1. SOUTHERN CAL
Depth again helps the Trojans top their third straight offensive category, but this ranking is far less solid than the ones in the backfield. The Trojans’ wideouts were somewhat of a disappointment in 2007, but their ability to recruit is the main reason why the wide receiver/tight end unit finds itself among the top groups on Notre Dame’s schedule. USC only lost one reserve wideout from last year’s group, but the receivers accounted for less than half of the Trojans 286 receptions last year. The Trojans will miss last year’s leading receiver in tight end Fred Davis, who set school-records for catches, receiving yards and touchdowns for a tight end in his career. But USC still returns a handful of top-rated players and add a strong transfer and a four-star recruit. Senior Patrick Turner, who had 48 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns, and junior Vidal Hazelton, who had 50 grabs for 540 yards and four touchdowns, will each be in their second years as full-time starters. Behind Turner and Hazelton are sophomores David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson. Ausberry made 26 catches for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year, while Johnson had 7 grabs for 110 yards and a score in 2007. Turner (6-5, 220) and Ausberry (6-4, 225) will provide quarterback Mark Sanchez with some large targets while Hazelton and Johnson each possess game-changing speed. Sophomore Damian Williams, who impressed this spring after transferring from Arkansas and four-star recruit Brice Butler help round out the depth chart for the Trojans. Junior Anthony McCoy and senior Jimmy Miller have the difficult task of replacing Davis.
It may be surprising to see the Panthers this high on the list, but their overall group is given the edge over Notre Dame and North Carolina. The returns of senior Derek Kinder and junior T.J. Porter highlight the strong blend of deep threats and possession receivers that Pitt has. Kinder had 57 receptions for 847 yards and six touchdowns as he earned First Team All-Big East honors in 2006, but sat out last season with a torn ligament in his knee. Kinder was a candidate for the 2007 Biletnikoff Award before the injury, which did limit him a bit in the spring, but he should be 100% by fall. His absence provided 2006 Freshman All-American Oderick Turner a platform to show what he could do as a top target. Turner proved to be a valid deep threat with 36 receptions for a team-high 496 yards and five touchdowns. While Kinder's injury gave Turner a chance to show that he could be the guy, his return should give Turner more of an opportunity to go against single coverage. Meanwhile, Porter proved to be a reliable possession receiver with 37 catches for 329 yards last year and was also effectively used running reverses and returning kicks. Junior Cedric McGee is another receiver that can be used like Porter. Incoming freshman Jonathan Baldwin, who chose the hometown Panthers over the Irish, is expected to make an impact right away. At tight end, Pitt loses four-year contributor Darrell Strong, but junior Dorin Dickerson has the talent to be a weapon in the passing game while juniors Nate Byham and John Pelusi are more traditional tight ends.
3. NOTRE DAME
Potential is the biggest reason why the Irish are ranked so high. If Notre Dame continues to recruit the way they have and if those recruits develop into the players that they can be, the Irish could easily top this list, possibly as early as next year. Senior David Grimes (5-10, 175) has appeared in more career games than any other Irish offensive player and has become a dependable receiver. Charlie Weis has occasionally singled out Grimes as the top wideout on the team and although Weis has benefited from taller wide receivers during his time at Notre Dame, that was not necessarily a staple of his offenses in the NFL. Grimes had a similar year, production-wise, as a top guy in 2007 (27 catches) as he did as the number three receiver behind Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight in 2006 (26 catches). Grimes has the ability to be both a possession receiver and a deep threat and if some of the younger wideouts around him can step up, he could return to his 2006 role and have a great senior year. Sophomore Duval Kamara (6-5, 225) had one of the best freshman seasons in Notre Dame history, breaking school-records for receptions (32) and touchdown catches (4). If Kamara can become a true number one receiver, as his freshman season indicates he can, it would go along way toward solidifying the position. Juniors Robby Parris and George West combined for 50 catches for 533 yards and sophomore Golden Tate flashed the speed that makes him a legitimate deep threat. But the guy that many Notre Dame fans are eager to see is Michael Floyd, who leads a strong contingent of incoming freshmen along with Deion Walker and John Goodman. A combination of Kamara and Floyd on the edges could be a dangerous one for years to come. The Irish graduated their number one tight end in John Carlson, but it appears that as long as Weis is here tight end will be a position of strength. Sophomore Mike Ragone was the number one guy during the spring as junior Will Yeatman was suspended and they will battle for first reps. Behind them will be junior converted fullback Luke Schmidt and incoming freshman Kyle Rudolph, who has the size and talent to make a major impact this year.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
After setting the single-season school-record with 74 receptions as a sophomore in 2007, Hakeem Nicks could attain the career receptions record in just three seasons. Nicks led the team with 660 receiving yards, including a 72-yard touchdown grab against Notre Dame as a freshman and backed that up with 958 yards and five touchdowns last year. An All-ACC performer, Nicks is not the only big play guy in the Tar Heels’ receiving corps. Senior Brandon Tate already owns the ACC career kickoff return yardage record and his speed makes him one of the top return guys in the country. Last year, Tate started to show the ability to use that speed as a receiver, making 25 catches for 479 yards and five scores. Senior Brooks Foster is another talented receiver that caught 29 balls for 417 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while at 6-4, 230 pounds, junior Ken Thornton gives North Carolina a large target. Senior Richard Quinn and sophomore Zack Pianalto both bring starting experience to the tight end position and incoming freshman Christian Wilson could work his way onto the field.
