Elite WPIAL receivers provide unique weapon
Central Valley's Robert Foster has a favorite play, but it's not the deep route most would expect.
Actually, it's not even a pass.
The senior prefers the jet sweep, an end-around run that uses his speed and acceleration. He motions toward the quarterback, sweeps behind the line and sprints around the other end.
It causes trouble for flat-footed defenders, as Foster has shown with long touchdown runs.
“The bubble screen is dangerous, too,” he said, “but I love the jet.”
It's part of what makes him unpredictable, a quality that his coaches have stressed. A year ago, Foster had 73 offensive touches — 37 catches and 36 carries.
“We told him: ‘Don't be a one-facet guy,'” said Central Valley coach Mark Lyons, adding that Foster also has become a dangerous kick returner and a very good safety. “Don't just be that great speed guy that has to be on the perimeter. Be multi-dimensional.”
But first, Lyons applied that advice to his offense.
For decades, his teams won with power runners. But with Foster, Lyons accepted that having an elite wideout could be even more productive than having a star halfback.
It was a change in philosophy for a coach who once turned a 225-pound fullback into a 4,000-yard rusher.
“I don't think Coach will ever give up the running game,” Foster said with a laugh. “It's in his blood. But now he's got athletes who can catch the ball, so I think he's going to give us some love.”
That love has spread around the WPIAL, which has embraced the multi-talented receivers.
This year's senior class has grown deep with talented wideouts, headlined by Foster, Clairton's Tyler Boyd, South Fayette's Zach Challingsworth and Montour's Devin Wilson. All four will be the focus of their team's offense this fall.
“I now think it's actually beneficial to have your standout guy as a wideout,” Lyons said. “And to be quite honest, if you look at the teams that do, I think they're pretty successful.”
The WPIAL has produced other star receiver recruits, including Aliquippa's Jon Baldwin, Valley's Toney Clemons and Woodland Hills' Steve Breaston, who now are NFL wideouts. Seton-La Salle's Carmen Connolly once held the state's record for receptions. Beaver Falls' Dwight Collins, who starred at Pitt in the 1980s, came before them.
But this year's depth is exceptional, with Foster and Boyd highly ranked by national recruiting sources. The growth of passing camps has played a role in developing more Division I receivers.
“We have like eight or nine receivers who should be D1,” Wilson said. “This is the biggest class in a while to have this many good receivers.”
Boyd, Challingsworth, Foster and Wilson have scholarship offers from BCS conference schools. Challingsworth has committed to Pitt; the others remain undecided. All four said summer 7-on-7 workouts helped improve their stock.
“That gave me a lot more confidence,” said Challingsworth, often praised for his sharp routes. “Playing against some of the best kids in the nation and really finding yourself and your potential, it does great things for the wide receiver position.”
Rivals lists Foster as the country's fourth-best receiver and ranks Boyd 29th. College recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who broke the position down further for Maxpreps, ranks Foster first among wingbacks, with Boyd fourth.
Deciding how to stop them can be tough for defenses. But deciding how to use them can be hard for coaches.
Boyd has played tailback more often than receiver because Clairton was thin in the backfield. As a junior, he rushed for 2,400 yards and 41 touchdowns — both tops in the WPIAL — so he'll remain there this year and might play some quarterback.
A smooth runner with good size, Boyd has been recruited to play wideout but caught just 18 passes last season. But that shouldn't hurt Boyd's potential; Breaston played quarterback for Woodland Hills.
“He's the second-best receiver in the state behind Foster,” Clairton coach Tom Nola said. “If we had other people, we'd put him at receiver. But he's too good.”
And for many teams, that's a dilemma. Can they get their superstar the football often enough at wideout? That usually requires more than a good plan — it requires a good quarterback.
Wilson had both when he led the WPIAL with 72 receptions last season. He has 165 career catches and hopes to surpass 247, the state record set last fall by Allentown Central Catholic's Kevin Gulyas. Yet he'll be chasing that number with a new quarterback; Dillon Buechel, a 4,000-yard career passer, graduated.
Foster's receptions could increase this season with the addition of a passing quarterback. Foster has the ability to lead the WPIAL in catches, but that's not necessarily his ambition.
“To tell you the truth, I don't care if I don't get the ball,” said Foster, a Monaca native. “It's about winning the game.”
However, in two seasons with Foster, Central Valley's playbook has expanded beyond the ground-and-pound style that carried Monaca to three straight WPIAL runner-up finishes. Because of Foster, the Warriors have created a no-huddle package. They also tweaked their formations by moving him off the line of scrimmage and letting him start plays in motion.
“Definitely, without question, we've opened it up more,” Lyons said. “I always say, jokingly, that if I had this approach 15 or 20 years ago at Monaca, maybe we would have won some of those.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5666.