Freshmen Receiving Statistics: A National Study

*All rankings are per 247Sports Composite

Last recruiting cycle, Florida State signed four wide receivers, three of whom were blue-chip players. George Campbell was a five-star player and the third overall receiver in the class per the 247 Composite rankings and Da’Vante Phillips and Auden Tate were both four-star receivers as well. Fans were excited for their potential and role in Jimbo’s offense, which had just lost Rashad Greene, the most productive wide receiver in school history. Twelve games later, the three blue-chip wide receivers have combined for just four catches for 39 yards. Three-star freshman Nyqwan Murray leads the bunch this year with six catches for 65 yards, all in three games.

There have been many theories as to why the freshman receivers have not seen the field much this year. For one, Jimbo Fisher’s offense is often billed as very complex and complicated, something that a true freshman wide receiver might have a hard time picking up. In high school, these players simply dominated their opposition with superior athletic ability. Now, they’re being asked to run precise routes and catch balls that may or may not be on target. Perhaps it also has to do with their development under Lawrence Dawsey, who has only had three receivers drafted in his eight seasons at Florida State.

Another way to look at this issue is by examining the state of college football as a whole. We often hear a lot about the true freshmen that are dominating the competition at receiver. Sammy Watkins burst onto the scene in 2011 with 82 catches for 1219 yards and 12 touchdowns. Amari Cooper started as a true freshman for Alabama in 2012 and racked up 1,000 receiving yards as well. A member of this past recruiting class, Christian Kirk is thriving in Kevin Sumlin’s offense at Texas A&M and has a chance to crack 1,000 receiving yards on the season in their bowl game.

But is this the reality of college football, or are those players the outliers in a system that is not very freshman-friendly? To examine this issue, and to offer an explanation as to Florida State’s own freshman receiver issues, let’s look at the data from college football over the past five seasons. We’ll examine the receiving stats of the Top-50 wide receiver recruits (all blue-chip players and a handful of high ranked three-stars).

However, there are some errors in the data. Because we are examining the impact that freshman wide receivers have on their respective teams, the only data collected is the receptions, yards and touchdowns that players give to the teams they sign with out of high school. All players who transfer out of a program have zero yards from the year they transfer. This is because they didn’t contribute anything to the team they signed with out of high school beyond that year. For example, D’Vario Montgomery of the 2012 class signed with USF but transferred to Iowa State. He only contributed six catches for 65 yards for USF so that is all the data that is recorded for him, despite the fact that he had caught passes for Iowa State.

Another aspect that is left out are receivers who opted to go to a junior college out of high school. The most notable name here is Duke Williams, who was ranked as the 14th best receiver in the 2011 class, but went to a junior college. He did not post any freshman statistics and, therefore, is not recorded.

Another error in the data set is injuries — one of the biggest variables in football. If a player suffers a season-ending injury, he lacks the opportunities to impact his team’s passing game. Florida State fans are familiar with the fact that this freshman wide receiver class has battled their own fair share of injuries. Another factor is redshirting, which may be due to injuries or a decision by the coaching staff. Often time, if there is enough proven upperclassmen talent already contributing, a player will get a redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility.

Let’s first examine the freshman receiving yards of each of the past five recruiting classes. The data for this can be found in the individual links at the end of the story.

While our attention is naturally drawn to the larger names on the list, such as Christian Kirk or Calvin Ridley, let’s instead look at another number: zero — as in zero catches. There are quite a few blue-chip wide receivers who have failed to catch a single pass this season. If we add them up, we get 26 receivers who have zero receptions this season, making up 52% of the Top-50 receiver recruits. Included in this selection is Florida State freshman Auden Tate, who has not caught a pass this season. Da’Vante Phillips had registered a single reception, but it went for negative yardage.

Obviously, there are some outliers to this data set. Christian Kirk leads all blue-chip freshman receivers with 70 catches for 925 yards and 6 touchdowns. But in terms of blue-chip freshman receivers who have made a substantial impact in their team’s passing game (10+ catches or over 100 yards receiving), there are very few in this class. Only 13 receivers qualify in this category, which is only 26% of the Top-50.

