Every season seems to produce surprises - no matter how close you are to your favorite team, there always seems to be at least one aspect about that team that you didn't properly anticipate. For a program in major transition from Steve Sarkisian to Chris Petersen, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that we missed on our pre-seasons assessments of a few areas of the 2014 Husky football team, and the receiving group was one of them.
Even with the loss of leading receiver Kevin Smith to graduation, Mackey Award winning TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins to the NFL and potential superstar WR Damore'ea Stringfellow to transfer in the wake of his assault conviction, there were reasons for optimism. As Chris put it heading into fall camp last year:
The Huskies receiving situation looks pretty good going into Fall Camp, at least as far as number of bodies is concerned. There are some obvious studs who will contribute in familiar roles - Kasen on the outside, Jaydon in the slot and John Ross bouncing around. Beyond that, the Huskies coaching staff has some work to do in establishing roles and rotations for the players that they have
As I noted in an article last month, the 2014 offense really hinges on Kasen Williams and his ability to return to form following his horrible injury from last year. When right, Kasen is really the only receiver who gives you plus-level contributions in all of the key dimensions: blocking, game-breaking and red-zone. No other receiver on the UW roster can match his combined skill set (though, keep your eyes on the trajectory of Darrell Daniels).
2014 In Review:
Unfortunately for this group Kasen was not right at the start of the season, and while he says he got back to 100% around the Stanford game, he never did develop into a significant component of the passing game. In fact for much of the year he was hardly a factor, something that was all the more frustrating when we saw glimpses of the old Kasen in games vs. Arizona at Oklahoma State. Whether it was conflicts with the coaching staff or his QB, not being 100% early in the season and losing their trust or some other factor, he simply wasn't utilized nearly enough, and that took away a major weapon in the passing game.
With a shortage of bigger receivers with strong blocking skills, the horizontal plays that had worked so well for Sark's HUNH offense in 2013 were not as effective. This shortage likely contributed to the decision to burn the redshirt for freshman Braden Lenius, a physical specimen at 6'5", 217 lbs. Fellow frosh Dante Pettis was good enough that he was likely to see the field regardless.
It seemed to take a while for the coaching staff to really get a feel for how to utilize this group as well as what Miles was comfortable with, and there was understandable fan frustration with why guys like Kasen, Ross and Daniels weren't seeing more targets. As well, it seemed as if there were missed opportunities to split guys like Perkins and Daniels out wide to use as big, blocking receivers on bubble screens and as extra blocking support for runs.
Standouts and Stats:
- Jr. Jaydon Mickens: 60 catches, 617 yards (10.3), 4 TD
- So. John Ross: 17 catches, 371 yards (21.8), 4 TD
- RS-Jr. Josh Perkins: 25 catches, 315 yards (12.6), 3 TD
- Fr. Dante Pettis: 17 catches, 259 yards (15.2), 1 TD
- RS-Sr. DiAndre Campbell: 24 catches, 231 yards (9.6), 1 TD
- Sr. Kasen Williams: 20 catches, 189 yards (9.5), 2 TD
Jaydon Mickens once again led the team in receptions, and he continued to develop as the vocal leader of the receivers and the offense as a whole. Mickens is at his best as a slot guy utilized in space, but with the dearth of bigger receivers adept at blocking and the limitations of Cyler Miles' arm, the bubble screen play was not the same weapon it had been in 2013. managed to find other ways to get the ball to Mickens, but it was clear he was struggling all year to figure out how to maximize his abilities. Mickens still struggled at times with drops, something he'll need to continue working on to take that next step from being a strong complementary receiver to a true #1 receiver.
John Ross entered the season as the most dangerous offensive player for the Huskies, blessed with outstanding speed. Given his lack of physicality and his size, he was also best suited for the slot, but he provided more of a downfield threat than Mickens. However the Husky QB situation was such that the deep ball was a real struggle, and while Ross turned a tunnel screen into a long TD against Cal, he never did find much of a role within the offense. His injury that led to surgery after the Oklahoma State game may have been a factor, but he ended up switching over to CB in the latter half of the season with only a few cameo appearances on offense.
DiAndre Campbell had been encouraged to call it a day by the previous staff as a 4th year player, but the new staff gave him a shot to return, and while he didn't have the same level of success with his 2nd chance that Andrew Hudson did, he did see the field quite a bit. He was known mainly for his effort as a blocker coming into the season and that remained probably his biggest attribute as he was rather inconsistent as a receiver. The two freshmen - Dante Pettis and Braden Lenius - did not have the luxury of redshirting, but by midseason both were becoming increasingly important members of the receiver rotation. Pettis in particular flashed star potential as the year went on, showing off his upper tier athleticism. Lenius has impressive size that should make him a red zone target in coming years and could develop into a strong edge blocker.
The tight ends were not a big part of the game plan early in the season, but as the year progressed Miles developed a strong chemistry with Josh Perkins as he provided a consistent target over the middle, with many of his 25 catches going for first downs. Darrell Daniels provided one of the most significant mismatch opportunities for the 2014 offense, but for whatever reason (he was banged up at least part of the year) he wasn't utilized often. His 68 yard catch and run TD vs. Oregon State showed off his impressive speed. Michael Hartvigson was mainly used for blocking.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
While this group didn't have the level of production hoped for in 2014, the good news is most of them return. The coaching staff now has a full season worth of film to evaluate everyone and refine the playbook and play calls accordingly. In Mickens they have a dynamic slot guy that can be utilized in a number of ways; in Pettis they have a potential star as he continues to gain confidence and experience; in Perkins they have a dependable target in the middle of the field; in Daniels they have an X-factor, a big receiver with upper-tier speed that should represent a mismatch against any LB and most safeties. Even if Ross remains primarily a CB, I would expect the staff to still find ways to get him some snaps on offense to exploit his elite speed.
Added to this group is an interesting group of incoming receivers. In Isaiah Renfro, they add a highly-recruited big receiver to hopefully help fill the gap left by Kasen's graduation; in Andre Baccellia they add a slot receiver who has drawn comparisons to Mickens; in Chico McClatcher they add another dynamic hybrid slot receiver/runner with elite quickness; and inthey add another receiving TE in the mold of Perkins. It's possible they may also look at giving Quentin Pounds a look on offense too.
There's no question that for the 2015 offense to take a step forward the passing game will need to become more dynamic, and while this group lacks the star power of other such units across the conference, I think the potential is there for a significant step forward.