MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — From a production standpoint, three of West Virginia’s top five wide receivers and four of its top six wide receivers from last season are gone.
Luckily for freshman WVU coach Tony Washington, redshirt juniors Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James are back, giving the Mountaineers a pair of proven players who offer consistent veteran influence in that position. .
Still, Washington knows his squad needs more than just Ford-Wheaton and James as West Virginia bursts into a new system under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
No. 1 on the list of wide releases WVU hopes to see a big step forward is second Kaden Prather.
“Kaden Prather has a lot of peak performances and now the most important thing for him is to pile them on top of each other,” Washington said. “When he’s confident, he’s as good as anyone we have in this room.”
One of the most decorated members of the 2021 Mountaineers recruiting class, Prather signed up early and continued to contribute sparingly as a true freshman, catching 12 passes for 175 yards. All but three receptions and 46 yards came in West Virginia’s final three regular-season games, with Prather taking on an expanded role toward the latter part of his freshman college season.
Washington was then still with Coastal Carolina, where he held the same title as Morgantown. Since being hired at WVU in February, Washington has taken notice of Prather’s advanced skills. At times, the receivers coach thinks it almost works against the 6-foot-4, 211-pound native of Montgomery Village, Maryland, who Washington wants to see things simplified.
“He’s so talented and things come easy to him sometimes,” Washington said. “He makes the game harder than it should be. For him, it’s really understanding that I have all these abilities and talent, but I can’t use everything I know on every course. Sometimes it takes this or that.
Since participating in his second spring in West Virginia, Prather has shown the maturation that Mountaineer coaches hope to see more moving forward, according to Washington.
“He’s starting to understand that I can do this here or do that there. I see the wheels turning and he’s asking questions he wouldn’t necessarily have asked in the spring,” Washington said. “He plays faster. He catches the ball well, especially in recent days. If he keeps stacking like he does, he’s going to be phenomenal.
With his stature, Prather is likely to join Ford-Wheaton (6-3, 224) as the Mountaineers’ top targets at outside receiver.
Still, with Winston Wright Jr. — who led WVU in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns a year ago — having transferred to Florida State, and fellow former wides Sean Ryan and Isaiah Esdale transferred to Rutgers and Rice respectively, there is a need for more than Prather to increase production.
Ford-Wheaton and James, who each caught 42 passes for more than 500 yards last season, will be sought after to provide more to a passing game that will feature a new starting quarterback.
“They’ve gotten a lot better with the detail and understanding of the playbook now that it’s been installed for the second or third time,” Washington said. “Really starting to understand the ins and outs, improving their technique and building on what we built in the spring. Of course, there’s always that period of trying to get to know each other, trying to figure out what works for them, what I like and what they like, and finding the best working relationship. Now we have developed a bond where these guys trust me and believe in what I coach.
WVU added a pair of junior college players to its reception hall in Jeremiah Aaron and Cortez Braham. Although they haven’t proven themselves at this level, Washington believes the two have a chance to become factors as they transition to Division I.
“At the JUCO level, Cortez and Jeremiah were probably the two best athletes on their team, and here they won’t necessarily be the best athletes every time they line up,” Washington said. “So it’s about having that technique and doing the little things right every time. They get extra work, go to extra meetings and really want to learn. They ask questions. It was really good to see.
Also back is Reese Smith, a sophomore with 23 receptions for 252 yards in his first two seasons at WVU. He and Preston Fox, who impressed in the spring to the point of earning a scholarship, add much-needed depth to a positional group looking to make more big plays in both Harrell and Washington’s freshman year with the Mountaineers.
“You have to be a magician and make everything look the same,” Washington said. “Be an illusionist to get this [defensive back] even play. When he even plays, now he starts guessing and he can sit on something. That’s when you get the big games. If you’re fast, you’re fast, but when you’re not fast, it’s going to be the technique that gives you the separation you need.