How do the Mountain West’s wide receivers and tight ends stack up across the conference after spring practices?
Lots of turnover means lots of room for improvement.
Projected major contributors: Zion Bowens, Jonah Panoke, Koali Nishigaya, Caleb Phillips (TE), Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala, James Green III, Kameula Borden (TE)
When Nick Rolovich revived the run-and-shoot at Hawaii in 2018, it turned John Ursua, Cedric Byrd, and Jojo Ward into breakout stars. The difference for new head coach Timmy Chang is that, despite shepherding what’s expected to be another wide open passing attack, there are a few more unknowns this time around.
Bowens could be a prime candidate himself to blow up that it’s his time to shine atop the depth chart, especially if he can extrapolate a little of the 23.6 yards per catch he’s averaged on his 17 career catches to date. Panoke hasn’t had as much opportunity to stretch the field (22 career catches, 9.9 YPC), but since they are 6-1 and 6-2, respectively, it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see them get plenty of chances to do so. Mokiao-Atimalala, meanwhile, impressed at the spring game and could play his way toward being a crucial third cog out of the slot. Being last here, then, doesn’t mean the capacity to light opponents up is absent.
Projected major contributors: Joshua Cobbs, Treyton Welch (TE), Parker Christensen (TE), Alex Brown, Wyatt Wieland, Gunner Gentry, Colin O’Brien (TE)
With Isaiah Neyor gone to Texas and Ayden Eberhadt out of eligibility, the Cowboys have exactly one wide receiver, Cobbs, who caught more than ten passes in 2021. Nearly half of his receptions came in Wyoming’s last three games, however, so it isn’ t unreasonable to expect that he can continue to progress and become the next quality field stretcher for this offense.
Elsewhere, Wyoming’s current crop of pass catchers is probably best known for their blocking ability, especially at tight end. The word is already out that they’re trying to rectify this, but that’s something we’ve heard before. As long as they keep handling their primary duties with aplomb, however, the main difference between Wyoming as a harmless bowl contender and a dark horse conference title contender could come down to how well others like Brown and Gentry step up and provide the explosiveness this attack needs.
Projected major contributors: Jamaal Bell, Tyrese Mack, BJ Casteel, Spencer Curtis, Carlton Brown III (TE), Aaron Smith
After being gutted by departures to Fort Collins and the NFL, the Wolf Pack have regrouped here and have more intrigue than you may suspect. Bell impressed in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl loss and appears well-equipped to become The Guy in this year’s offense, while Casteel was a solid contributor for three years at Arizona, in offenses that often struggled to move the ball.
Beyond that, who knows? Curtis and tight end Cooper Shults followed new head coach Ken Wilson from Oregon, but they have two career catches between them. Mack has just two career receptions, as well, so there’s work to be done to build depth even if the players at the top have promise.
9. New Mexico
Projected major contributors: Andrew Erickson, Luke Wysong, Keyonte Lanier, Trace Bruckler (TE), Trae Hall, Connor Witthoft (TE)
This is a group that skewed young last year and took a lot of lumps because of spotty quarterback play, but the good news is they’re still relatively young and they’ll get every opportunity to grow together. Erickson wasn’t much of a factor in 2021, which makes it easy to forget he averaged 15 yards a catch as a freshman the year before. If Wysong and Lanier can add some strength to their track-star speed, that could be a trio capable of doing damage in a hurry.
Bruckler is a player to keep an eye on, too. According to Pro Football Focus, only Trey McBride had a higher pass-catching grade (80.4) among Mountain West tight ends marked with at least 90 receiving snaps recorded. Kyle Jarvis has moved on, so it’ll be interesting to see how coordinator Derek Warehime deploys him.
Depth chart: Kyle Williams, Jeffrey Weimer, Kaleo Ballunguey (TE), Kalvin Souders, Ricky White, Senika McKie, Zyell Griffin, Shelton Zeon III (TE)
It won’t get nearly as much attention as the quarterback competition, but this group should be expected to take a collective step forward, as well. Williams, the Mountain West freshman of the year two seasons ago, was banged up throughout 2021 but is now the team’s most proven pass-catcher now that Steve Jenkins is at Southern Utah.
Griffin, meanwhile, is an underrated field stretcher (20.1 YPC on 17 receptions in the last two years). Beyond him, though, where the production will come from is a mystery: The tight end position hasn’t really generated many big plays in Marcus Arroyo’s time at the helm, which could make transfers McKie and White critical pieces of the puzzle as the Rebels look to surprise this fall.
