MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — What do 2004 Joel Filani and 2015 Shelton Gibson have in common?
They were/are receivers coached by Dana Holgorsen and had/are having difficulties adjusting to passes fired straight at their faces.
Holgorsen can only hope Gibson, his sophomore at West Virginia, makes the same corrections Filani did after his sophomore season at Texas Tech.
Smooth and ultra-speedy when it comes to tracking deep passes, Gibson’s preseason camp has featured too many drops on comebacks and underneath routes.
“Too tense. He fights it,” Holgorsen said.
“We saw this in recruiting: He could just flat-out go get a ball and catch it over his shoulder. He’s as good as anyone I’ve coached at getting the ball (deep), but he fights it when it’s coming at him.”
Holgorsen recalled the same type struggles at Texas Tech, where Filani made only 13 catches his first two seasons. More than a decade later, the coach recalls some embarrassing drops.
“(Filani) had two balls go right through his hands, hit him in the head and bounced straight up in the air in front of 80,000 people. It ruined him for a year,” Holgorsen said.
Now a quality control assistant at Washington State, Filani didn’t recall the exact plays Holgorsen referenced, but admitted: “I’m sure it happened more than once.”
Before developing into a two-time All-Big 12 receiver with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Filani endured a difficult transition on the shorter patterns that might look like easier catches to fans.
“It’s not natural coming back to the ball full-speed and having it thrown right at you full speed. There’s only a certain amount of guys who are natural hand-catchers. … The rest have to work on it.” — Former Texas Tech standout Joel Filani
“It’s not natural coming back to the ball full-speed and having it thrown right at you full speed,” Filani said. “You’re trying to meet that ball instead of having a collision with it and having it bounce off your head.
“There’s only a certain amount of guys who are natural hand-catchers, who can get it done kind of effortlessly. The rest have to work on it.”
For Filani, that meant committing himself to thousands of pass-catching repetitions. (He recalled the ball machine becoming “kind of my baby.”) As his depth perception improved, those stiff hands softened and became more natural at plucking passes out of the air. During his final two seasons, Filani made 156 receptions to fuel Texas Tech’s Air Raid attack.
“You have to get used to things coming at your face. Have to work on your hand placement, being able to cup the ball and let your elbows give,” he said. “It’s just being confident.”
Gibson, two years removed from being one of the nation’s top high school receivers, wants to post even grander numbers than Filani and Michael Crabtree and last year’s sensational teammate, Kevin White. Such ambitions can become a burden when a few subpar practices leave Gibson low-spirited.
“He’s a guy that puts a lot of undue pressure on himself and wants to be good really bad,” Holgorsen said. “He’s made reference to me that he wants to be the best that I’ve ever coached, and I’m like, ‘Let’s hold on here and have a good sophomore year.’”
On the latest West Virginia depth chart, Gibson and true freshman Gary Jennings were listed as co-starters at the outside Z receiver. It seems like Gibson’s job to win, considering his edge in experience and the offseason refrain about him being the fastest receiver Holgorsen has coached. He’ll likely be the starter against Georgia Southern on Sept. 5, provided he makes catches in front of defenders as confidently as when he gets behind them.
“My job’s to get him there now—not going into his junior year,” said Holgorsen, knowing only too well that West Virginia’s passing attack needs immediate reinforcements after White and Mario Alford accounted for 58 percent of 2014’s receiving yards and 80 percent of the touchdowns.
As Gibson fights to reach his potential, and fights against “thinking too much” with regard to drops, Filani offered some encouragement. “I think it’s a skill you can learn, where you get very comfortable and you’re not thinking about it. You’re just out there running around and plucking it.”
That’s a comfort level Filani clearly achieved: His 255 receiving yards against Kansas State in 2005 remain the best single-game performance in Texas Tech history. He also stands as one of only eight Red Raiders receivers to be chosen in the NFL draft, a fact sometimes overshadowed when Holgorsen brings up those passes ricocheting off his helmet.
Hence Filani’s closing remark: “Tell Dana to quit taking shots at me.”