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What college coaches look for in a wide receiver prospect

Miami has produced some of college football and the NFL’s all-time great WR’s. Here’s what coaches look for in a great wideout.

Miami Hurricanes Beat Nebraska Cornhuskers for National Championship Photo by Jon Soohoo/WireImage

The wide receiver position at Miami has been a loaded spot for the ‘Canes since Eddie Brown signed with The U out of Miami Senior High School. Brown was a national champion with the Hurricanes in 1983, an All-American, and 1st round draft pick of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals in 1985. Brown went on to be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1985, a Pro Bowl player in 1988, and caught 41 career touchdowns in the league.

After Brown came a slew of talented receiver in NFL Hall of Fame wideout Michael Irvin, and fellow NFL’ers Brian Blades and Brett Perriman. Those legends and national champions were later joined by Randal “Thrill” Hill, Wesley Carroll, Lamar Thomas, Horace Copeland, Kevin Williams, Chris T. Jones, Yatil Green, and many others during the Decade of Dominance.

The WR position never fell off for Miami, even in the darkest of times such as 1997. The ‘Canes still brought in and produced future NFL stars like Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss, and eventually Andre Johnson, Roscoe Parrish and Travis Benjamin.

With all of the success that Miami has had at wide receiver, let’s look at what coaches want from the speedy skill position.

Notre Dame v Miami Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Outside and Inside Receivers

In Bruce Feldman’s book, Meat Market, there’s quite a bit of material on wide receiver play. Orgeron was in need of playmakers at Ole Miss where his only true explosive play skill guy was Dexter McCluster. Orgeron wanted to find himself the next Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett- a tall, broad, red zone threat that could box out near the back pylon and dominate smaller cornerbacks. However, his concern was if you went for too many Williams-Jarrett types you’d have, “A bunch of slow ass receivers” (Pg. 97).

Those big-body types could play the X receiver position in Orgeron and Dan Werner’s offense. The X in traditional offenses would line up by himself as a split-end. The X was typically opposite of the tight end and a bigger body who could catch slants over the middle of the field. The X for Coach O would be strong, can jump, catch the slant in traffic, but had to be able to run fast enough.

Orgeron didn’t want all big, lumbering receivers, but he also needed the size-speed ratio he was looking for in linebackers. Too small undersized receivers and you can’t get your skills off the line of scrimmage because of the physical cornerback play of the SEC. The Z receiver needs to have a nice blend of size and speed in order to offset the bigger X. Z’s, traditionally, were lined up as flankers to the side of the tight end and seen as deep threats. In many offenses, they’re predominantly running corners, fades and posts.

Your smaller, undersized receiver can go in the slot in modern offenses. With the NFL and CFB world predominantly running 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) personnel groupings, there’s typically a slot receiver on the field. That slot receiver is off the ball and harder to jam before his release, making it okay to be a small guy. We typically think of Wes Welker (isn’t every small white guy a Wes Welker type?), right? A small, shifty, receiver with good hands. In Rhett Lashlee’s offense at SMU that was James Proche. Proche caught 204 passes and 27 touchdowns while averaging around 11 yards pre catch in two seasons with Lashlee as OC.

When it came to speed, the Ole Miss staff would look at track data to know if someone like a WR was fast enough. While the 100 meter sprint is rare in football, there is a level of comparing how fast someone was. One WR in Meat Market ran a timed 4.47 40-yard dash at camp, but they looked at his 100m numbers at a track meet first. Track numbers are what made Reggie Bush stand out and that was a talking point for Coach O and his staff.

He’s not a wide receiver, but running back / return man and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush’s highlight tape will show you why anyone after him was a tough act to follow for Coach O.

The highlight tape

On the highlight tape itself, Orgeron was obviously willing to sacrifice some speed in the size-speed ratio for size for his X receiver. However, that sliding scale would only go so far as a player needed baseline speed. Orgeron wanted to see first-step quickness from his athletes and two-step speed or being able to cover five yards in only two strides. That type of speed would get a receiver open for explosive plays.