5. BOSTON COLLEGE
While receiver was considered a position of weakness for the Eagles with an All-American quarterback last year, BC returns five of their top seven pass-catchers from 2007. Senior Brandon Robinson and junior Rich Gunnell lead a group that will need to improve in order to break in Matt Ryan’s replacement. Gunnell led the Eagles with 64 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns last year while Robinson was second with 793 yards and five touchdowns on 56 catches. Andre Callender and Kevin Challenger, who combined to have 121 receptions for 1,271 yards and nine scores, are both gone and will be replaced by juniors Clarence Megwa and Justin Jarvis. Together, Megwa and Jarvis had 49 receptions for 629 yards and four touchdowns, including a 71-yarder by Jarvis against Bowling Green. Ryan Purvis had 54 catches for 553 yards and four touchdowns and is considered one of the top all-around senior tight ends in the country.
The Wolverines’ top two receivers in 2007, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington, both declared early for the NFL Draft, turning a potential position of strength into one with some questions. Manningham and Arrington combined for 2,056 yards and 20 touchdowns on 139 receptions last year. Junior Greg Mathews had 39 catches for 366 yards and three scores in 2007 and becomes Michigan’s top receiver. Sophomore Junior Hemingway had just four catches for 37 yards and is expected to start opposite of Mathews this year. Junior LaTerryal Savoy has been primarily a special teams player in his first two seasons at Michigan, but is expected to be in the mix at receiver. Freshman Darryl Stonum enrolled at Ann Arbor over the winter and has the Wolverine coaching staff believing that he could be a special one. Stonum is not the only freshman who could see the field at receiver. Incoming wideouts Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree could also see time and freshmen running backs Sam McGuffie, Terrance Robinson and Michael Shaw could also be split out as Rich Rodriguez tries to get more speed on the field. Junior tight end Carson Butler brings back the second most receptions in 2008 with 20 for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns and will be backed up by senior Mike Massey.
7. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans were also hurt by the decision of their top receiver, Devin Thomas, to bypass his senior year and enter the 2008 NFL Draft. Thomas’ decision came as a bit of a surprise, although he did have a breakout year with 79 catches for 1,260 yards and eight touchdowns in Mark Dantonio’s first year in East Lansing. Michigan State also loses a quality tight end in Kellen Davis, who had the second most receiving yards in 2007 with 531 and six touchdowns on 32 receptions. The Spartans’ top returning receiver is actually their running back Javon Ringer, who made 35 catches for 295 yards last year. Fifth-year senior Deon Curry was not with the team during the spring because of a back injury, but the wideouts had an impressive spring game. Sophomores Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham had standout spring games for the Spartans, combining for 12 catches for 117 yards and a score. Sophomore Chris D. Rucker made some big plays, hauling in three passes for 90 yards and a pair of scores, while junior Blair White made four catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. Dell started as a true freshman in 2007, making 20 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns, and could be ready to make a big step this season. Curry started six games last year and finished with 24 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Charlie Gannt and freshman Garrett Celek will try to replace Davis at tight end and although Dantonio has said that his offense features the tight end, expect a major dip in production this year.
