While Husky fans probably didn't know exactly how the switch to the HUNH 2013 would affect the wide receivers, one thing that most of us felt fairly confident we'd see was huge numbers from an All-American tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and the potential for even bigger numbers from Kasen Williams at one receiver spot. Neither happened, for multiple reasons, as each ended up averaging nearly 2.5 fewer catches per game in 2013 than in 2012. But this didn't turn out to be the negative it might sound like.
Keith Price's bounce-back season in 2013 can't be discounted, but the depth and the explosiveness of the UW passing game was featured prominently throughout the season. 7 players had more than 200 yards receiving, versus just 2 in 2012. 9 receivers averaged more than 10 yards per reception, up from only 4 in 2012. And the receiving corps produced 10 passing plays over 40 yards, versus just 4 in 2012. While there wasn't a bona fide "star" in 2013, the unit was far more balanced, deeper, and dangerous without one. The emergence of Kevin Smith, the breakout season of Jaydon Mickens, and the flashes shown by Demore'ea Stringfellow coupled with what was largely outstanding blocking on the perimeter were enough to earn this unit a solid B+ for the year.
What we said heading into the season:
With the emphasis this year on going up-tempo, having a deep group of WR's is important so that legs stay fresh. While we can't know for sure yet just how good the quality is of the depth here, by numbers there is a lot of depth - enough so that it's possible we could see guys like Hall or Taylor take redshirts this year.
Players Lost: Kevin Smith (graduation), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (early draft entry), Di'Andre Campbell (graduation)
Players Returning: Kasen Williams, WR (Sr) currently recovering from injury, Jaydon Mickens, WR (Jr), Marvin Hall, WR (Jr), John Ross, WR (So), Michael Hartvigson, TE (RS-Sr), Josh Perkins, TE (RS-Jr), Darrell Daniels, WR/TE (So), David Ajamu, TE (RS-Fr)
Incoming Players: Brayden Lenius, WR/TE (Fr), Dante Pettis, WR (Fr), Drew Sample, TE (Fr), possibly Kendyl Taylor, WR (RS-So)
Currently Suspended: Demore'ea Stringfellow, WR (So)
A Look Ahead:
I'm not sure any position group had as big a leap forward for the Huskies as did the receivers last year. In 2012, Keith Price was frequently reduced to just tossing the ball up in the general direction of Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and hoping for the best. While that often worked, it also frequently resulted in plays where Price had to take a sack, run out of bounds or throw the ball away. Fast-forward a year and things were much better, as Kevin Smith emerged as perhaps the best WR on the team, Jaydon Mickens made a huge leap forward in his 2nd year and both John Ross and Demore'ea Stringfellow showed off their immense talent as first year players. They were so good in fact that ASJ quickly became an afterthought in the passing game.
Looking ahead though there are some question marks. The biggest is who fills the (literally) huge shoes of ASJ at TE? Next is who will fill out the 5 WR sets? A position group that seemed healthy in numbers - enough so that some fans were wondering why Sark was pursuing two to three of them for the 2014 class - now looks just an injury or two away from having to press the incoming freshmen into action, and may have resulted in Kendyl Taylor moving back to WR after stints at RB and S.
If healthy, Williams would seem to be the #1 WR. There's no reason to think he won't be ready for Spring Practices, but you do worry about setbacks and re-injury. Mickens established himself as a major threat as a slot receiver, albeit one with the wheels to also serve as a deep threat. Ross might be the fastest guy on the team, and if he gets a little stronger and less fearful of contact he could eclipse Mickens, though he's also a candidate to see some time as a CB. Stringfellow might be even more physically talented than Williams - he's bigger and might be faster, though I don't think he's quite at Kasen's level as a jumper, nor have I seen him match his ability to win a jump ball. But his suspension raises a major question mark as to his long-term availability.
At TE, it will be interesting to see who emerges. Josh Perkins filled a role as essentially a big WR that could block inline, but he was mainly used as a mismatch against LB's. Michael Hartvigson returns but has not lived up to expectations - perhaps with ASJ out of the way he'll step up. David Ajamu has good size and got the chance to redshirt, and he could emerge as the primary blocking TE. A big question mark is Darrell Daniels - recruited as a WR, he was shifted mid-season to TE, though most of his playing time came as a special teams terror. He possesses an elite mix of size and speed, so the questions are whether his hands are good enough to stick as a receiver and if his blocking is good enough to stay at TE. If not, he's shown the hitting ability to move to defense.