On tape, Orgeron wanted to see explosiveness from his skill guys. He wanted to see guys returning kicks and punts, and liked seeing a kid play defense, too. The more a player could bring as far as range of positions they could play, the better. Orgeron was looking for “ball skills,” or the ability for the receiver to get their body in between defenders and the ball on the tough catches over the middle or in the back of the end zone.

Some players have the ability to track the ball, use their body to block defenders, and make the big play- and some don’t. Often, a basketball or lacrosse background can help in this regard as both sports require open space and using the body to shield against defenders.

When Orgeron saw a bad tape it typically consisted of players not being able to catch the easy passes cleanly and fluidly. When watching tape you never want to see a receiver routinely catching the ball into his body. One wide receiver got “gonged” by Coach O fo bobbling passes and not properly attacking the ball. Again, those smooth, clean, ball skills. In basketball, there are guys who catch the ball and have to dribble once (some twice) before attacking the basket- catching the ball into the body or not smoothly bringing the ball in would be that same hitch.

Of course, big plays are the key to impressing any coach on the highlight tape. Recruiters want to acrobatic, one-handed grabs that are eye-popping as well as speed and shiftiness that requires fluid hips. Everything in recruiting comes back to ankles, knees, and hips or the power angles as they’re better known by.

One NAIA assistant coach and recruiter said he looks for guys that catch the ball in their hands in front of their eyes, create separation coming out of their breaks while getting into the route, physicality, and for their tape to have a display of them running the full route tree. In other words, you don’t want to see a guy run only bubbles or only fades- you need to see a variety of routes to judge if they can run good routes, or not.

Andre Johnson’s tape, below, has all of the factors you’d want to see. Johnson has size, he runs by people, he makes tough catches, shows shiftiness, and is in the kicking game as a returner.

At camps

Combine testing

40-yard dash: Only 20 WR’s broke lower than a 4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Of the elite of the elite, that number was 20. Expecting high school kids to run a legit 4.4 in the 40 is probably unrealistic at that point. But seeing hand timed numbers at your camp like 4.93? That kid is going to be too slow for FBS football at the WR position. 40 times matter most to wide receivers and cornerbacks as both positions require more straight line speed than running back, safety, or linebacker might.

20-yard Shuttle: The 20-yard shuttle has its validity to a point. As I’ve said in previous posts in this series, players can practice and game the test. It’s close-ended and a change of direction, not an agility drill. However, it is a good indicator of an easy and safe way to test change of direction in an athlete. While James Proche refused to run the 40 at the Combine, he did run the 20 shuttle where he placed in the top-15 of the Combine WR’s. He knows he doesn’t have elite speed, but the Ravens 6th round pick has elite hands, route running, and shake.

Vertical Jump: There aren’t a ton of situations in football that emulate a basketball tipoff ie the VJ, but seeing the explosive ability of an athlete in a safe environment is good. The VJ shows the quad and hamstring explosion. If you’re wondering why Henry Ruggs III went in the first round he clocked in at 4.27 in the 40 and equally as impressive his VJ was 42”.

Broad Jump: I’m a huge proponent of the BJ as a test of the explosiveness in the power angles (ankles, knees, and hips). Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones tested off the charts. At six-foot-two, 212 pounds he ran a 4.48 in the 40, jumped 44.5” in the VJ and 139” in the BJ. I like seeing powerful athletes in combines because that typically leads to explosive plays on the football field, but you still have to catch the football when it’s go-time.

Position specific

The Gauntlet

The gauntlet is a close-ended drill in the NFL Combine world that is great for testing hands, concentration and fluidity. When guys look good in the gauntlet, they look really good. When they look bad, they’re dropping balls and some even slip and fall during the drill. Is this easy to set up at a college camp with the amount of athletes they like to squeeze in with tight time frames? Maybe not. But it is a great drill to test the waters.

WR and DB 1-on-1’s

Of course, the thing many like to see is the competitive edge of any athlete. Just like 1-on-1’s for OL and DL, a WR-DB 1-on-1 isn’t necessarily accurate to football but it is accurate to test mental, physical and emotional toughness and the competitive spirit of an athlete. If the drill is ran well it’s a good indicator of who can get off the press and get open. At the end of the day, Coach O wanted to see elite athletes competing to be the best.

