Receivers confident in handling new roles

Several of Tech football’s units have gone through transitional phases in the months following the end of the 2009 season thanks to the departures of vital players on both the offense and defense. One such unit is the wide receiving corps, which faces the task of replacing Demaryius Thomas after the star receiver departed for the NFL after his redshirt junior season. Tech has several talented options in the receiving corps, though, and the unit will look to continue improving its skills as the start of the season approaches.

Sophomore Stephen Hill is prepared to step into the role of Tech’s primary receiver. As a freshman in 2009, Hill saw time on the field as part of the Jackets’ receiver rotation; he was solid as a blocker and had six catches on the season, the last of which was a 32-yard touchdown against Duke.

Hill has been working on all aspects of his game, studying defensive coverages and how they adapt as plays progress to learn how best to attack them. Also, after playing last season at a listed weight of 190 pounds, Hill is looking to add muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame to become a more physical receiver, following the mold of the 230-pound Thomas.

“I’ve been working…to get bigger, get heavier, and…get stronger,” Hill said.

Receivers Coach Al “Buzz” Preston has generally been pleased by the sophomore’s progress. “[Hill’s] doing fine. He’s got a long way to go, but I think he’s been doing some good things,” Preston said.

To some degree, Hill’s approach plays into the message preached by Preston, who is focused on improving his players’ mental toughness.

“[We’re] just working on becoming mentally tougher…playing to our ability and fighting through when things get tough,” Preston said.

Preston has often emphasized the importance of the players’ blocking skills. In an offense that relies so heavily on the running game, the ability of each receiver to take perimeter defenders out of the play is vital.

“[Coach Preston] wants us to get better at our blocking techniques. Instead of just going out there and hitting them and trying to bust them in the mouth, you’ve got to have a technique to get lined up with them, squared up with them and push them out,” Hill said.

Plenty of attention has been devoted to the fact that over the past two seasons, Thomas has had a disproportionately large number of receptions compared to Tech’s other receivers. As a result, even though several of Tech’s receivers are strong blockers, their skills have gone unnoticed simply due to their lack of receptions.

One name that falls into this category is junior Tyler Melton. The Texas native has caught just 10 passes over his two seasons at Tech, but he has started 17 of the 20 games in which he has played thanks to his ability to occupy defenders in the run game.

A handful of other candidates could battle for playing time at the two receiver spots. Among the prominent names is redshirt senior Kevin Cone, who joined the team as a walk-on in 2008. Cone started three games last season while Melton was out and also contributed on special teams, but he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in October. Redshirt sophomore Daniel McKayhan filled a similar role last year. Another redshirt sophomore, Quentin Sims, doubled as Tech’s fourth-string emergency quarterback and, at 6-foot-3, offers another option at the receiver position.

While the star of the unit is gone, the Jackets have enough talent that the team should continue to receive strong play from the receiving corps. Hill noted that Thomas’s influence remains strong, but the receivers are looking to build on their current talent and avoid taking a step back.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Hill said. “We…looked up to Bay-Bay [and] saw things that he did. So now, our focus is on doing the same thing, [but] better, as a receiving corps.”

Preston sees promise in his charges for the upcoming season.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re coming along. It’s tough right now because we’re going through dog days, but that’s what you want—to see us fight through and get that mentality that we’re going to be tough when it counts,” Preston said.