Pathon: Receiver position battles still in flux
First-year USF receivers coach Jerome Pathon works with one of the Bulls' deepest positions heading into the 2012 season, and he said the constant shuffling on the depth chart illustrates the competition that takes place daily within his unit.
"The way Coach (Skip) Holtz has talked to our team in general, guys who are out there performing on a consistent basis on a daily basis are going to be the guys who are going to play," Pathon said Tuesday. "I think that's why the depth chart is changing."
Consider the depth chart released by the team Monday in anticipation of Saturday's opener against Chattanooga -- it had Andre Davis, Terrence Mitchell and Derrick Hopkins listed as starters, impressive because those three have combined for four college starts. Behind them were more established receivers in Sterling Griffin (17 career starts), Deonte Welch (four), Victor Marc (six) and a relative newcomer in Florida transfer Chris Dunkley. Promising freshman D'Vario Montgomery wasn't even among the top seven, though he's expected to play this fall.
"I think some guys, once they got to a starting position, maybe they got comfortable in a sense, or maybe they weren't able to learn how to maintain that starting level on a day-to-day basis," said Pathon, noting that by Tuesday, Griffin was back ahead of Davis as the starting "X" receiver. "That's what we're pushing. That's the consistency we're fighting for."
Pathon expects to rotate in receivers extensively throughout the game, so players can all have the expectation of playing, but still compete for the privilege of being on the field for the first snap, for the first opportunity to make a play.
"The message we're primarily trying to send out to our guys is if you perform on a consistent basis at a high level, you'll be out there playing. You'll be a starter," he said.
A good example of that is Hopkins, the 5-foot-5 track standout who had caught passes in just one game enter this season -- four catches against Florida A&M last year. But a strong August, showing significant improvement in his ability to catch the ball, has vaulted him ahead of more experienced players.
"He's done an amazing job," Pathon said. "His size has always been an issue in some people's eyes, but he's overcome those things that people knocked on him. His hands were a little suspect when he first came here and he's worked very hard on that. He's worked hard on his route running. When I look at him, watching him run his routes, he's probably one of the best route-runners we have."
Pathon charts every ball thrown in practice, and said Hopkins has caught 93 percent of the passes thrown to him -- he said the average on about 600 passes thrown is 90 percent caught, with Hopkins and Davis with the highest percentages. Another receiver who has caught his eye this fall is Dunkley, who redshirted the 2010 season at Florida then sat out last year as a transfer.
"One of the most improved guys in the group has to be Chris Dunkley," he said. "He's done an amazing job. When you're a transfer, you're dealing with new faces, new personalities. It can be a little overwhelming. You're learning a new offensive system. A guy like Chris Dunkley, probably in high school, they said 'Hey, get open, do whatever you want.' There's been no structure or discipline in the offenses he's been able to function in. He's getting acclimated to our system now and he's starting to flourish. He's not thinking so much out there. He's getting back to just playing."
With freshman Alex Mut recovering from shoulder surgery and headed for a redshirt, the Bulls don't have many receivers for the scout team, so Montgomery, even as a coveted freshman expected to play this fall, had scout-team duties during Tuesday's practice.
Pathon said another receiver, sophomore Ruben Gonzalez, may redshirt this season, limited right now by a bone bruise on his arm and a bit of turf toe. He played as a true freshman and caught five passes for 55 yards, but coaches would rather redshirt than burn a year for limited action.
"That's a decision that we're trying to figure out," Pathon said. "He has a redshirt year available. He started out relatively well in camp, and then (injuries). With the other guys playing at what we feel is a high level, it's kind of difficult for him to break into even a backup role. Right now, he's listed as a No. 3 at his position."