Of course camps also bring the added touch of being coached by your coaching staff, and seeing the mettle of the young athlete.

The wide receiver total package

When I think of a total package WR my mind goes immediately to Andre Johnson. Johnson, the former WR for the Miami Hurricanes, Texans, Colts and Titans, had the perfect combination of talents to become a two-time All Pro and seven time Pro Bowl player in the NFL. Johnson’s NFL Combine results don’t even seem real.

After a national championship and All-American career at Miami, Johnson measured in at six-foot-three, 230 pounds at the Combine. He then ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and jumped 39” in the vertical jump. Johnson’s 40 time puts him in the 99.5th percentile for players his size.

When you add those measurables to soft hands and an uncanny ability to ‘box out’ defensive backs- Johnson hauls in 70 touchdowns in the NFL while catching balls from a who-dis list of QB’s. A close second in the perfect category out of Miami would be the mix of size, speed, blocking and hands from Mr. Reggie Wayne. So what makes up a perfect WR?

One Group of 5 assistant coach and recruiter lists their top WR skills, as:

1- Toughness

2- Hands

3- Ability to adjust

4- Change of direction and body control

5- Acceleration and burst

And important items 6-10 are sinks hips, play strength, run after catch, blocking, and instincts.

Their Critical Factors for a wide receiver are: hands and catching ability, play speed and tempo, toughness and competitiveness, ability to separate, dependability, and playmaking ability.

At one Power 5 school, an assistant coach listed his WR eval sheet in the following way:

1. Size and length: Where does he fit the mold? Inside or Outside guy? Position flexibility, can he do both?

2. Skill set: Dynamic, elusive and shifty? Or longer, possession type threat?

3. Ball skills: How well does he track the ball down field? Catch radius? Ability to high-point the ball? Ability to win the contested 50-50 balls? Can he adjust to the ball in the air?

4. Hands: Natural hands catcher (away from his body)? Can he snatch & pluck the ball?

5. Overall athletic ability: Change of direction, fluidity, balance and body control, foot quickness, elusiveness?

6. Initial quickness: Does he explode off the ball into his route? If he must use a press release, how quick are his feet? How quickly can he close the cushion vs. zone/off man?

7. Route running: Ability to get in and out of cuts at full speed? How well does he sink weight to get out of breaks? Is he effective in creating separation?

8. Long speed: What’s his top end speed? Do you see him running away from people and creating separation with speed?

9. Blocking: Is he a willing blocker? Physical nature? High motor, willing to create the “touchdown” block?

What does this mean for Miami?

The wide receiver position has been a huge disappointment for the ‘Canes over the past decade and a half. Top rated recruits have had great freshmen seasons only to disappear (Ryan Moore, Sam Shields) or they’ve had three years of dormancy only to finally emerge when money is on the line their junior or senior season (Braxton Berrios, Tommy Streeter).

What this means is that Mike Harley (four-star), Mark Pope (four-star), Dee Wiggins (three-star), Jeremiah Payton (four-star), Michael Redding III (four-star), and Dazalin Worsham (three-star) are going to have to step up and become tough, soft handed, playmakers for Rhett Lashlee’s ‘Canes offense.

Tight ends Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory can be on the field at the same time, and Lashlee has shown his propensity for running 12 personnel (one running back, two tight end) sets; but eventually Miami has to start hitting on explosive plays and that will need to come from the wide receiver corps.

In 2019, Mike Harley logged the most catches (38) and yards (485) of the returning WR group, while Dee Wiggins averaged the best yards per catch (16.8 from WR’s with 10+ catches) and scored the most touchdowns (four). In Lashlee’s offense I can see the taller Payton (6’1) and Wiggins (6’3) on the outside while Harley (5’10) plays the slot. At SMU, the six-foot and speedy Reggie Roberson Jr., and six-foot-one Rashee Rice played outside while the smaller, shiftier Proche (5’11) played the slot.