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Washington Husky Football Spring 2016 Previews: Wide Receiver/Tight End

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After a disappointing 2015 campaign, Chris Petersen hopes that replacing his wide receivers coach can spark a Washington passing attack that ranked ninth in the Pac-12.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Year in Review

At the conclusion of last season, wide receivers coach Brent Pease earned the ignominious distinction of becoming the first assistant coach Chris Petersen has fired at Washington. That should tell you just about everything you need to know about the passing game's quality.

Of course, there's a bit more to the story than a mere snarky comment from yours truly. The Huskies spent the season breaking in a true freshman quarterback; their most explosive playmaker sat out the entire season with a knee injury; and the team's most effective big-body receiver averaged an unexceptional two receptions per game. Even more than the paltry numbers, the group's most glaring deficiency was what appeared to be either their unwillingness or inability to provide effective perimeter blocking against cornerbacks and safeties. For fans who had grown accustomed to the smart, physical, and exciting play of Kevin Smith, Jermaine Kearse, Kasen Williams, and Damore'ea Stringfellow, that became a difficult pill to swallow.

Here is how Kirk viewed the group as we headed into last season's fall camp:

With few proven returning WR's - heck, few unproven ones too - and a large recruiting class of new WR's, this is a position in transition.  Mickens is the unquestioned leader and (by far) the most established target.  Pettis brings a lot of potential to the group and could be poised for a big uptick in his production.  Beyond that you're looking at a lot of unproven and/or new players and hoping they can advance quickly.  The good news is there's talent there to be molded, but how quickly they can emerge is a big question mark.  Keep an eye on the walk-ons too - guys like Drew Before, Max Richmond, John Gardner and Taelon Parson got a lot of reps this past spring, and talented kids like Jamon Jones and Josh Rasmussen will join the competition when fall camp opens next month.

The good news is that the TE group is very well established, and all four players took turns grabbing the spotlight this past spring.  With a couple of former WR's in that group in Perkins and Daniels, you have players that could potentially play a hybrid role where they see some time split out wide with the other WR's while the bigger guys - Ajamu and Sample - play more of a traditional in-line TE role.  This should be a case where the position of strength (TE) supplements the less-proven position (WR).

Players Lost, Players Returning

The Huskies bade farewell to their two most productive pass-catchers of 2015 thanks to the graduation of receiver Jaydon Mickens (58 catches for 692 yards and two scores) and tight end Joshua Perkins (36 catches/539 yards/3 touchdowns). In addition, running back Dwayne Washington ceded his starting role to Myles Gaskin midway through the season but remained an effective pass-catching outlet for Browning, hauling in 25 receptions for 315 yards and three scores. Also gone is Marvin Hall, whose nine catches amounted to 206 yards and a score.

Foremost among the returners from last year's squad are probably Dante Pettis, who improved incrementally on his breakout true freshman campaign in 2014, and Brayden Lenius, the 6-5, 220 lb. target who has the prototypical size (if not the prototypical speed) that coaches look for in a college receiver. In addition, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith will find creative ways to get the ball in the hands of true sophomores Chico McClatcher and Isaiah Renfro, both of whom flashed potential and presumably benefited from a full offseason in the weight room, in the film room and at the training table. At tight end, the 6-4, 241 lb. Darrell Daniels will be first among equals as he looks to boost his draft stock with a strong senior season, while redshirt sophomores Drew Sample and David Ajamu along with redshirt freshman Michael Neal will have plenty of opportunities to earn their share of playing time.

Interestingly, Washington's most highly regarded receiver at the start of 2016 will be a player who has not yet caught a pass in a game from the team's starting quarterback. As a freshman and sophomore, John Ross established himself as one of the Pac-12's most dangerous threats to simply outrun the opposition to the end zone by hauling in 33 career catches for 579 yards, an average of 17.5 yards per catch, and five scores to go along with three kickoff return touchdowns (and what seems like 28 others that were negated by penalties). The knee injury he suffered in the 2015 offseason was a grievous blow to UW's wide receiver depth, but signs are positive that he'll put on the pads in the fall while remaining every bit the speedster we remember.

This season's fresh faces will belong to wide receivers Jordan Chin (a 6-0, 151 lb. three-star receiver prospect out of Chaminade Prep in West Hills, Calif.), Aaron Fuller (a 5-11, 175 lb. three-star receiver out of Lovejoy High School in Allen, Texas) and Jacob Kizer (a 6-5, 235 lb. three-star tight end from West Salem (Ore.) High School). Considering the state of the depth chart as well as their readiness to contribute, I would imagine all three sit out 2015 to preserve their redshirt eligibility, but I wouldn't be shocked if Fuller earned his way onto the field.

Story Lines to Watch

Has JRIII lost a step?
Thanks to the trials and tribulations of Deontae Cooper, UW fans are more familiar than most with the challenges that come with recovering from knee injuries, and Husky Nation let out a collective sigh of exasperation when we learned last May that the electric John Ross III would miss the entire season after aggravating a knee injury during the team's spring practices. Head coach Chris Petersen shared some encouraging words when he remarked to Sports Radio KJR's Mitch Levy on Feb. 4 that Ross is virtually 100 percent, and it was encouraging to see Ross post the team's fastest hand-timed 40-yard dash at the Husky Combine, clocking in at 4.25 seconds. Still, it's one thing to overcome the physical aspect of rehabilitation, and quite another to clear the mental hurdle of trusting your ability to make a hard cut on a repaired joint. Neither we nor Ross himself will know the latter for sure until the lights come on. Until then, Coach Pete would rather see him remain upright.

Is Renfro due for a sophomore surge?
As is not unusual for freshmen, Isaiah Renfo had a slow start to his debut season but came on strong late in the year, hauling in nine of his 13 catches in the season's final seven contests. He's still looking for his first trip to the end zone, but the 6-1, 207 lb. receiver seems to be a good candidate to fill the gap left by the departed Jaydon Mickens. With a strong spring and fall camp, it's possible that he could become Browning's No. 2 or 3 target in 2016 alongside John Ross and Dante Pettis.

Will a certain local walk-on earn significant playing time?
It's not often that non-scholarship players see meaningful snaps at UW, but that trend could break in 2016 if former Bethel High School quarterback Jamon Jones plays his cards right. At 6-2, 227 lbs., Jones has the dimensions of a true wide-out that differentiate him from the many Husky receivers who fit more of the slot receiver role. If he's shown an aptitude at his new position, it is conceivable to think that he might earn a scholarship and become one of the offense's most valuable weapons on the perimeter by season's end.