December 17, 2007

Season-in-review: The wide receivers

As we continue our final breakdown of the 2007 season for the Texas Longhorns, we'll t take a look at the team's wide receivers. With one senior All-American in the mix and host of upper-class contributors, this group was supposed to be one of the top groups in America? Did they live up to expectations? We're going inside to find out.

Limas Sweed (Senior)

Expectations -Heading into this season, Sweed was regarded as the straw that stirred the Longhorn's drink on offense. His ability to make plays deep in the vertical passing game allowed everything in the Texas offense to open up underneath, but his progression as a junior helped turn him into one of the nation's most complete receivers. Barring injuries, Sweed was expected to post one of the best seasons in the history of the program at the receiver position.

Reality - One of the worst-case situations for the 2007 team was realized in fall drills when Sweed injured his left wrist to such a degree that he eventually decided to have season-ending surgery in October after giving it a go for the first part of the season. The loss of Sweed was one that was never replaced.

Stats - Sweed caught 19 passes for 306 yards (16.1 average) and three touchdowns in six games.

High Point - Sweed looked like his old self against Rice when he hauled in five passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Low point - In the two weeks that followed the Rice game, Sweed combined to catch four passes for 39 yards in back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma.

Bottom Line - It was just a wasted season for Sweed and the impact that his loss created has been mostly forgotten by fans and the media when evaluating this season for the Longhorns. If there was one player on either side of the ball that the Longhorns just couldn't afford to lose, it was Sweed. The deep threat ability that he brought to the table was never replaced once he departed in week seven and the Longhorns lost most of the juice in their passing game. Sweed was one of two legitimate difference makers that the offense possessed coming into this season, but he never had a chance to show his stuff.

Quan Cosby (Junior)

Expectations - After a strong finish to the 2006 season and a glowing off-season progress report, Cosby was expected to assume a much larger role in the offense, especially with Sweed drawing weekly double teams. Anything less than career-best numbers across the board would have been a massive disappointment.

Reality - If you're taking names for MVP candidates on this team, the line certainly includes Cosby. The former pro baseball player did it all for the Longhorns at times as a receiver and return man, seemingly able to come up with key catches throughout the season. With Sweed out of the line-up, Cosby was forced into the role as the No.1 receiver and it ended up providing mixed results.

Stats - Cosby caught 59 passes for 625 yards (10.6 average) and five touchdowns, while also more than 1,000 return yards and another score on special teams.

High Point - Amazing as it sounds, Cosby only had one 100-yard game this season and that was against Nebraska when he caught five balls for 113 yards.

Low point - Catching one pass for 12 yards against Texas A&M sticks out like a sore thumb that's been smashed with a hammer for about 10 consecutive minutes.

Bottom Line - When you look at players on this roster and ask yourself if they would have been serious contributors on the 2005 national championship team, Cosby is a player that you can without question answer with a "yes". There's never any question about Cosby's effort and he leaves everything he has on the field every week. Add in the fact that he makes a lot of plays and you've got a really good player. His biggest problem is that most of the plays he makes are of the small variety. Cosby is a solid possession receiver, but his inability to get vertical and make downfield plays really limits the team.

Nate Jones (Senior)

Expectations - It's been a while since anyone had expectations for Jones, but coming into this season there were definitely hopes that he would emerge as a very valuable third or fourth receiver for the team after a strong off-season.

Reality - Jones turned out to be the one big breath of fresh air that the offense got from the skill positions this year, as he not only emerged as a solid role player, but he emerged as a player that could handle the role of No.1 receiver when called on. When injuries ended Sweed's season, Jones was able to step up in a big way and replace some of the production that was lost.

Stats - Jones led the team with 64 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns.

High Point - With the Longhorns struggling in the first half against TCU, Jones stepped up with a career-best game to help pull the team out of a fog and lead it to victory. He finished with eight receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown.

Low point - In the three losses that the Longhorns suffered this season, Jones was unable to be a real factor in any of them, as he combined for only 10 catches for 123 yards and zero touchdowns.

Bottom Line - Jones really came out of nowhere to give this group a lift that it desperately needed with the absence of Sweed. In fact, you can make a strong case that without the emergence of Jones, this team might have suffered a losing season.

Jordan Shipley (Junior)

Expectations - With another pre-season injury, everyone's expectations for Shipley were tempered somewhat because of his medical history. With a healthy Sweed, Shipley was going to be the No.3 receiver at best this season, so another solid year in the receiver rotation was what most were hoping for.

Reality - Shipley didn't see much action early in the season because of the injury, but when he did some back he provided a big-play option at wide receiver that was dearly needed.

Stats - The former Burnet star caught 21 passes for 373 yards (17.8 average) and five touchdowns.

High Point - Shipley caught three passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa State.

