Height of Fashion
Tall receivers are the latest thing as offenses try to get a jump on short cornerbacks
Mike Bush, a 6'6" junior, is the leading returning scorer on the Washington State basketball team, and here's how he broke down a recent play: "Got my body between [my opponent] and the ball, boxed him out and went and got it." Bush's description, however, was of his touchdown catch against 5'11" Stanford cornerback Ryan Fernandez in a 45-39 victory on Oct. 13.
A look at the best wideouts in the nation reveals the latest trend in the passing game: tall receivers. To combat the fast cornerbacks whose press man coverage allows the rest of the defense to focus on stopping the run, offenses have redoubled their efforts to recruit wide receivers who can play above the secondary.
At the same time some two-sport athletes are discovering that me road to the NFL may be easier to navigate than the road to the NBA. Take 6'5" Georgia freshman wideout Fred Gibson, who made nine catches for a school-record 201 yards in the Bulldogs' 43-29 defeat of Kentucky on Oct. 20. Gibson didn't play football until his junior year at Ware County High in Waycross, Ga., and only then for a practical reason. "I like football, but I love basketball," he says. "But it's easier to get to the NFL if you're 6'5" and a good wide receiver. In basketball I'm a 6'5" shooting guard. A person can be 6'10" and do the same thing I do, and the NBA will take him before it'll take me."
For years recruiters have checked out the basketball skills of the receiver prospects who play hoops. "Basketball helps you see how well a kid can get open, what kind of hands he has, how high he can jump and what kind of competitor he is," says Louisville tight ends coach Greg Nord.
Stanford sophomore Teyo Johnson is a 6'7", 245-pound wideout who averaged 4.1 points a game at forward for the Cardinal basketball team that reached the Elite Eight last March. He leads Stanford in receptions (29) and touchdown catches (six) this fall. "You may have him covered like a blanket when the ball is in the air, but he still comes down with it," says Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, whose Huskies couldn't stop Johnson from making six catches for 80 yards in their 42-28 victory on Nov. 3.
Not all the big guys are torn between two sports. Washington's 6'4" freshman Reggie Williams, one of the most coveted recruits in the nation last February, is strictly a football man, as is 6'3" senior Marquise Walker of Michigan, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
To exploit the length of 6'4", 225-pound freshman wideout Kelley Washington, Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has made the under-thrown pass a part of the Vols' game plan. Rather than hit Washington in stride, quarterback Casey Clausen occasionally delivers the ball so that Washington and the man covering him will have to stop and jump for it. "The first thing I look for in the scouting report is size," Washington says. "It doesn't matter how fast the cornerbacks are. I look at how tall they are."
Washington had better enjoy the height advantage while he can. The next step in the evolution of the passing game? Big corners. UCLA has already found one in 6'3" freshman Matt Ware, who has started every game this year.
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