In recruiting, Texas essentially has three wide receiver positions to fill. First, there's the X, the player who can devastate man coverage and who, all things being equal, can win his matchup and create big plays. Think of the X as Mike Davis, or incoming freshman Marcus Johnson.
The second receiver spot is the Z. The Z is a bigger-framed receiver who will largely make hay on crossing routes, curls, slants and routes that allow him to use his size to make first downs. Examples of the Z on the current Texas roster include John Harris and incoming freshman Cayleb Jones.
And finally, there's the slot, somebody who can balance high percentage possession plays with an ability to make something bigger from those plays. Jaxon Shipley, or incoming freshman Kendall Sanders, are great examples.
Texas already has a slot in the 2013 class in Jacorey Warrick, and a Z in Jake Oliver. Ricky Seals-Jones could fit about anywhere. All of which leaves Texas still looking for an ideal X. The Longhorns are currently recruiting Robbie Rhodes for that position, and after watching film on the talented receiver, it seems to be a great fit. Here are three phases of the game that stood out on Rhodes's film that should make him an excellent candidate at the position.
Phase 1: Speed Before The Throw
Forget track times for a minute (no matter how favorable). There are two kinds of speed. The first is the player who times well. The second, and more important, is someone with functional speed. True, somebody who times well could also have functional speed, but the two are not necessarily tied to each other.
In this case, it's less about having straight-line speed and more about how to utilize that speed. And that's an area that Rhodes displays an excellent aptitude for on his tape. As a route runner, Rhodes does a great job of getting off the line quickly. People struggle to jam him because of his tremendous quickness and overall body strength. But here's the more important thing: he's not just somebody that you can play a 10-yard cushion on because he does an outstanding job of getting on top of the defensive back, effectively popping the cushion. That puts the DB in a tough position because the second the receiver reaches you, he has the upper hand.
You see it quite a bit on Rhodes's tape, him exploding into the cornerback, then making a break and leaving the player in the dust. He's tremendously fast (functionally) in that regard.
Here's the other part about Rhodes's speed: he does a great job of changing speeds to lure defensive backs into a false step. And when that happens, it's usually play over. On double moves, Rhodes does a nice job of selling the break before using his elite acceleration to burst past a defender unsure of whether to break forward to disrupt a shorter route.
Not only does that trait help Rhodes set up big plays on double moves, but it also means that he'll have a chance to catch some of those shorter routes, the outs and the curls, because defenders can't afford to jump up, or risk giving up a touchdown.
And here's where you really realize Rhodes's speed is elite: on several clips he outruns the deep safety, the player responsible for nothing more than to make sure nobody gets behind him. Well, Rhodes gets behind that player more often than not because by the time the safety realizes it's a deep route, he's already past.
Phase 2: Jump Balls
In my mind, this is the most underrated trait that a wide receiver can have. Some players can just instinctively win the so-called 50-50 balls with body positioning and leaping ability. And this gives them a huge advantage in that, even if they aren't open, their quarterbacks often trust them to come up with a big play, and give them a chance to do so. Look at some of the Big 12's top receivers historically, from Rashaun Woods to Dez Bryant and Dezmon Briscoe. All three were elite jump-ball guys.
While Texas doesn't necessarily need Rhodes to stand out here — they'll have bigger targets on the other side in Cayleb Jones, Ricky Seals-Jones and Jake Oliver — it's worth noting that Rhodes is an awfully good jump-ball player. He catches the ball with his hands, away from his body, and has outstanding body control. And because of his height — 6-foot to 6-1 — and his athleticism, he can be a handful in that area.
One of my favorite clips on Rhodes's film is a long touchdown that he catches where the quarterback just throws the ball up for grabs over the middle of the field. What stands out to me is that the ball is poorly thrown, and Rhodes doesn't even get a chance to position himself for it. The defensive back is in front, in an ideal position to make an interception. But Rhodes went up over the top and pulled it away anyway.
That's the kind of playmaking ability you want from your X receiver. Even when he wasn't open, and even when he didn't have position, he still made the play.
Phase 3: After The Catch
Rhodes would be a dangerous receiver even if he didn't have after-the-catch ability because he's going to catch those gos and post routes. But here's what makes him potentially devastating: play that cushion, give him room, and he can make big plays on short throws. Give up inside leverage, and he's a big play on a slant route waiting to happen. And he also displays the ability to make huge gains on flash and bubble screens.
Rhodes isn't an overly shifty guy like a Jacorey Warrick, but he doesn't have to be. He has great vision after the catch, and seems to always make the right cut. With his level of strength, he breaks a lot of tackles. And once he breaks them, he's off to the races … a race he's never going to lose.
There are a number of receivers who are good screen receivers, players who can catch a pass behind the line of scrimmage with a blocker or two in front and create a big play. And there are a number of other receivers who excel down the field. But they generally aren't the same player. That's part of what makes Rhodes so special. He's somebody who can take a bubble screen and create a big play, or drag across the middle of the field, catch the ball and turn it up with his great speed.
I hope I've given a good look at what makes Rhodes such a dynamite receiver. After watching tape, I think he's probably the second or third best receiver in the state (Seals-Jones and Derrick Griffin). But more than that, he perfectly fits what Texas wants out of its X receiver: somebody who can create matchup problems, can hurt a defense in a variety of ways and who can turn man coverage into six points.