The top two receivers of 2015 are gone. Only two players on the current roster have eclipsed 20 receptions in a season. Just two additional returning players have ever recorded a measly double-digit catch season. Guys that are no longer playing for the Huskies accounted for over 62 percent of the UW receiving yards last year. But this is college football; productive players move on. Upstarts looking to take advantage of newfound playing time have been waiting in the wings. Underclassmen coming off mildly productive seasons now find themselves as the seasoned veterans. And super-fast dudes come back from knee injuries.
Who’s Gone: Jaydon Mickens (58 rec, 692 yds); Joshua Perkins (36 rec, 539 yds); Marvin Hall (9 rec, 206 yds); Isaiah Renfro (13 rec, 178 yds).
Key returning: John Ross, Jr (17 rec, 371 yds in 2014); Dante Pettis, Jr (30 rec, 414 yds); Brayden Lenius, Jr (26 rec, 307 yds); TE Darrell Daniels, Sr (19 rec, 250 yds); Chico McClatcher, So (8 rec, 78 yds); TE Drew Sample, So (5 rec, 45 yds); Connor Griffin, Jr (1 rec, 9 yds).
2015 redshirts: Andre Baccellia (5’10", 166); Quinten Pounds (5’11", 178); TE Mike Neal (6'4", 229).
Incoming Freshmen: Jordan Chin (6’0", 151); Aaron Fuller (6’1" 177).
Before we go any further, I’m spoiling the verdict right now: Not Better.
Unlike other position groups where there is irrefutable evidence of last year’s core players coming back in numbers —the D-Line, the O-Line, Secondary, Quarterback, Running Back— the receiving positions cannot say that. If we call the 2016 receiver situation any better than neutral, we are totally just being homers.
Are we in agreement? Not better? Okay. Now, let’s punch some holes in that:
Based almost purely on potential, John Ross was largely being looked at as the #1 WR coming into 2015 before he elected to have knee surgery. At least as many people would have predicted him to lead the team in receiving versus Jaydon Mickens; in yards for sure. Of course ‘as long as he stays healthy’ will apply to him, but it applies to a lot of guys. The national media is in love with Ross and seems to think he will explode this year. We’ve been a little hesitant to jump on that and have been pooh-poohing the idea that he will be a mega-productive receiver because he has never caught more than 17 passes in a season. Looking a little closer at those numbers reveals two things:
- Ross had 16 catches as a true freshman, but all these guys all had 20 or more receptions that season: Austin Seferian-Jenkins (36), Kasen Williams (29 in eight games), Kevin Smith (50), Mickens (60), Damore'ea Stringfellow (20), and Bishop Sankey (28). Five of those guys are on NFL rosters and the other had over 500 yards and 5 TDs in the SEC last season. Ross was hardly considered a top option in the 2013 offense.
- Ross again failed to reach 20 receptions as a sophomore, but let’s not forget the move to defense necessitated by Marcus Peters’s dismissal. In the first 6 games he started at WR, Ross caught an average of 2.7 balls per game for 62 yards. Over the course of a full (regular) season that translates to 32 receptions for almost 750 yards. Seeing the numbers that way makes it more conceivable that he is capable of a jump to the 50-catch plateau.
As far as the very productive Josh Perkins is concerned, he was a good tight end. However, he wasn’t drafted. He was signed as a free agent by the Atlanta Falcons, but he’s not ASJ or Jerramy Stevens or Mark Bruener. The UW offense uses an athletic TE running stick-routes on the read option and the medium-deeper routes that Jake Browning is fantastic at throwing. Plug in a good player and he will be the beneficiary of those plays. Darrell Daniels—and possibly redshirt freshman Mike Neal—can do what Josh Perkins did. And what is Connor Griffin? Call him a wide receiver. Call him a hybrid. He is in line to make plays now that over 60% of last year’s Husky passing offense is up for grabs. Fact is, the tight end position is loaded this season with no less than five experienced players listed on the depth chart.
Chris Petersen had a little bit of a shit-eating grin on his face at media day when he was talking about wide receivers other than John Ross. They wanted to talk about Ross, he kept hinting about these "unsung" guys.
Does he mean spring darling Andre Baccellia? Is he talking about the steady Dante Pettis? 6’5" Brayden Lenius or 6’5" Nik Little? Is Chico McClatcher stepping right in for Mickens? We haven’t seen him catch the ball downfield much, but does that mean he cannot?
How about a guy who can get open, catch anything near him, and has the body control to get his feet down on the sideline like redshirt freshman Quinten Pounds? I admit to being particularly high on Pounds, but it’s due to his great receiver instincts including keeping defenders on his hip, coming back to the football, and adjusting his route when the quarterback begins to scramble. Remind me again: does Browning ever break the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield?
At this point, Pettis is the best wide receiver on the team based on what we have seen on the field the past two seasons. He has been durable, consistent, and definitely showed improved chemistry with Browning over the second half of 2015. He is also quietly very explosive. A betting man would probably say Pettis leads the team in receptions and Ross tallies the most yards. But when you talk floor vs. ceiling, a 60-catch year for Ross likely means an All Pac-12 season when you consider his YPC average and ability to score from distance. If Pettis catches 60 balls, it figures to be in more of a Mickens ‘solid season’ fashion.
The receiving core has been injected with youth in the coaching department with 29-year old Bush Hamdan replacing veteran Petersen assistant Brent Pease. Hamdan, a former Boise State quarterback, talks about being "fired up" and "bringing physical presence" to the position. I guess that beats saying "Meh, we’ll just go out there willy-nilly." It will be interesting to see if there are changes to where guys line up this year with the mix of new/returning talent and a new position coach.
The pieces are there as is the potential, but not much has been proven by players at the receiving positions for Washington. Will this group improve under a new coach? Perhaps simply the continued progression of Jake Browning and the offensive line will be enough to help this group perform better than last season.