The thought process concerning the UL wide receiving corps heading into the season opener against Mississippi State on Aug. 31 was pretty clear.
Senior Ja’Marcus Bradley was the star and fellow senior Jarrod Jackson was a reliable No. 2 option. The third and fourth options were up in the air.
Among the candidates were redshirt junior Calif Gossett, junior Jamal Bell, redshirt junior Brian Smith and even redshirt junior Jalen Williams coming off an injury.
The biggest national sports story of this past weekend — Antonio Brown’s released from the Oakland Raiders and suspiciously quick acquisition …
Gossett and Smith both shined in the spring game.
So what happened?
An illness kept Jackson out of the opener and he did not catch a pass in Saturday’s win against Liberty.
Last season, Jackson only had two receptions through the first two games and didn’t catch fire until game six on his way to 19 receptions for 325 yards and four touchdowns.
Gossett was injured in the opener and was unavailable for the Liberty game. He hasn’t recorded a catch.
Smith started the first game and played Saturday, but only has one catch for 7 yards. The same goes for Williams.
Being shorthanded, true freshman Peter LeBlanc played in both games and had four catches for 15 yards. UL fans were might have searched their roster when redshirt freshmen Cassius Allen and Devon Pauley both caught a pass Saturday.
“Calif obviously was out for the game,” Napier said. “He didn’t make enough progress to play, so Peter LeBlanc played a significant number of snaps. He’s a typical rookie. He does a lot of things well but also makes some mistakes.”
Fortunately for the passing game, Bradley has lived up to his high billing with 12 catches for 203 yards and two scores through two games and Bell has emerged as the clear No. 2 threat.
Bell left Saturday's game after landing awkwardly on his head and fumbling early in the second quarter. He didn’t return.
“I think as those guys get more experience they’ll become more polished, more detailed players,” Napier said. “That’s really the challenge for the entire team and a lot of young players on our team.”
As it currently stands, one of the names has changed but UL still is searching for viable No. 3 and 4 targets for junior quarterback Levi Lewis.
“We’ve got a great rotation going with Ja’Marcus and Jalen. Jamal and Peter rotated with each other, and Bam and Brian,” Napier said. “Those are kind of the six guys that we play. Then after that we’re kind of waiting around to see how much progress is the next group going to make — is Calif going to be prepared to play? Those type of things. In general, this week, in particular, we were a little bit banged up.”
The difficulty with the uncertainly heading into this Saturday’s game against Texas Southern is this week is the final tune-up before a nine-game stretch against Sun Belt opponents, in addition to Ohio University.
It’s the beauty … and some would argue the curse … of being a coach.
Napier has commented twice about the need of an improved perimeter passing game.
“In general, we did take some shots in the game,” Napier said. “We just didn’t connect. We had a few guys open and that’s what I’m talking about — precision in that area, whether it’s the protection if we can hold it a little bit longer, or the detail of the route and the accuracy of the throw.
“That’ll be one of the things that’s on our list here of objectives that we’ve got to improve on.”
The reason why it is so important to Napier is the upside for the offense if the unit can figure it out.
“No question, the vertical passing game, if we can pair that with this running attack, we’ll be dangerous,” he said.
One area that isn’t a concern with UL’s receiving corps, regardless of who is playing, is the unit’s ability to block downfield.
That was illustrated again in Saturday’s 35-14 win over Liberty.
“It may get overlooked, but I thought our receiver group did an outstanding job blocking the perimeter,” Napier said. “It was a great effort on the backside. You could see on Trey’s (Ragas 75-yard TD) run in particular where those guys showed up out of nowhere and made the difference in the run breaking. When you run the ball that effectively it’s a team effort.”
Especially until a deep receiving crew emerges as targets, it’s a critical part of the unit’s arsenal.
“Sometimes as a receiver it gets overlooked, but you only touch the ball a handful of plays in the game,” Napier said. “How you play without the ball is a direct reflection of what type of teammate you are. We’ve got a selfless group in there. A lot of stuff we do on the perimeter, they’re very involved. We’re good at that. Coach (Tim) Leger has done a tremendous job with that group relative to how they play without the football.”
In the season-opening loss to Mississippi State, it appeared UL quarterback Levi Lewis and the offense might get their first two-minute opport…