Texas Tech football: Outside receivers finally making an impact

LUBBOCK, TEXAS - OCTOBER 05: Wide receiver Erik Ezukanma #84 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders catches a pass during the second half of the college football game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys on October 05, 2019 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
LUBBOCK, TEXAS - OCTOBER 05: Wide receiver Erik Ezukanma #84 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders catches a pass during the second half of the college football game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys on October 05, 2019 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images) /

Over the last two weeks, the Texas Tech football team has finally begun to see its outside receivers make the type of impact that we’ve come to expect from that position group.

Bar-B-Q, pickups, and big-time outside receivers.  Those are three of the birthrights most Texas Tech football fans believe they have been imbued with.

But as the 2019 season got underway, there was more uncertainty about what Matt Wells and his coaching staff had at outside receiver than there had been entering any Texas Tech football season in the past two decades.  After the program lost its top two receivers from last year, Antoine Wesley and Ja’Deion High, and their combined 2,000-plus yards of productivity, there were no guarantees that the options on the roster would be able to take up the slack.

Despite that fact, there was far less concern about the Red Raiders’ ability to find answers on the outside than there was about where the pass rush would come from, who would lead the way in the ground game, or what the rebuilt secondary would look like.  In hindsight, we should have paid more attention to what was happening in the offseason at outside receiver because that position has been anything but the dominant force that Tech fans have come to expect it to be.

The good news is that as we make the turn towards the second half of the 2019 season, the Red Raiders are finally seeing their outside weapons make significant impacts in games.

In the first four contests of the year, Tech’s outside pass-catchers had no 100-yards games among them and were averaging just 9.7 receptions and 104.7 yards per game.  What’s more, they had only three combined touchdowns.

Thankfully, that had turned around in the last two weeks.  Against Oklahoma State and Baylor, Tech’s wide receivers averaged 16 receptions for 273.5 yards while finding the endzone a total of four times.  And in each of the past two games, Tech has had a 100-yard receiver.

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It was the player most expected to be this team’s best receiver all season that got things rolling against the Cowboys two games ago.  Junior T.J. Vasher came up huge in the 10-point Tech win by leading the way with 110 yards and a touchdown.  It was his first 100-yard outing since 2017.

Last week in Waco, the star was R.J. Turner.  The grad transfer from Louisiana-Monroe had a career-high 138 yards on just seven receptions (an average of 19.7 yards per catch).

Not to be overlooked has been the emergence of two young receivers that may be the future of the Red Raider offense.  After each got off to quiet starts in comparison to the expectations that accompanied them throughout the offseason, sophomore Kesean Carter and redshirt freshman Erik Ezukanma have been far more noticeable in the last two games.

Carter made the switch from the slot to outside receiver this offseason where his elite speed (which he also utilizes as a member of the Red Raider track team) could make him a game-breaker.  But in the first four games of the year, the change didn’t seem to be paying off as he caught just four total passes for 37 yards.

But in the last two games, he’s caught a combined four passes for 47 yards and a TD.  Those numbers are far from eye-popping but they do show that Carter is starting to figure out how to get open on the outside where he more frequently has to face press coverage, something that is not easy for a smaller receiver to combat.

Meanwhile, fans have been excited to see Ezukanma start to flash some of the potential that made him the program’s top 2018 signee.  After averaging just 23 yards and 2.6 receptions per game through the OU contest, he’s stepped up his game to the tune of 77.5 yards and 3.5 receptions per contest since then.

Against the Cowboys, the former 4-star recruit had his first TD of the season as part of a career-best 92 yards.  And it was that 56-yard TD that gave the Red Raiders their final points in the 45-35 win.

This emergence of the outside receivers has been somewhat unexpected given that starting QB Alan Bowman has not played in the last three games.  But the wide-outs have been helping out Jett Duffey by making tough catches in traffic.

To his credit, the junior QB has been willing to trust his receivers to make a play.  Not waiting for them to be wide open, he’s put the ball in their general vicinity and allowed them to make big plays.

That has allowed the dual-threat QB to have the best set of back-to-back games in his career despite not using his legs hardly at all.  Staying in the pocket, where his coaches want him because he is the team’s only healthy scholarship QB at the moment, last year’s leading rusher has run for just 13 total yards in the last two weeks.  But he has been surprisingly effective with his right arm by throwing for 424 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys and 362 yards and a score against the Bears.

Now comes a new and far more daunting challenge for Duffey and his receivers.  The Iowa State defense is built to take away the intermediate passing game while also choking the life out of the opposition’s ground game.

That means Tech’s QB will need to stretch the defense by connecting with his wide receivers downfield in order to loosen up the Cyclone 3-3-5 scheme.  That’s something that Tech has not done well in the last three games against the Big 12’s northern-most member.

In 2016, Pat Mahomes threw for only 219 yards while being picked off twice in a dreadful 66-10 loss in Ames.  A year later, Nic Shimonek managed just 207 yards and an INT in a 31-13 defeat in Lubbock.  And last season, Alan Bowman was intercepted three times while throwing for 323 yards and posting a passer rating of just 34.4 in a 9-point Cyclone win.

Next. Matt Wells can take a huge step forward by beating Iowa State. dark

If the Red Raiders are going to finally break their 3-game skid against Iowa State, it is likely going to require a big showing from Duffey and his outside weapons.  Fortunately, that’s an aspect of the Tech offense that is trending in the right direction ahead of this key conference showdown.