2014 Big Sky position rankings: Wide receivers

2014-08-07T02:00:00Z 2014 Big Sky position rankings: Wide receiversGreg Rachac The Billings Gazette

NOTE: This is the seventh installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

Who saw Cooper Kupp coming? The Eastern Washington receiver was the breakout freshman player in the Football Championship Subdivision last season, establishing himself as one of the top playmakers in the country. He and quarterback Vernon Adams were an invincible combo in 2013.

The league lost a handful of quality wideouts from last year -- Greg Hardin, Luke Austin, Ashton Clark, Tanner Bleskin, Morris Norrise -- but the breadth of talent returning, which includes Kupp, is staggering. Will Kupp hold his position as the Big Sky's best? Or will someone else take the mantle?

TOP 10 WIDE RECEIVERS

1. COOPER KUPP, SO., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 93 rec, 1,691 yds, 18.2 avg, 21 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The sequel is never as good as the original, so it will be interesting to see how Kupp performs this season after winning the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS in 2013. What do you do for an encore? The statistics were staggering, but what really stood out were the explosives: Kupp made 11 catches of 40-plus yards, and had five touchdowns of 50 or more yards. By year's end he'd set six FCS receiving records. There's no reason to think Kupp won't be Vernon Adams' favorite target again, or that they won't rekindle the magic. 

2. ELLIS HENDERSON, JR., MONTANA 2013: 43 rec, 1,008 rec, 23.4 avg, 14 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: You want big plays? Henderson supplied a wealth of them last year. Henderson eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau despite finishing with less than 50 catches, which amounted to a whopping per-catch average of 23.4 yards. No player in the league made as many crucial or clutch late-game plays last year than Henderson. Jordan Johnson returns at quarterback, and he's shown great ability as a traditional drop-back, play-action passer, connecting with the go-up-and-get-it Henderson for huge gains down the field. There should be plenty more of that.

3. KASEY CLOSS, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 63 rec, 1,167 yds, 18.5 avg, 8 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Closs came to Portland State via Saddleback Junior College in California and had an immediate impact. His 1,167 receiving yards from last year are the fourth-most in Vikings history. On the second play of an early-season game at Cal, quarterback Kieran McDonagh hit Closs for an 81-yard touchdown, and that kick-started a connection that prospered all season. Like EWU's Adams and UM's Johnson, McDonagh returns for the Vikings, so that probably means more of the same. Closs is big bodied (6-3, 205) and is known for his great hands. 

4. SHAQ HILL, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 38 rec, 790 yds, 20.8 avg, 9 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Talk about getting a bang for your buck. Hill had fewer than 40 catches last season, but made every one of them count. Like UM's Henderson, he averaged more than 20 yards per catch, and finished the 2013 with six touchdown plays of more than 50 yards. Hill is fast and elusive at 5-10 and 180 pounds: The Eagles take great advantage of his tools. Eastern Washington also brings back wideout Cory Mitchell, who fell three catches shy of 50 last season. The Eagles' receiving corps is the envy of the league, especially with Adams pulling the strings.

5. DEANDRE CARTER, SR., SACRAMENTO STATE 2013: 64 rec, 934 yds, 14.6 avg, 14 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: When it came to scoring touchdowns, Carter was the Hornets' version of Cooper Kupp last year. And with Morris Norrise gone heading into 2014, Carter is expected to take on an even bigger role. Carter was selected as a first-team All-Big Sky Conference performer, ahead of the likes of the UM's Henderson and PSU's Closs. And he was picked to the league's preseason all-conference team in July. A lot of eyes are on Carter to have another big year. Garrett Safron, another of the league's veteran QBs, will have Carter in his sights all year.

6. DIMITRI STIMPHIL, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2013: 63 rec, 1,007 yds, 16.0 avg, 6 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Whoever ends up playing quarterback at Northern Colorado this season (be it Brock Berglund or somebody else), he'll have a stud to throw to in Stimphil. The Homestead, Fla., native hasn't missed a game in his career, which began with his true-freshman season in 2011. Stimphil was one of just six wideouts in the Big Sky to have more than 1,000 receiving yards a year ago, and he could duplicate that feat if the Bears' passing game is as good as it was when previous QB Seth Lobato was taking the snaps. But who will be the QB?

7. BRIAN FLOTKOETTER, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 36 rec, 530 yds, 14.7 avg, 3 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Flotkoetter figures to take a major step forward in both leadership and production in 2014. Flotkoetter injured his shoulder early last season. He missed some time and battled through it, but he was never really 100 percent. Flotkoetter is being asked to make up for the lost production of Tanner Bleskin, and with Tanner Roderick moving back to wideout from QB, that'll take some pressure off. Earlier this summer, Bobcats coach Rob Ash said of Flotkoetter: "I'm counting on him to have a huge senior season.” It's important for MSU's offense.

8. DEZJON WALKER, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 24 rec, 361 yds, 15.0 avg, 2 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The Lumberjacks were anything but a passing team last year. With running back Zach Bauman putting up another 1,000-yard season, why would they be? But this year could be different. Longtime coach Jerome Souers has said he'd like NAU's passing game to be "more dynamic," and with Walker on board he's got at least one weapon to make it happen. At 6-3 and 225 pounds, Walker is a huge target and has made a number of long-yardage plays in the past. If the Lumberjacks pass more in 2014, Walker will definitely be a guy to watch.

9. JAMAAL JONES, JR., MONTANA 2013: 42 rec, 760 yds, 18.1 avg, 3 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: It took Jones a few games to get his feet under him at Montana. He was shut out a couple times in the middle of the season as teammate Ellis Henderson commanded Jordan Johnson's eyes. But Jones, a Washington transfer, eventually broke through and had a couple huge games toward the end of the year. He had three 100-plus-yard performances in his final five games, including a seven-catch, 120-yard effort in a 28-14 victory at rival Montana State. Henderson will command more attention again this year, but that should open things up for Jones. Again.

10. SHANE HARRISON, JR., SACRAMENTO STATE 2013: 49 rec, 594 yds, 12.1 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As is the case with DeAndre Carter, Harrison's numbers could get a big bump now that Morris Norrise has departed. Harrison was the third option in Sac State's passing game a season ago, but still had seven games where he caught four or more passes. After snagging just one touchdown last year, Harrison should find the end zone more this season. As it is for most of the big-name receivers in the Big Sky, you're only as good as your quarterback, and the Hornets' Garrett Safron is one of the best. That benefits key players like Harrison

*** NATIONAL NO. 1: COOPER KUPP, EASTERN WASHINGTON. Kupp put his name alongside Randy Moss, one of the most gifted receivers to ever play at the FCS level, when he broke Moss' record for TD catches by a freshman. Kupp doesn't have to match last year's totals to still be the best. New Hampshire's R.J. Harris is also one to watch, but Kupp gets the hype.

LAST WEEK: 2014 tight end rankings

LAST YEAR: 2013 wide receiver rankings

NEXT WEEK: Running backs

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