Raise your hand if you heard it. You know, that thud sound that was echoing off the Cascades and rumbling throughout the pacific northwest for much of the last two days. The sound that confused you and sent your dog into a lunatic frenzy.
That, my friends, was the sound of the sky officially falling down upon Montlake.
Well, maybe it wasn't actually the sky falling down. But the news that junior wide receiver John Ross, UW's most explosive playmaker, had been lost for the 2015 football season certainly hit Huskies fans in a similar way. The Huskies, who put up one of the least effective offensive seasons in program history under first-year coach Chris Petersen, were counting on Ross to reprise his role as a score-from-anywhere threat when it was announced that he would make the switch back from CB to WR this spring. Ross earned the reputation as a "touchdown hitman" by scoring six of his seven 2014 TDs from beyond the 50 yard line.
Without Ross, the Huskies have only four scholarship WRs on the roster. Wasington State, in contrast, has four starting receivers. Senior Jaydon Mickens is the only established player of the four with fellow senior Marvin Hall having spent most of his career as a lightly-used reserve. Sophomores Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius both played a season ago as true freshman, but neither of them really distinguished themselves as ready-made Pac 12 receivers in their limited snaps.
The loss of Ross not only affects the depth chart, but it disrupts the balance of receiving skills left on the roster. Nobody left comes within even the same area code of matching Ross's ability to break off long-distance catch-and-runs. Even Mickens, who has shown his stuff as a slot guy, has only had one career pass catch longer than 50 yards (that coming a year ago against Oregon State)
Looking ahead to 2015, it is hard to say that the Huskies will have any ability to replace the threat that Ross brings to the table, even after you account for incoming freshmen. The ricochet affect of the Ross injury is going to have implications all over the program for the 2015 season. Here are three things that are most on my mind as I consider those implications.
1. The QB Situation
Go back to the one game that Jeff Lindquist started last season and consider this: if not for John Ross, that may well have been Lindquist's last appearance as a Husky in a real game. Ross scored both Husky TDs in a game that the Huskies barely managed to win 17-16. Lindquist connected with Ross on a remarkable 96 yard TD pass and then watched Ross generate some magic on a 20 yard reverse for a TD (which turned out to be his only TD of the year that was less than 50 yards long). Besides that action, Lindquist was pretty much a non-factor against one of the softest defenses in college football.
Take away the 96 yard bomb to Ross, and Lindquist for the rest of the day completed 66 yards of passes for a YPA of less than 3.0. He managed to complete one pass to Jaydon Mickens and zero passes to any other receiver (WR or TE) currently on the UW roster. It was pretty much a disaster. Imagining for a moment if UW had managed to lose that game, the end result could well have been the banishment of Jeff LIndquist so far down the depth chart that Troy Williams would still be a Husky.
Regardless, one has to wonder if Lindquist is still the clear front-runner to win the QB job for 2015. His big arm was the one differentiating asset that he had in this competition, but is one that is effectively neutralized without a receiver available who can consistently get behind Pac 12 coverage. If the UW pass game is going to have resort to more quick-hit types of plays like timing patterns and bubble screens, it isn't a stretch to say that the direction of the passinggame more favors the skills of one of the younger QBs. Could Ross's injury change the calculus in the QB competition? I fear that it does.
2. The Offensive Line
If you thought the offensive line gave a new definition to the term "offensive" a season ago, wait until you see what happens without the game breaking ability of John Ross to help erase the poor angles and the inability to hold onto blocks that we saw from a season ago. With Ross in the lineup, the Huskies at least had a threat of being able to out maneuver free-roaming tacklers just with pure quickness and speed. Without Ross, the only other player on the roster to have really shown that ability is Dwayne Washington. Take away the one long TD pass to Darrell Daniels against Oregon State, and you'll see that Washington was the only other true long-distance hitter to record more than a few long plays from scrimmage after Ross was switched to the defensive side of the ball.
The good news is that the offensive line is definitely a unit that you would think would improve after more time in the Chris Petersen system. The fact that the group's most experienced players seem to be coalescing to comprise the starting unit is also a good sign.
Nevertheless, this unit is going to have to carry the load if UW is to overcome the loss of its most explosive playmaker. The quick, 3-play kind of drive that ends in a 60 yard TD of some sort - the kind of which we saw more that our fair share of a year ago - is not a scenario that will play to this team's strengths in 2015. Drives are going to have to be extended and methodical. When Jonathan Smith wants to get some chunk plays strung together, he's going to have to rely on play fakes and deception to enable them. That's not nearly as effective without well-established running and short-passing games. All of that comes back on the five men up front.
3. The Young Guys
Many folks on our Breaking News story immediately went to the importance of our TEs in filling the void left by John Ross. While I understand the logic from a point of view of "who will replace the catches", the rest of the logic isn't totally clear. In reality, there are only two guys on the roster with any significant experience as receivers and only one of those, Joshua Perkins, really has a track record of production as a pass-catcher. To expect him plus the remaining trio of Darrell Daniels, David Ajamu and Drew Sample to collectively replace the 7-10 TDs and the 15-20 explosive plays that Ross would have been projected to put up in 2015 is a reach.
While those TEs will clearly play a role in extending drives and grinding out first downs (and, yes, Darrell Daniels may well see his role somewhat morphed), it is more likely that UW is going to have to get explosive play production from some subset of the younger guys. The question will be which ones.
Dante Pettis remains the most likely candidate given his quickness and athleticism. We've seen him on the field make a few such plays. Beyond Pettis, the only other experienced guy who might yet surprise us is senior Marvin Hall. However, one would presume that if he had those skills, we'd have seen them on display on the field already.
The incoming freshmen class is now going to be more critical. Guys like Chico McClatcher and Isaiah Renfro already figured to not use their redshirts in year one. Now, without Ross, it is very likely that guys like Quentin Pounds and Andre Baccellia - both of whom are smallish, quickish kinds of receivers who could use a year each in the weight room - will have to see the field if for no other reason than to provide rotational depth and to help cover up the knicks and bruises that befall a receiving corps during the season. To force these guys into action so early is truly Chris Petersen's worst case scenario and one that already seems inevitable.
There are other implications to the loss of Ross if you care to discuss them. The importance of the defense not skipping a beat from a year ago despite the loss of all of those first round talents, the need to get some reps on offense for a guy like Budda Baker, the potential depth problems that we might now face at CB should one of the remaining four guys with experience get injured, and the replacement of the greatest special team threat in the Pac 12 are all legit questions worthy of dicussion. John Ross was one of the guys UW could least afford to lose not only because of his playmaking capabilities but also because of the variety of roles that he played while using just a single scholarship. Now he is gone.
Fortunately, the prospects for John Ross's full recovery are good. Unfortunately, the prospects for an already bleak looking 2015 are even less bright.