7. San Diego State
Projected major contributors: Jesse Matthews, Tyrell Shavers, Brionne Penny, Mekhi Shaw, Jay Rudolph (TE), Mark Redman (TE), Aaron Greene (TE)
The Aztecs have always had talents here that have been overlooked, mostly because the team has never emphasized the pass all that much, and even despite losing Daniel Bellinger to the NFL and Kobe Smith and other to the transfer portal, there’s a lot of breakout portal in this bunch.
We already know what Matthews can do, but Shavers (who had at least two catches in five of the last seven games in 2021) and Penny (who stood out throughout practices and had three scores in the spring game) could take the aerial attack to a new level if coordinator Jeff Hecklinski wanted to. Bellinger won’t be easy to replace at tight end, but there’s a trio of athletes who will get every chance to do so and Rudolph has already seen a good bit of playing time as his running mate over the past two seasons.
6. Utah State
Projected major contributors: Justin McGriff, Brian Cobbs, Xavier Williams, Josh Sterzer (TE), Kyle Van Leeuwen, Parker Buchanan (TE)
The Aggies are replacing a ton of talent, but if the new arrivals from the transfer portal can play as well as the ones who came in a year ago, this ranking could look absurdly low by September. Cobbs was never more than a part-time starter at Maryland, but he’s averaged just under 15 yards per catch in his career and looks the part of an outside receiver at 6-2 and 205 pounds. The same is true of Williams, who never found much playing time at Alabama but is a former four-star recruit with plenty to prove. McGriff could take on a larger share of targets, as well, so Logan Bonner should enjoy having a wealth of big bodies to whom he can throw.
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5. Boise State
Projected major contributors: Stefan Cobbs, Davis Koetter, Riley Smith (TE), Billy Bowens, Latrell Caples, Shea Whiting, Tynell Hopper (TE)
Unlike a number of other position groups at this point, the Broncos are much longer on promise among their pass catchers than in actual production and, with Khalil Shakir in the NFL, the time is now to rectify that.
This is where bringing in a legion of three-star recruits year after year helps, at least. Cobbs is the number one option while Koetter and Smith are reliable, if not terribly explosive, but there are a number of other options not even mentioned above, like Jalen Richmond and Eric McAlister, who could play their way into the rotation.
4. Air Force
Projected major contributors: DeAndre Hughes, Dane Kinamon, Kyle Patterson (TE), Micah Davis, David Cormier
Brandon Lewis made his last impression at the First Responder Bowl count, but the good news is that the Falcons return pretty much everyone else (though this may be bad news for defenses). If Kyle Patterson is back to 100% after a knee injury limited him to just four games in 2021, this offense has all the makings of a top-tier Falcons attack.
3. Colorado State
Projected major contributors: Dante Wright, Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall, Ty McCullouch, Gary Williams (TE), EJ Scott, Peter Montini (TE)
Replacing Trey McBride is a tall task, but Fort Air Raid replenished its arsenal to do just that. Wright, Horton and Stovall can all create yards after the catch and get down the field, while Williams was a lot more productive than you thought in 2021 as McBride’s tight end partner. The only thing this Rams team doesn’t really have at present is a Cole Turner-type threat, but don’t be shocked if they’re highly productive without it.
2. San Jose State
Projected major contributors: Elijah Cooks, Isaiah Hamilton, Justin Lockhart, Dominick Mazotti (TE) Charles Ross, Jermaine Braddock, Sam Olson (TE), Malikhi Miller
Despite losing a fair bit of depth to the transfer portal, the Spartans deserve major props for shorting up all of those departures. Cooks, when healthy, is one of the best receivers in the Mountain West; Hamilton and Lockhart are similarly underrated since they haven’t had the volume of a typical WR1, but the former has averaged over 15 yards per catch in the last three seasons while the latter has improved his YPC year after year in that same time.
The biggest question left is whether the tight end tandem of Mazotti and Olson can keep up their ability to create chunk plays now that they’ll be responsible for more in Derrick Deese Jr.’s wake. If Chevan Cordeiro is up to the task, though, this could be the deepest passing game in the conference.
1. Fresno State
Projected major contributors: Jalen Cropper, Josh Kelly, Zane Pope, Ty Jones, Tre Watson (TE), Nikko Remigio, Raymond Pauwels Jr. (TE), Erik Brooks
For now, though, that title belongs to the Bulldogs and the calculus on it is pretty simple: Cropper is the headliner, but this is a group that has lost just two major contributors (Keric Wheatfall, Juan Rodriguez) to this point in the off -season and otherwise returns everyone else who caught at least ten passes in 2021. It’s the collective strength of the ensemble that could make this offense one of the Group of 5’s best, so while Wheatfall’s ability to get down the field and Rodriguez’s blocking won’ t be easy to replace, this is as deep a unit as any on either side of the ball in this conference.