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Ranking the Sun Belt Pass Catchers

Troy is loaded as the rest of the league plays catch-up.

NCAA Football: Troy at Southern Mississippi
Emanuel Thompson is the top target in a loaded WR group at Troy.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

As our positional preview series continues, we move to the wideouts after covering quarterbacks and running backs. Here we’ll go over the wide receivers and tight ends in tiers and tell you how each program fares heading into 2017. In a world of spread offenses, having athletes in space that can catch and make plays is very valuable and can eliminate other flaws of a football team. These are the guys that make this league the Fun Belt.

Top of the Food Chain

Troy: Elite Depth

Usually at the G5 level, especially in the Sun Belt, you will have position groups that have one or two true difference makers but the quality of athlete falls off a cliff after the first string. Well, that is not the case in offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield’s receivers room as the Trojans are absolutely stacked on the perimeter. Troy returns all of its receiving production from last year, led by the three-headed monster of senior Emanuel Thompson, junior Deondre Douglas, and senior Tevaris McCormick. The one thing this group was missing was a little bit of size and Neal Brown’s staff addressed that this offseason by signing JUCO WR Damion Willis (6’4”, 190 lbs.) who enrolled early. There are a lot of Power 5 programs that wish they had a WR group like this and these guys are going to be a headache for a lot of defensive coordinators this fall.

Arkansas State: Tight End Is Valuable

The fourth leading receiver in the Sun Belt last year was Arkansas State tight end Blake Mack and he finished the season with 34 catches for 652 yards. That was good for a healthy 19.2 ypc (yards per catch) and he should be Justice Hansen’s top target this season. The big fella (6’3” 245 lbs.) will be a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties. Meanwhile, Cam Echols-Luper returns as the best wide receiver (if he can return from suspension) and he was a nice vertical threat for Blake Anderson’s offense. Slot guy Chris Murray and senior Dijon Paschal also return after recording over 300 yards last season. Hansen will have some options in the passing game.

Georgia State: The Return of Penny

Buford, Georgia native Marjahn Penny Mathias Hart busted onto the scene in 2015 as a true frosh. Hart led the Sun Belt in receptions and receiving yards in his rookie season in Atlanta. However, 2016 wasn't much to write home about as Hart would miss all of the year with a broken foot and a hamstring injury. If healthy, Hart is the best receiver in the Sun Belt and this passing game can become dynamic with him running routes. But it’s not just Penny for the Panthers, as first time head coach Shawn Elliott inherited a very nice WR group. Glenn Smith has bounced back and forth between RB and WR in his career, and he did a lot of damage in 2016 at WR as he pulled in 40 grabs. Todd Boyd was also a nice weapon as he averaged over 10 yards per catch and put up over 300 receiving yards. The Panthers lost Robert Davis to the NFL, but this is a group that can put in work in 2017. If three-star tight end Roger Carter can give offensive coordinator Travis Trickett anything at the tight end position, look out for this Georgia State passing game.

Appalachian State: Vertical Threat

NCAA Football: Miami at Appalachian State
Meadors provides a home run threat to the App State attack.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountaineers get the services of senior Shaedon Meadors back and he’ll set the tone for the App State passing game. The 6’2” 185 lbs. receiver out of powerhouse Byrnes High School in Duncan, South Carolina was dynamic last year as he finished third in the conference with 45 grabs for 716 yards and two scores. Meadors is the perfect deep threat to keep defenses honest in App State’s run heavy offense. However, the rest of the App production returning isn’t much to write home about and some rookies will get opportunities to contribute. Malik Williams and Thomas Henningan are both incoming three-star athletes according to 247 Sports and they will have the opportunity to crack the rotation.

Room For Improvement

ULM: Young But Talented

In year one of the Matt Viator era, the ground game was decent (76th S&P+) but the Warhawks struggled to move the ball through the air. However, ULM was really young at WR and that should excite the Warhawk faithful. Juniors Xavier Brown, Marcus Green, and RJ Turner combined for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016. That’s a nice trio to build on if the Warhawks can find some consistency at QB. Newcomer Zachary Jackson from Mansfield, Texas was a three-star prospect and could see some time this fall.