Bottom Line - The Longhorns wanted Shipley to be a solid receiver in their rotation and a guy that could give them some big-play pop and that's exactly what he did throughout the season. While the other receivers struggled to make big plays against Texas A&M and Oklahoma, he was able to get into the end zone when others were not. As the team moves forward into 2008, Shipley will need to remain healthy and he needs to continue to make improvement because his role is about to grow considerably next year.

Billy Pittman (Senior)

Expectations - Pittman was hit with a three-game suspension because of his role in an off-season issue that threatened his eligibility. Because of that episode and lackluster junior season, it was tough to pinpoint where Pittman would fit into the framework of his year's team.

Reality - Pittman just wasn't much of a factor for the team this season once his four-game suspension ended in late September.

Stats - Pittman caught 11 passes for 77 yards and zero touchdowns.

Bottom Line - It's amazing to think how far Pittman came as a player in 2005 to emerge as one of the top big-play weapons in college football, only to fall of the college football map in his final two seasons of play. Honestly, I'm not sure I've seen a Longhorn player suffer such a significant drop-off from their sophomore season to their senior season. One thing is certain and that's the Longhorns could have used the big play threat that Pittman once gave this team.

Montre Webber (Redshirt freshman)

Expectations - With so many upper-classmen on the roster, not much was expected out of Webber in his second season. If Webber could fight his way into the rotation, it would be a very good year. If nothing else, the Longhorns wanted to see enough progress from him this year that they could feel certain he'll be a viable player for them next year.

Reality - As expected, Webber didn't play much this season and it appeared that he was passed on the depth chart by two younger players.

Stats - Webber did not catch a pass in any of the four games that he saw action in.

Bottom Line - This will be a big off-season for Webber because there is a ton of playing time that can be earned in 2008 with the departures of three seniors, but he has to become a more consistent player than he's been in his first two years. His size and athletic ability make him a candidate to emerge at flanker, but with as boatload of incoming freshmen arriving in Austin, Webber better start to make some real progress or he might become an afterthought if he gets passes by younger players. If his time is going to come, it probably should start in 2008.

Philip Payne (Redshirt freshman)

Expectations - See Montre Webber. With so much veteran talent, there just wasn't much playing time to be had for Payne, but the staff simply wanted to see enough progress from him this season that they could count on him being a contributor in 2008.

Reality - Payne remained inconsistent in practice and played in only one game.

Bottom Line - Like Webber, Payne is in a position right now where this month's bowl workouts and the next off-season vitally important to his future role with the Longhorns. At the moment he hasn't shown enough for the Longhorns to cast him in a definite role for next season, so he's going to need to really start coming on in workouts or he's going to passed by younger players and then you might have to start wondering about a position change if he's going to become a contributor.

Brandon Collins (Freshman)

Expectations - Heading into the fall, expectations were not high for Collins to come in and play as a true freshman, but that quickly changed after a fast start to August workouts. By the end of training camp, he was a player that the staff had high hopes for and it was expected that he would play as a true freshman.

Reality - Collins played in seven games, but did not catch a pass and wasn't used very much in the receiver rotation.

Bottom Line - You can question whether it was a good idea to take the redshirt off of a player that you never threw the ball to, but the Longhorns want Collins to have experience heading into next season because he's expected to compete for s starting spot. Expect Collins to have a major role on next season's squad.

James Kirkendoll (Freshman)

Expectations - The former Round Rock star was expected to redshirt, but like Collins, he found himself knee-deep in potential playing time as a true freshman after a standout camp in August.

Reality - Kirkendoll played in four games and didn't catch a pass.

Bottom Line - The situation with Collins and Kirkendoll are very similar. Both players received a taste of playing time this year and are expected to be major contributors in 2008. The hope is that Kirkendoll can ignite some of the vertical passing game with his breakaway speed and quickness.

Malcolm Williams (Freshman)

Expectations - The mostly highly rated of the three incoming freshmen, Williams was the one guy everyone hoped would emerge in the fall as a possible early contributor because of his freakish combination of size, speed and big-play potential.

Reality - Williams wasn't as consistent as Collins or Kirkendoll and ended up redshirting this season while the other two true freshmen played limited roles.

Bottom Line - With Sweed's departure, there's a glaring hole at flanker heading into 2008. The Longhorns have more than enough possession receivers, but they need a big, physical target that can make plays in the vertical passing game. That's where Williams has to come into play. Even though he's young, the Longhorns need him to emerge into the playmaker that expected him to be because the offense could lack some real pop if he can't come on.

Overall thoughts

The injury to Sweed set this group of players back from the very get-go. Without Sweed's downfield abilities, this group possessed talent, but not game-breaking ability, which meant that the Longhorns had a lot of solid role players, but not a single player that opposing defensive coordinators needed to stay up all week preparing for. This was a solid group this season, but this group was expected to help carry the Longhorns to a Big 12 title and when you look at the end results for this team and the final numbers by those at the position, it was just an average year, which means this group underperformed for the year.

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