, but let’s remember he was a TRUE frosh last year.  The fact that he went out and caught 36 balls himself is pretty impressive.  While he’ll never have the breakaway speed, he’s already showing to be an adept route runner who knows how to get open, and possesses some decent hands to boot.  And best of all, you can already see some chemistry developing between Simone and QB Jeff Tuel.  Simone’s top two pass-reception games of 2009 came with Tuel at the helm (8 vs. USC, plus 6 for 86 yards and a TD catch vs. Cal). 

I liked what we saw out of Solomon last year.  He was a nice surprise after transferring in from EWU, where he was third on the team in catches (25), receiving yards (298), and second in yards per catch (11.9) in ’09.  He had a nice game vs. Cal, catching 7 balls for 81 yards, and had his lone TD catch vs. UCLA a few weeks later. 

After a slow start to his career, we finally caught a glimpse of what Daniel Blackledge can do with his 23 catches on the season.  Decent size at 6-1, 182, he’s not a “home run” hitter but certainly showed some potential last year.  But after a pretty decent start to the season, with 20 catches through the first six games, he faded badly down the stretch with just three balls over the final six games of the year.  But health has been an issue for Blackledge, first with a shoulder injury in ’08, then some leg ailments last year over the second half of the season.  We’ll see how they handle him this spring, but for a player who has battled the injury bug his entire career, they may dial things back a bit?

But all that said, maybe the most important spring for any returner is Johnny Forzani.  The JC transfer had just nine catches last year, but clearly shows the best deep speed of any player currently on the spring roster.  Forzani showed he can get loose deep, with his 99-yarder vs. ASU and his 68-yarder vs. Cal.  But consistency is an issue here, as outside of a 4-catch game vs. the Golden Bears, he had just five catches the rest of the season.  And, after his big game vs. Cal, he caught just two balls over his last four games.  Hopefully he can get out there with coach Levy this spring and work on the little things over the 15 practices.

Bottom line:  It’s definitely one of the most experienced group of wideouts that we’ve had in Pullman in some time.  Maybe the most experienced since the Jason Hill-Michael Bumpus-Brandon Gibson trio from 2006.  I will be paying close attention this spring to reports on the receivers as a group, but in particular if Forzani and Simone show progress.  Forzani needs to take a step forward as the lone burner, the one guy who can make a defensive back play a little soft and not cheat so much on all the underneath stuff, but also a guy who can make a defensive back turn his back and forced to run down the field, respecting the ability of a guy who can be a legit deep threat.  You have a guy like Forzani show some real improvement, and maybe even have a safety show some respect to where they have to provide some help deep down the field, well, you can create some SPACE for the offense.  Suddenly the entire gameplan can open up if you have a player who can flat-out stretch the field!

Simone has been getting bigger and stronger by all reports this offseason, and he looked ready to go when we saw him last month at the WSU Football Dinner in Seattle.  He has definitely added some size and strength, and it will be nice to see him put his new physique to the test in formal practices.

As a group, while last year they all seemed young, well, suddenly we’re looking at THREE seniors in Forzani, Blackledge and Solomon, plus a junior in Karstetter.  They grow up so fast!  But anyway, there is promise here.  Provided the offensive line can do their part and keep young Tuel upright with time to throw the ball, there should be a lot of options in the passing game. 

That’s it for now.  Enjoy your Tuesday, and as always, GO COUGS!