By James Beltran
The Houston Cougars' receiving corps will be undergoing reconstruction in 1997 now that two of the team's top producers have played their last game in a UH uniform.
Damion Johnson, who caught 52 passes for 708 yards last season, is trying to continue his football career in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers.
The Cougars will also be without Charles West, who finished off his collegiate career in 1996 with 51 receptions for 511 yards.
Even with these departures, Helton is expecting an upgrade in the quality of receivers for 1997.
"We're bigger and faster," he said. "Big-bodied people are more difficult to defend than little guys."
Orlando Iglesias, Daniel Belcha and DeKeithron Callicoattee are three receivers that Helton said have potential. "Those guys are all over 6'1", so they're harder to cover," he said.
But since Belcha and Iglesias are both freshmen, Helton may have to look in another direction for immediate contributions.
Junior Jason deGroot brings collegiate experience at the split end, but has found avoiding injury difficult in his three seasons.
Robbie Wheeler, who had 26 catches last season for 292 yards, will be a big part of the Cougars' passing game. Wheeler is the team's top returning receiver in terms of production.
Helton said senior Maurice Bryant will be heavily relied on at the flanker position. Last year, Bryant proved his ability to make the big play for the offense with his touchdown reception against Louisville off the trick play that had tailback Ketric Sanford making the pass on a pitchout from quarterback Chuck Clements.
Helton is shaping his offense to produce more of these types of plays.
"We're going to be more of a big play offense at the beginning than we are a consistent offense," Helton said. "We would like to throw 35 to 40 passes in the course of a game."
Helton has also revealed his intention to mix Sanford into the passing game. Sanford is recovering from a recent ligament problem, but he expresses no concern over the matter. "It's fine now," Sanford said. "I get it stretched every day to give it extra durability."
Last season, Sanford was a factor in the UH passing attack, reeling in 10 receptions for 91 yards.