UL-Lafayette: Replacing a Top Target

Outside of Elijah McGuire, the Ragin’ Cajuns offense wasn’t much to brag about but Al Riles did provide some quality production at the WR spot. His 60 grabs nearly doubled the second leading receiver and that’s a lot of production new offensive coordinator Will Hall must replace. However, some guys looked promising last fall and we’ll see what they do with a higher target volume. Junior Keenan Barnes recorded 31 grabs for 418 yards and sophomore Ja’Marcus Bradley had 21 catches for 370 yards. The crown jewel of the 2017 recruiting class was tight end Chase Rogers and he can be an immediate impact performer for the Cajuns.

Texas State: Young and Eager

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas State
Elijah King will be the leader of a very young WR group in San Marcos.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It was a struggle for the Bobcats last season but the good thing is they played a lot of young dudes. The Bobcats get their top nine receivers back from last season and that should be a good sign for incoming QB Damian Williams. Add in Kentucky transfer T.V. Williams and the Bobcats could have a nice weapon in the slot. Incoming recruit Kordell Rogers picked the Bobcats over Arkansas State and ULM and will have a chance to crack the rotation. Withers is slowly building things in San Marcos.

New Mexico State: No Alpha Male

When you look at the NMSU offense you really have to like what you see in QB Tyler Rogers and RB Larry Rose III. Those two are go-to-guys and you have no question about who is number one at their position. However, the WR unit is not the same in the present for Doug Martin’s program. The Aggies had seven receivers in 2016 that recorded between 200 and 300 receiving yards. Now NMSU gets six of those seven guys back, but 2-3 must emerge from the pack. Jaleel Scott is an impressive looking 6’6” senior who caught five TDs in his first year after transferring from JUCO. Izaiah Lottie, meanwhile, was very impressive as a redshirt freshman and could be the next offensive star for the Aggies.

It’s Still Ugly

Idaho: Finding Targets For Linehan

The Vandals lost a good amount of production but they at least have a little experience. Seniors Alfonso Onunwor, Jacob Sannon, and Reuben Mwehla return and should give the Vandals a nice trio of wideouts. After these three, though, the question for Paul Petrino’s unit will be depth. Idaho has been near the bottom of the league in recruiting so we’re really not sure what else they have there.

South Alabama: Rebuild Time

The Jags had a very respectable passing game last year, but those playmakers are no longer on campus in Mobile. Gerald Everett is off to the NFL and the other top three receivers are out of eligibility. I think USA should be fine at tight end as junior Maaseiah Francis looked solid in spot duty last season as he averaged 14.5 ypc. Look for Jordan McCray, the sophomore out of Marietta, Georgia, to be Dallas Davis’ top target on the outside this fall.

Georgia Southern: Option Football in Statesboro

Louisiana Lafayette v Georgia Southern
Myles Campbell should provide a much need vertical threat to Georgia Southern’s option attack.
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

With Tyson Summers making the commitment to go all in on the option, this position becomes less of a worry. The Eagles will need the occasional vertical threat down the field and the hope is that Myles Campbell will be that guy. The diminutive senior from Duluth, Georgia has the speed to take the top off the defense and should excel in isolation situations. As long as the Eagles stick with their option roots, they’ll probably regularly be at the bottom of this list.

Coastal Carolina: Adjustment Period

The Chants are entering their first year in the FBS with a brand new offensive coordinator and a grad transfer quarterback. It’s going to take time to get this passing game going, especially considering what they have coming back at receiver. Senior WR Chris Jones is the only player returning with any type of experience (22 grabs, 323 yards last season). Expect tight end A.J. Sattinger to have a bigger role and for redshirt freshmen Larry Collins Jr. and Jay King II to be thrown into the fire early. It could be an ugly first season for this Coastal offense.