Defenses in the FCS may want to play with five defensive backs at all times.
This year, it’s going to be nearly impossible to slow down the best wide receivers in the FCS.
Eleven of the 14 wide receivers who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last season are back this year. Even the next three on the final national receiving chart – each of whom finished within six yards of the century club – were underclassmen a year ago.
Five defensive backs? Maybe go six.
Here is a countdown of the top half dozen wide receivers in the FCS:
6. Justin Watson, Penn (Jr., 6-3, 210)
Paired with standout quarterback Alek Torgersen, the clutch Watson posted his biggest performances against the Quakers’ biggest opponents last season, including Villanova, Fordham and then Harvard, when he caught seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 100 yards and another score to help stop the Crimson’s 22-game winning streak. The runner-up for Ivy League offensive player of the year paced the conference in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,082) and touchdown receptions (nine).
5. Brian Brown, Richmond (Sr., 6-1, 198)
Playing in his hometown of Richmond gives Brown a comfort level that an opposing secondary does not have. He is the only player in the history of the Spiders’ program to have two seasons of more than 1,000 receiving yards. Last year, he finished third in the nation in receiving yards (1,450) and yards per game (111.5) while serving as quarterback Kyle Lauletta’s go-to option on a team which reached the national semifinals. Brown’s excellent routes spread out defenses.
4. Josh Barge, Jacksonville State (R-Sr., 6-1, 178)
Auburn hasn’t forgotten Barge, who caught a school-record 14 passes as well as a touchdown in Jacksonville State’s near upset of the SEC power last September. Excellent at slipping into the cracks of a defense, Barge has caught a pass in 40 consecutive games. In helping the Gamecocks advance to the FCS championship game, he totaled 92 receptions for 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns – all single-season school records. He already is the school’s all-time receptions leader (206) entering his senior season.
3. Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona (Jr., 6-3, 210)
Butler plays with a physical style and puts his size to good use when he leaps over defensive backs to grab passes from quarterback Case Cookus, who set an FCS record for touchdown passes (37) by a freshman last year. Butler was responsible for 15 of those scoring strikes, tying Northern Arizona’s single-season record. The big-play receiver finished with 64 receptions for 1,208 yards, which set another single-season mark.
2. Jake Wieneke, South Dakota State (R-Jr., 6-4, 210)
The All-American’s consistency is as important as his skill set. As a freshman in 2014, Weineke caught 73 passes for 1,404 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns. As a sophomore, he totaled 72 receptions for 1,472 yards and 11 scores. He’s played with three different quarterbacks during his career yet his production has not wavered. He has big hands and crafty ball-catching technique, and knows how to get down the field, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch over his two seasons.
1. Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington (R-Sr., 6-2, 210)
As the Rolls-Royce of this year’s impressive fleet of receivers, Kupp’s countless honors include FCS freshman of the year (2013) and offensive player of the year (2015). He’s led the FCS in receiving yards in two of his three seasons and finished second the other time. He could hold almost all the major receiving records by season’s end, as he ranks fourth in FCS history in receptions (311, 84 behind the record), second in reception yards (4,764, 486 behind) and second in TD receptions (56, just two behind). The Big Sky Conference legend is considered the FCS’ top NFL Draft prospect entering the season. His father Craig was a former NFL quarterback and grandfather Jake had a long NFL career as an offensive guard.
Other leading FCS wide receivers: Brendan Flaherty, Holy Cross (Sr., 6-2, 200); Lance Lenoir, Western Illinois (Sr., 6-0, 200); Anthony Warrum, Illinois State (Sr., 6-2, 190)
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Cooper Kupp photo by Eastern Washington University Athletics; Jake Wieneke photo by South Dakota State Athletics)