The WR / TE situation inherited by Jonathan Smith is one that emphasizes quality over quantity. With a first-four WR group that features Kasen Williams, John Ross, Jaydon Mickens and Demore'ea Stringfellow, you have a combination of accomplished players that have demonstrated big play ability, move-the-chains capability, and perimeter blocking accountability. With apologies to Arizona, Cal and WSU, there isn't a better first four in the entire conference in terms of proven production, potential and diversity. That's the good news.
The bad? Well, if you enjoyed the fact that Washington converted 75% of their red zone trips into TDs last season, then you may not like the rest of my comments. I'd argue that the presence of Austin Seferian-Jenkins was the single greatest factor in that kind of ridiculous conversion percentage. As a target, he was a universal mismatch. As a decoy, he created room for other receivers and for Bishop Sankey in otherwise cramped quarters. As a blocker, he was unbeatable when he got to the second level. The red zone is where ASJ is truly irreplaceable and this is where you'll see the Huskies regress in 2014.
This isn't to say things are all bad or that we can't evolve. Darrell Daniels and Josh Perkins are different kinds of athletes who are more similar to the Colt Lyerla's of the world than ASJ. They are great athletes who happen to have good size and who will create mismatches of their own. It is certainly possible that we'll also see a guy like Kasen evolve into that reliable red zone target that ASJ was. Working out all of these roles and responsibilities, including the integration of a block-only TE like Michael Hartvigson, will be one of the intriguing storylines of the spring.
Beyond red zone pecking order, depth remains the other critical question facing this group. This is an area where some of the other Pac 12 schools who are viewed as strong at WR have advantages over UW. Assuming Kasen is healthy and that Daniels stays on offense, the Huskies may be able to get away with the numbers that they have and redshirt the incoming freshmen. The addition of Kendyl Taylor to the mix, if that comes to pass, will certainly aid in that regard. The odds don't seem to favor that, however, and I expect we'll be having a post-spring discussion about which of our two incoming frosh we most wish to see play early.
For the first time in about 15 years, fans look at the roster and can genuinely wonder if there are enough receivers on the team. That's an even greater concern for this spring, as Williams continues to rehab from his injury and the Stringfellow eligibility remains unresolved. Unless Darrell Daniels is moved back to receiver or Stringfellow is suddenly reinstated, there won't be a single wideout over six feet tall, and the only one even close to 200 pounds would be Kendyl Taylor (assuming he's moved there). While there is speed in guys like Mickens, Ross, and Hall, it'll be tough to run a lot of the wide receiver screen concepts without able blockers on the perimeter. Depending on how Petersen and Jonathon Smith ultimately envision the offense, that lack of true perimeter receivers could inhibit the installation of a new offense. Not good.
Nobody on the roster appears to be a capable replacement for Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Even though his junior season was a disappointment to most Husky fans, he leaves as the record holder in just about every major category for tight ends at Washington, and it's not close. He was a tremendous red zone weapon this year, with all 8 of his touchdowns coming from 20 yards or less, and half of those 8 yards or less. His in-line blocking was also a huge component of the success of the rushing game this year. It remains to be seen how big a component tight end will be in the Huskies' new offense, but there's no doubt that the Huskies will lack the flexibility that a unique athlete like Seferian-Jenkins afforded. Michael Hartvigson is the best blocker of the returning tight ends, but he lost all favor with the former coaching staff last season. Josh Perkins is the most proven receiver, but is too small to be much of a blocking threat. From a sheer physical standpoint, Darrell Daniels is the guy that seems to have the most potential to grow into a truly versatile tight end, but he needs to get significantly bigger, and may end up back at wide receiver anyway.
Depending on how things resolve themselves with Stringfellow and how Williams' recovery goes, I'd expect that Pettis will end up seeing the field this season but he won't be here until fall. Lenius is a very intriguing prospect with tremendous size and deceptive athleticism, but the thought is that he's too inexperienced and raw to be much of a contributor this year, and it's not clear if he stays at receiver or grows into tight end. Again, he won't be any help this spring, regardless. Sample needs a redshirt season.
In the most important spring this program has had since 2009, it'll be very interesting to see how Petersen and staff shuffle the receivers they have as they work to install the offense.