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15 in '15: Washington Huskies Wide Receiver Play Emerge as Hot Button Issue

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Ask any Husky fan which unit was the weak link in the UW football chain in 2015 and the answer is nearly unanimous.

Oh, what could have been in 2015 for John Ross II.
Oh, what could have been in 2015 for John Ross II.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jake Browning - a true freshman still trying to find his rhythm in this complicated Huskies offense - lines up in the shotgun, still unsure of what it is he is supposed to be doing.  Without thinking, his training takes over. A deep breath calms his nerves and spurs him to the next step in the routine. One...two...scan your reads and check your receivers.

But what exactly is he supposed to read? The alignment presented by the D is unfamiliar to him. Is this the precursor to disaster? Is it time to panic now?

Jake sticks to his training. "Check your receivers, son."  His eyes follow their automatic pattern of surveillance. To his left, he sees his beastly X receiver. The 6'3", 220-lb junior is an old-school physical receiver who excels as a possession receiver and relishes taking out his assignment in the blocking game.  To his right, in the slot, is his trusty senior receiver who will soon go on to become one of the most prolific and productive receivers in program history. Another senior - a versatile and rangy tight end who looks more like a receiver given his route running and soft hands - is available in the H. To his far right is the playmaker. The 6'0" 190-pounder is a flashy junior who spent the offseason rebuilding his body while not losing his absurd abilities to make any defender miss in open space and to score from anywhere on the field.

Panic gives way to confidence. Jake realizes he was foolish to overthink the defensive alignment. In fact, it doesn't even really matter what play gets called. These receivers will take the hill.

This is how it was supposed to be. UW's true freshman phenom QB should have had a diverse, experienced and capable cadre of playmaking receivers to help him break into PAC 12 football. The lineup portrayed would have challenged opposing defensive coordinators and made them think twice about pulling out all the stops to disrupt and pressure the young QB. It would have been the strength that would have covered the youth around the rest of the offense.

Demore'ea Stringfellow would have been the junior "big receiver," the primary red zone target and the key perimeter blocker who could uncork big plays in the running game.

John Ross would have completed the move to the Z role that was hinted at the season before. His offseason goals were to add more weight so as to increase his durability and blocking ability. Arguably the most dangerous open-field runner in the PAC, Ross was going to be the key piece to make the lateral passing game work for a young QB.

This is how it was supposed to be. UW's true freshman phenom QB should have had a diverse, experienced, and capable cadre of playmaking receivers to help him break into PAC 12 football. Accomplished and competent seniors in Jaydon Mickens and Joshua Perkins would have completed the starting corps. Their veteran savvy would have meant that their young QB teammate would always have a safety valve, and that plays requiring a receiver to do something out of the ordinary would have gotten done.  Been there, done that.

Senior, senior, junior, junior. Consider that for a second.

Of course, that was not the lineup that was put on the field in 2015. String had long since moved on from the program, despite Chris Petersen's best efforts to retain him in the aftermath of Cyler-gate. John Ross suffered a devastating off-season knee injury just about a year ago and was forced to miss the entire season.  In their collective places emerged two true sophomores who, in a perfect world, would have entered the season as redshirt freshmen.

Neither Dante Pettis or Brayden Lenius are ineffective players. From a physical skills standpoint, both have unique attributes that, in time, will allow them to match the productivity we imagine their upperclassmen counterparts might have contributed. But that time was not 2015. Not in this stage of the Chris Petersen rebuild and not with a true freshman QB in the lineup.

The numbers tell that story well.  Husky receivers caught just 14 TDs in 2015, good for 10th in the conference. They had less than 40 passing plays that went over 20 yards and of the three that went over 50, just one was completed to a wide receiver.  Compare and contrast that to a middling Cal team who had nearly 80 passes that went over 20 yards and 14 plays for over 50 that all went to wide receivers.  Effective receiver play makes a difference in unlocking the potential of an offense.  Ineffective receiver play can stymie that potential altogether.

It wasn't all bad.  UW finished the season with a better-than-expected 7.9 yards per passing attempt on the season, good for fifth in the PAC.  While Browning's natural aggressiveness is a big part of that performance, one can't discount the evolution of that receiver position as the season went on.  Clearly the receivers got better as the season went on.  Maybe that was about seniors getting into the groove.  Maybe it was about young players tapping into their potential.  Maybe it was simply the evolution of opposing defenses who had to become more and more focused on Myles Gaskin and the UW rushing attack as the season progressed.

The problem for UW now is that the two most productive receivers for Browning were his two seniors, Mickens and Perkins. Pettis and Lenius now emerge as the two "leaders" in the receiving game (at least until we know what Ross looks like post-rehab) at a time when they should just be entering into third- and fourth-guy roles. Players such as Darrell Daniels and Isaiah Renfro definitely have upside and could well be major contributors. But the best that can be said for those two guys are that they are wild cards.

Washington's situation as it enters 2016 starts with a recovering superstar 20 months removed from the field who will likely take over the now vacant slot, abandoning plans to move to the Z. It includes two young players - a "big" and a "slasher" - who have upside but have yet to really excel as Husky receivers to date. It is complemented with two guys in Daniels and Renfro who have shown signs but are still unknowns. It finishes with a collection of players who little experience and with no obvious blue-chip talent coming in via the 2016 recruiting class.

Compare and contrast that to what the situation might have looked like minus the injury to Ross and loss of String. There isn't any productive point to wishing for things to have been different, but it is an interesting scenario to ponder for a team that is still breaking in so many young players in every position group of the offense.  The receiving corps could have been the most balanced and experienced unit across the entire team.

Instead, it is the glaring weak link on a team that otherwise looks poised to move on from a disappointing 2015 towards a 2016 where optimism abounds.