It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum not easily solvable. There’s little doubt the Mountaineers would perform far better if the team could settle on a signal caller and thus begin to progress with additional game experience and snaps. Clearly, Paul Millard isn’t the choice, because he remains a reserve despite being by far the healthiest of the trio, which also includes expected Texas Tech starter Clint Trickett and back-up Ford Childress. Millard’s lack of playing time indicates a certain talent and execution level must be reached.
But once that is satisfied, does the chemistry begin to develop with time, or are there situations – and perhaps this is the issue for West Virginia – in which the blending of abilities and in-game feel between players (call it chemistry, if you’d like) is such that all the time won’t necessarily make the dynamic between the two ever exist at a truly exceptional level? And can, against all logic, chemistry actually develop in spite of a somewhat limited time playing together? In other words, do some player-player relationships simply have “it” while other’s do not?
Consider: When Denver drafted quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall prior to the 2007 season, the duo immediately had an uncanny ability to understand and coexist. The Cutler-Marshall combination racked up consecutive 1,000-yard QB-to-WR seasons their first two years in the league despite being extremely young players, and Cutler actually targeted Marshall a NFL-high 179 times in 2008 – a single-season high for QB-WR attempts in the NFL from 2008-12. When Cutler left to become a Chicago Bear, none of his receivers ever matched the productivity he enjoyed with Marshall despite being solid, if not marquee, players like Johnny Knox and Devin Hester.
In 2012, the Cutler-Marshall connection reunited in Chicago, and Cutler hit Marshall for more than 1,500 passing yards just one season after Knox led the Bears with just 727 in 2011. And this season, Cutler’s quarterback rating (95.2) is the best of his career, he’s on pace for the best yardage (4.374) and touchdown (32) totals of his career, and Marshall is again on pace to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. That, in a place, as one-time Bear wideout Muhsin Muhammad once famously quipped, is “where receivers go to die.”
There’s a chemistry between the two that’s undeniable, and this is with a receiver who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and a perceivably moody quarterback who has been beaten up behind horrid lines for the last three seasons. Yet, despite far more time with Knox, he and Cutler never truly jelled as he and Marshall did.
“You gotta have chemistry,” WVU receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said. “Look at the (NFL’s Denver) Broncos and what they do (currently). It’s that trust that you are going to be in the right spot and to throw it up so that he has confidence in you to go get it. You gotta have chemistry with the quarterback on timing of the route and knowing you will be in that spot. That’s the way you want it. The ball should be in the air before you turn around to catch it anyway. It’s not just Paul or Ford or Clint throwing to one guy. They all get in there. If you’re open, you’re open. Get the ball.”
Yet the question that remains is if, even with more time, West Virginia has the kind of quarterbacks and receivers that will lock in like Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey – or at least at a serviceable level. It’s a legit worry, because Galloway said he isn’t sure the player shuffling is solely responsible for the lack of chemistry.
“They all throw and get reps, and we do a lot of reps on air and all the quarterbacks are throwing to the guys,” Galloway said. “It’s one of those things where I tell them, catch the ball, no matter who is throwing it. Whoever is throwing it, catch it. But (the quarterbacks) do have to feel your speed and know how much air to put under it and how far out in front to throw it so you can run under it and get it. If the ball is thrown out, obviously, you’ve gotta reach out and catch it. If it’s in traffic, go up and get it.
“We are trying to get the best four or five, whoever it may be,” Galloway continued. “Ronnie (Carswell) and Kevin (White) can stretch the field and make plays. Right now, they are the guys who we are counting on. We play five, six, seven guys. But it’s one of those things where if you can stretch the field, it opens things underneath. Baylor game, we had some chances downfield. Some we made, some we didn’t make. It was one of those things where is people are going to play you a certain way, you have to be able to take advantage of it. The biggest thing is putting the ball in play. That’s the biggest emphasis: Put the ball in play.”
Galloway said the quarterbacks and receivers, much like the rest of the team, did benefit from the open week. Trickett and Childress are, at the least, more healed than they were, yet Trickett especially didn’t get many added chances at developing the C-word as he took the off time to heal his shoulder. And even with his better mobility aiding a struggling offensive front, the receivers still have not adjusted effectively to his passes, which have more zip and less air than that of Millard and are on a more level plain when delivered deep than Childress.
The easy answer is that it’s going to take time and reps and snaps – most assuredly the former. But it reads here that might not be all it takes; it might be a case where the truly in-depth level of passer-catcher enjoyed by Smith and Bailey, or Marc Bulger and Shawn Foreman, never materializes this season. It might not have to be to that degree for West Virginia to gain bowl eligibility, but it must be better than what it has been. The initial step to getting to that point? It might be as arguable as picking which, indeed, will come first.