The Big 12, at least as it pertains to defensive backs, is largely a rinse and repeat league.
The Texas Longhorns’ five-game conference stretch thus far is a shining example. With the exception of Kansas State, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his secondary have been dealt the daunting task of attempting to slow elite talent at wide receiver week after week, from TCU’s Jalen Reagor and Kavontae Turpin to Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb to Baylor’s Denzel Mims and Jalen Hurd to Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace.
The task at hand will be tall yet again on Saturday, as West Virginia’s Heisman candidate quarterback Will Grier comes to Austin accompanied by a quartet of potential NFL-caliber receivers. Singularly, none may be quite as prolific of a pass-catcher as Hollywood Brown or the budding star that is Tylan Wallace, who’s now the nation’s fifth-leading receiver, but nevertheless, Grier enjoys a host of tremendously notable names to spread the ball around to and he’s done exactly that en route to a top 10 passing offense, which ranks as the best Texas has seen this season.
Unsurprisingly, senior David Sills V leads the way with 37 receptions for 529 yards and nine touchdowns; each of which is a team-best effort.
“Size is the thing that stands out, obviously, 6-4, 210 pounds, whatever,” Tom Herman said of Sills during his Monday afternoon media availability. “His body control is phenomenal in terms of contorting his body and in mid-air when he jumps, and obviously his ball skills are off the charts in terms of his ability to catch the football.”
Senior Gary Jennings Jr. and junior Marcus Simms join Sills in the 500-yard club, as Jennings has amassed 502 yards and eight touchdowns on 33 receptions, while Simms’ 29 receptions have netted 511 yards and two scores. Also emerging as an option is sophomore T.J. Simmons, an Alabama transfer who has tallied 17 receptions for 256 yards and one score; an effort bolstered by three games with at least 50 yards, despite being the fourth option.
There’s good and bad news beneath the raw numbers, though.
As evident by Sills’ team-high 537 yards ranking 80th nationally, West Virginia is yet to see a receiver emerge as a truly and consistently dominant option this season.
Sills boasts a pair of 100-yard efforts against Tennessee (140) and Baylor (139), but otherwise, he’s been limited to no more than 74 yards in each of his other five appearances. Jennings also reached the 100-yard mark against Baylor, but he’s had no more than 70 yards in any other Big 12 appearance. Similarly, Simms enjoyed three-consecutive games with at least 119 yards against Youngstown State, Kansas State, and Texas Tech, but beyond that, his best showing is 57 yards against Kansas, and his two more recent outings against Iowa State and Baylor have netted a mere three receptions for 21 yards.
That said, the individual inconsistencies in the stat sheet are more closely credited to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
For example, despite the general lack of individual game-by-game success, Sills, Jennings, Simms, and Simmons have combined for at least 237 yards each time out, with the exception of the Iowa State game, which we’ll come back to momentarily. This presents Texas with the unique and challenging chore of not only attempting to prevent Sills, Jennings, and Simms, which combined for upwards of 2,700 yards in 2017, from each having a personal field day, but prevent the entire core — Simmons included — from slowly chipping away and compiling a 250-yard showing behind a collection of 50, 60, and 70-yard efforts.
The Mountaineers have found success with each method thus far, with the exception Iowa State, of course, which limited Grier to just 100 yards through the air in a 30-14 win.
For obvious reasons, Texas will aim to replicate what worked for Iowa State, likely implementing the Lighting dime package — which was actually formulated following Texas’ 17-7 win over the Cyclones last season — early and often. In this case, Texas will swap its B-Backer for an additional defensive back, and having as many bodies is coverage as possible largely led to the Cyclones upsetting then-No. 6 West Virginia.
“What they do is a lot of eight-man drop and things like that. They do really good job — Iowa State does — of kind of plastering on receivers so there’s not a lot of space,” Orlando said of what Iowa State did to confuse Grier. “You think number count; if four guys are going out and you’ve got eight to cover them, there’s not going to be a lot of windows in there and I thought [Iowa State] did a good job, even when [Grier] was scrambling and their receivers were working to get open, they did a really good job of staying on their guys and just causing him not to have a lot of room to throw footballs.”
It would be an understatement to say Texas’ secondary, which ranks 90th in passing yards allowed per game (245.3) and 52nd in passing defense efficiency, will have its hands full following four exceptional receivers around the field all afternoon, but the plan in place appears to be providing as many additional bodies as necessary to prevent West Virginia from exploiting one-on-one mismatches.
Limiting West Virginia’s wide outs to the extreme extent Iowa State did likely won’t be required to win, but limiting the Mountaineers’ potent passing attack to some extend will be absolutely necessary, nevertheless. If the secondary can’t reach that feat and West Virginia’s receivers run wild, the Mountaineers will be singing Country Roads to celebrate a ranked road win.