MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are no innocuous passes to Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs, as two touchdowns from last season’s game at West Virginia proved.
Pin him against the sideline? He streaks through the crack for a 42-yard score capped by a goal-line lunge. Encircle him with five defenders on a 5-yard hitch route? He pivots, darts and weaves out of the crowd for a 56-yarder.
Said West Virginia safeties coach Tony Gibson: “He can make you look stupid in the open field.”
Mercifully for Gibson, he wasn’t around in 2012 when Diggs caught three passes for 113 yards. But Gibson realizes the 2013 version of Diggs has only improved—and so has the receiver’s supporting cast. Maryland was down to quarterback No. 3, true freshman Perry Hills, during last year’s 31-21 loss in Morgantown. Diggs closed his first season making 54 catches for 848 yards—numbers made exponentially more impressive by the fact Maryland’s unprecedented string of quarterback injuries led to a fifth-stringer who was a converted linebacker.
This time, dual-threat starter C.J. Brown is healthy and feeding Diggs passes at a clip of 24.2 yards-per-catch, an average ranking sixth-best nationally.
A former five-star recruit, Diggs may be likened to Tavon Austin in these parts, but ex-NFL linebacker-turned-Washington Post contributor LaVar Arrington said Diggs far outshines former Terps who became first-day draft picks.
“If you look at Darrius Heyward-Bey or Torrey Smith in college, you’d have to believe he’s lightyears ahead of them talent-wise. Lightyears,” Arrington said. “They were just burners, they were just fast. The skill level is not even close.”
Ranked by Rivals as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class, Diggs spurned Florida, Ohio State, Cal, Alabama, Michigan and USC to sign with the in-state Terps on the heels of their 2-10 season. If third-year coach Randy Edsall manages to make Maryland relevant again, landing Diggs will have been the turning point.
“Historically speaking,” said Arrington, “he’s at a different school and he’s one of the major receivers in the country.”
The nation may not be familiar with Diggs, but his rivals in the neighboring state certainly recognize his spectacularly elusiveness.
Noted Gibson: “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got guys surrounding him and setting a backstop.”
And as last season’s game film reveals, sometimes even that’s not enough.
A LONG TIME COMING
The receiver opposite Diggs is former WVU signee Deon Long, who spent a few underwhelming months in Morgantown during the winter and spring of 2010. After landing in Bill Stewart’s doghouse, Long transferred to New Mexico for the 2011 season before moving to Iowa Western Community College in 2012, where he racked up 100 catches and 25 touchdowns for the NJCAA national champs.
Mountaineers cornerback Icky Banks was a teammate of Long’s in 2009 at Hargrave (Va.) Academy.
“We used to go at it in practice a lot, head-to-head,” Banks said. “He got his, and I got mine. I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”
Though the two fell out of touch the past two years, Banks heard Long “was lighting it up” in the juco ranks and has watched film of more recent exploits—Long’s 15 catches in Maryland’s first three games.
“He had good speed and ran good routes at Hargrave,” Banks said, “and all he could do was get better off that.”
SHORT ON CORNERS
Tuesday’s biggest revelation—that fifth-year senior Brodrick Jenkins is no longer on the team—leaves WVU with five scholarship cornerbacks. One of those, Terrell Chestnut, is on the mend from knee surgery and appeared in his first game of the season against Georgia State. On the latest depth chart, he replaced Jenkins as the backup to Travis Bell at the boundary corner.
The dearth of bodies at cornerback obviously exposes West Virginia to injury risk should Bell or field corner Icky Banks go down. Top reserve Daryl Worley, a freshman who started at nickel back against Georgia State, has been impressive, and Chestnut started three games in 2012. The only other reserve is redshirt freshman Brandon Napoleon, though coaches could potentially shift safety Ricky Rumph back top corner in a pinch.
Jenkins started 11 times over the past two seasons and played in 33 career games. During preseason camp he was slowed by a sore meniscus—receiving treatment four to five times daily—but seemed to be taking his second-string status in stride, praising the guys ahead of him and vowing to keep competing. Jenkins played sparingly in WVU’s first games and did not see the field against Georgia State.
“I hate to see him go,” Banks said. “It hurts seeing him go, but that’s another story.”
Said cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell: “We wish him the best and, more importantly, get that degree.”