The process of replacing last year’s leading receiver and playmaker Dorien Bryant has not gone exactly how head coach Joe Tiller would have hoped. The graduations of Bryant and tight end Dustin Keller left fifth-year senior Greg Orton as the Boilermakers’ top returning receiver with 67 catches for 752 yards and three touchdowns. But Orton was one of three Purdue receivers that was slowed by injuries this spring along with seniors Desmond Tardy and Brandon Whittington. All three are expected to be back by the season, with Orton and Tardy listed as starters along with junior college transfer Aaron Valentin, who was named as the team’s top offensive newcomer in the spring. Another junior college transfer, Arsenio Curry, is also expected to compete for time. Junior Kyle Adams will replace Keller and while he may not have Keller’s big play ability, he will be a solid blocker and reliable target. With a premier quarterback like Curtis Painter, the growth of the receivers will have a lot to do with how good the Boilermakers are in Tiller’s final season.
The Cardinal graduated two top wideouts in Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, but they bring back junior Richard Sherman, who was the team’s leading receiver in each of the last two years. In two seasons, Sherman has 73 catches for 1,232 yards and seven touchdowns. Behind Sherman is sophomore Doug Baldwin, who had 11 catches for 93 yards as a freshman in 2007. Senior Nate Wilcox-Fogel and sophomore Ryan Whalen have not been featured much in their careers, but now is the time for them to step up. Stanford is very deep at tight end with three experienced performers back. Junior Jim Dray started the first six games of 2007 and had nine catches for 116 yards and a touchdown before his season was cut short by a knee injury. Senior Austin Gunder started the final six games after Dray went down and finished with 10 receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, senior Ben Ladner led all tight ends with 27 grabs for 198 yards and a score. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job should be able to rely on the tight end position while the receivers try to find the right complement for Sherman.
10. SAN DIEGO STATE
Even with the loss of two receivers to the NFL, if there is a possession of strength on the Aztecs’ offense, it is the pass-catchers. Gone are Brett Swain and Chaz Schilens who combined for 93 receptions for 1,652 yards and eight touchdowns. Sophomore Vincent Brown has some starting experience and is expected to be joined in the starting lineup by senior converted quarterback Darren Mougey and junior DeMarco Sampson. Brown and Mougey had similar seasons in 2007, combining for 63 receptions for 717 yards and four touchdowns. Sampson has the potential to be a gamebreaking receiver, but has been hobbled a foot injury the last two seasons. Juniors Mekell Wesley, Roberto Wallace and Jon Toledo could also be in the rotation for playing time. Tight end Steve Schmidt also graduated and will be replaced by sophomore Alston Umuolo, who had a 43-yard touchdown reception against Cincinnati last year, and junior Matthew Kawulok.
The Huskies bring back just 26 of 385 receptions (6.75%) from 2007 and two of those are from a tight end that has since moved to defensive and another is by quarterback Jake Locker. Sophomores D’Andre Goodwin and Curtis Shaw, who combined for just 11 catches for 76 yards in 2007, are considered to be the front-runners for the starting wide receiver positions. Incoming freshman Chris Polk has gamebreaking potential and will see some time while classmates Devin Aguilar and Anthony Boyles could also get a chance. Senior tight end Michael Gottlieb is responsible for the other 12 returning receptions, but could be pushed by some youngsters at the position. The top players in Washington’s last two recruiting classes have been tight ends, Chris Izibicki in 2007 and Kavario Middleton this year. The youth at receiver only serves to put more pressure on Locker, but while there will be some growing pains this year, it could pay dividends down the road.
For an indication of how much of a difference one player can make, one needs to look no further than the Orange. With junior receiver Mike Williams on the roster, Syracuse could probably be somewhere near the top five of this list, but with it almost a certainty now that he will not be with the team, the Orange find themselves almost at the bottom. Williams had 60 receptions for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2007. The Orange’s second-leading receiver Taj Smith had 44 grabs for 822 yards and five scores, but left early for the NFL and wound up signing with the Packers as an undrafted free agent. On top of that, Syracuse recently found out that incoming freshman DeAndre Preaster won’t be eligible either. Throw in the graduations Rice Moss and tight end Jawad Nesheiwat and the move of sophomore receiver Da’Mon Merkerson to corner and the Orange have been left bare. Junior Lavar Lobdell and sophomore Dan Sheeran are the only returning receivers with any career catches and combined they have just 12. After sitting out 2007 with a broken thumb, sophomore Donte Davis will be in the mix as will incoming freshmen Van Chew, Marcus Sales and Trey Fairchild. Junior Mike Owen made five catches last year and is in line to replace Nesheiwat.
The only reason that Syracuse isn’t last on this list is because the Midshipmen don’t ask their receivers to do much besides block. Senior Tyree Barnes started last year and had 10 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown. Barnes will be joined by senior Greg Sudderth, who had six catches for 110 yards in 2007. But Navy evaluates its receivers by how well they block defenders on the edge.