When we look at this from a Florida State perspective, we see that Florida State’s blue-chip recruits fall into the majority here — that being that they’ve made a minimal impact on their team’s passing game. But before we start a #FireDawsey campaign, there are other blue-chip wide receiver classes signed around the country that have similar results. On paper, LSU had perhaps the best wide receiver class with Tyron Johnson (5-star), Derrick Dillon (4-star), Jazz Ferguson (4-star), and Brandon Martin (3-star), all ranked within the Top 50. But Johnson has been the only receiver to register a reception this season for the Tigers. Notre Dame also signed three four-star prospects that have combined for one catch for eight yards between them. Ole Miss signed Damarkus Lodge (#6 overall) and Van Jefferson (#11 overall) and the pair has combined for one catch for 12 yards together.

But to put this into perspective, let’s expand our approach and put this data in comparison with the recruiting classes from 2011 to 2014. For starters, a similar pattern emerges in the number of Top-50 receiver recruits who do not record a reception in their freshman campaign. In 2011, exactly 50% (25/50) did not record a reception. In 2012, 48% (24/50) did not catch a pass. In 2013, 54% (27/50) did not record a reception. Finally in 2014, 52% (26/50) did not catch a pass. Using the data from the total set, we can see that on average 51.2% of the Top-50 wide receiver class will not record a reception in their freshman campaign.

But before we write off receivers that have a less-than-stellar freshman campaign, here are some of the stars that have shined despite playing very little in their first year on campus. Kelvin Benjamin, a Florida State legend for catching the game-winning touchdown pass in the national championship game, redshirted his first year on campus. He had a semi-productive redshirt freshman campaign, but burst onto the scene in 2013 en route to becoming a first round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers. Leonte Carroo contributed very little his first season at Rutgers, but now has the second most touchdown receptions of all blue-chip wide receivers in the 2012 class behind only Amari Cooper. Jarvis Landry only caught four passes his freshman season at LSU in 2011, but finished with over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdown receptions and is now a star receiver for the Miami Dolphins.

Perhaps the most prominent indicator of the freshman learning curve lies on Florida State’s own roster with Kermit Whitfield, a 4-star receiver from the 2013 class. A track star and very gifted athlete, Whitfield didn’t receive a lot of playing time in his freshman campaign due to the trio of Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw as established veterans. After catching only five passes for 89 yards in 2013, he followed that up with an 11-catch sophomore season and a 62.96% increase in receiving yards from the previous season. However, after an offseason of Florida State fans and analysts writing him off in favor of more talented receivers, Whitfield has had a spectacular junior campaign and leads Florida State with 53 receptions for 742 yards and is tied with Travis Rudolph for touchdowns with six. In his third season in the program, Whitfield had a 411.72% increase in receiving yards from the previous season, fourth best amongst all blue-chip receivers of the 2013 class.

Whitfield represents the freshman learning curve that is prominently seen across college football. Although the outliers like Amari Cooper and Sammy Watkins exist, the vast majority of blue-chip receiver recruits experience a steady progression throughout their college careers. There are very few that come in and make an immediate impact. The aforementioned Jarvis Landry saw a similar learning curve, going from 43 yards his freshman season to 573 his sophomore season and, finally, 1,193 in his junior season before departing for the NFL. Leonte Carroo spent his freshman season primarily on special teams, but finished his career at Rutgers with 2,373 total receiving yards and 29 career touchdown receptions.

The reality is that the majority of freshman wide receivers fail to make an impact in their team’s passing game until their third or fourth year into the program. We see the standouts like Amari Cooper and Sammy Watkins lighting up the scoreboards, but they represent a very small portion of blue-chip receivers. So before we write off the 2015 wide receiver class for making a very minimal impact this year, let’s give them some time to develop. After all, Kelvin Benjamin didn’t contribute his first year on campus and he’s turned out pretty well, right?

2011 Top-50 Freshman Receivers

2012 Top-50 Freshman Receivers

2013 Top-50 Freshman Receivers

2014 Top-50 Freshman Receivers

2015 Top-50 Freshman Receivers

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