Tarleton wide receivers ready to make big, ‘explosive-type’ plays
STEPHENVILLE — Tarleton's wide receiving group has a good mix of just about everything – experience, size, speed, elite route running, good hands and significant vertical leaps.
On an offense that had its share of struggles last Saturday in a loss at Stephen F. Austin, bright spots included flashes of what we should expect to see from the wide receivers the rest of the season.
"They played well and they looked good," Assistant Coach (WR) Tate Whitten said. "We played very, very hard. We had some bumps and bruises, we got banged up, but they fought through it tremendously. They were really focused, they played very hard, caught the ball when it came their way. We played a really good bunch with SFA, so credit to them, but I was very, very proud of my guys."
With the experience portion, Tarleton's top receivers are upper classmen with lots of games under their belts. J.F. Thomas and Tariq Bitson are both seniors with 3+ years of solid time playing in college games. Gabe Douglas, Antwoine Ware and Cody Jones are all juniors, and although Dray Roberson and Kaylon Horton are technically sophomores, both have played three seasons with Tarleton already.
The experience showed in how ready the wide receiving core was for Saturday's game. On the offense's second drive following a turnover courtesy of linebacker D.J. Harris and defensive back Devin Hafford, Steven Duncan fired one to Thomas for a 12-yard touchdown, putting the Texans ahead 7-0 less than three minutes into the game. It marked the first touchdown scored by a Western Athletic Player in nine years, dating all the way back to the Military Bowl on Dec. 27, 2012.
"That was big, that was a very cool moment," Whitten said. "I've been with J.F. for a while now. Since he's gotten here, he's improved, he's gotten better. I'm really proud of him for graduating. But yeah, that first touchdown was a really good start. Just hoped we could have finished it better, but it was a good start and I'm really proud of these guys."
Thomas, who said his biggest strength is "high-pointing the ball," finished with four catches and 30 yards, along with his touchdown.
Bitson had yet another strong game for the purple and white, recording seven catches for 127 yards. It's his second straight game with 100+ receiving yards, the first TSU player with consecutive such games since Zimari Manning had five straight 100+ receiving yard games in 2019. It would have tied for the 15th most receiving yards in the FCS' opening week, if not for Tarleton's reclassification period. This marks the fourth time out of the last five games that Bitson has led the team in receiving yards. In just eight games with Tarleton, Bitson has already racked up 741 receiving yards, averaging 92.6 yards per game.
"He's brought a lot of consistency, reliability, he catches the ball every time you throw it to him," Whitten said. "He also brings a level of maturity. He's a grad transfer, so he's really good in the classroom. He's a good leader for our guys, as well. Stepping in here, he got right along with everybody. He's brought a lot to Tarleton, and I'm very happy to have him, for sure."
Moving forward, the Texans are looking to make bigger plays on offense. Against SFA, Tarleton had just five completions that went for 15 yards or more, but they expect even more.
"Our biggest strength I'd say is the ability to make big plays, explosive-type plays," Whitten said.
Douglas will be a big part of that moving forward, with Whitten saying the receiver is best at "explosive plays." He tallied two catches for seven yards in Saturday's game following a season where he was second on the team in most receiving categories, leading the Texans in yards per catch at 18.6.
Douglas said he expects 10 touchdowns and at least 1,000 receiving yards out of himself this season with his route running and speed.
"He's an explosive dude and we just got to get him out there, get him rolling and he'll take care of the rest himself," Whitten said.
Roberson had four catches for 48 yards on Saturday, tied for the second most he's had in one game at Tarleton. Horton, Tarleton's primary returner on special teams, had two catches for 11 yards, as he's made a full transition to receiver from defensive back. Ware and Jones didn't get on the stat sheet on Saturday, but they'll certainly be in the mix this season.
With such experience and talent at the wide receiver group, Whitten had one last thing to add.
"I think we got it all," Whitten said. "Look out for us."