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Fall Camp Preview: the receiving corps looks to become a strength

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Has the missing piece finally been found?

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Dante Pettis looks to lead an emerging unit of WRs this fall.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when our receiving situation was in disarray? Since Chris Petersen’s arrival, it seems like it was just one question after another with UW’s beleaguered WRs.

  • Why isn’t Kasen Williams being featured more?
  • What’s with this kid Lenius?
  • Is John Ross a receiver or a DB?
  • Why hasn’t Kendyl Taylor taken the next step? or Marvin Hall?
  • Will we ever use Darrell Daniels as he should be used?
  • Is Isaiah Renfro ever coming back?
  • Why can’t we recruit bigs for the perimeter?

Though it’s only been three seasons, those questions seemed to underpin the offensive foundation that Petersen and Jonathan Smith had been laying all along. That the program has undergone unusual turnover - three receiver coaches in three seasons - has only amplified consternation among fans that we might actually be wasting the talents of star QB Jake Browning while the coaches try to figure it out.

But figure it out they may have finally done. Could 2017 be the year of the receiver? Obviously, that is the question that is on everyone’s mind as they look for answers out of this fall camp. It is also the theme of today’s camp preview.

Who’s Gone

John Ross (5’11”, 190 lbs): 81 recs, 1150 yds, 17 TDs, 14.2 YPC
Darrell Daniels (6’4”, 245 lbs): 17 recs, 307 yds, 3 TDs, 18.1 YPC
Jeff Lindquist (6’3”, 245 lbs): 1 rec, -2 yds

In many ways, UW was pretty lucky last season. They were able to generate outstanding production out of their receivers based on two key factors: explosive plays (in particular, yards after the catch) and low drop rates. Inherent in all this was outstanding overall unit fitness, Chico McClatcher’s minor injury notwithstanding.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington
John Ross leaves a gaping hole in the UW receiving corps.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Noteworthy, though, is that 50% of UW’s receptions made by a receiver flowed through John Ross, Dante Pettis and McClatcher. And, while two of those three return, Ross’s 81 catches and 17 TDs will not be replaced by one player alone.

UW also graduates a pair of tight ends. Darrell Daniels, despite never really becoming the receiving threat most envisioned when he was recruited, still finished as UW’s fourth-leading receiver with 17 catches for 300+ yards and 3 TDs a year ago. His ability to stretch the field and occupy safeties was clearly a factor in generating explosive plays.

Also gone is former QB Jeff Lindquist whose one catch for -2 yards will probably be covered satisfactorily. I jest, but I do it in good nature as I think we’d all agree that there hasn’t been a finer OKG to have ever graced our sidelines.

Who’s Back

JR Dante Pettis (6’1”, 195 lbs): 53 recs, 822 yds, 15.5 ypc, 15 TDs
JR Chico McClatcher (5’7”, 180 lbs): 31 recs, 574 yds, 18.5 ypc, 5 TDs
SO Aaron Fuller (5’10”, 190 lbs): 16 recs, 184 yds, 11.50 ypc, 2 TDs
JR Drew Sample (6’5”, 265 lbs): 9 recs, 106 yds, 11.7 ypc
SO Andre Baccellia (5’10”, 170 lbs): 7 recs, 98 yds 14.0 ypc, 1 TD
SO Quinten Pounds (5’11”, 175 lbs): 6 recs 86 yds, 14.3 ypc, 1 TD
SR Will Dissly (6’4”, 270 lbs): 4 recs, 47 ypc, 11.7 ypc, 1 TD
SR David Ajamu (6’5”, 245 lbs): 1 rec, 4 yds
JR Brayden Lenius (6’5”, 230 lbs): redshirt
FR Jordan Chin (5’11”, 170 lbs): redshirt
SO Michael Neal (6’4”, 240 lbs)

The Huskies return a lot of bodies in 2017. In normal years, that would minimize the amount of intrigue surrounding a position unit going into fall camp.

But this is not a normal year and the intrigue is palpable.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
Chico McClatcher’s time is coming.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The graduations of Ross and Daniels - the top players in the WR and TE positions respectively - means that there are new roles that need to be defined and new pecking orders to be established.

It might not equal the palace intrigue taking place at the White House, but it is intrigue nonetheless.

Dante Pettis is the clear leader now and the only question remaining for him this fall is about how he assumes that mantle. His partner in crime, Chico McClatcher, will have to assume a more productive role this season, whether it be out of the slot or the backfield, in order to take some prssure off of Pettis. UW fans will be watching for progress there.

The other two big questions that we hope to see some answers to involve who will emerge as the other perimeter receiver and whether or not we start to see more production out of the pass receiving side of the tight end position.

To the former, the candidate pool among returning players is thin. If Brayden Lenius isn’t ready to take a major leap forward, the question will quickly turn to one of the smaller players and whether or not they have enough of a complete game - catching, blocking, route running - to effectively play outside. Your candidate pool there is Fuller, Baccellia and Pounds.

There isn’t a real clear breakout candidate to fill Daniels’ role from the tight end grouping. Dissly and Sample are clear “block first” kinds of guys. Ajamu has some versatility but most likely is what he is going to be after struggling with injury for much of his tenure. That leaves sophomore Michael Neal, a former 4 star recruit, as the returner who will have our attention this fall. Neal did not get into a game last year which might be an indicator of where he was in his development. We’ll get a good sense of whether or not he’s ready to play meaningful snaps over the course of the next four weeks.

Who’s New

FR Terrell Bynum 4*(6’1”, 185lbs)
FR Ty Jones 4* (6’4”, 210 lbs)
FR Alex Cook 3* (6’1”, 185 lbs)
FR Jacob Kizer 3* (6’4”, 245 lbs)
FR Hunter Bryant 4* (6’2”, 240 lbs)

This is probably the most prolific class of pass-catching threats that UW has landed since the Daniels / Ross / Damore’ea Stringfellow class of 2013. Someone out of this group - if not everyone - is going to be an all-conference type of player. The question for this camp is really more about who might emerge as a contributor.

It is difficult to see a scenario where every one of these true freshmen redshirts. There are simply too many opportunities to fill. Thus, I expect that we’ll see a very spirited effort among each of them to carve out a niche for themselves before the season opens.

Clearly, there is potential. Bryant is really a receiver in a TE’s body. Jones has the kind of physical skills that UW needs right now. Bynum might be too dynamic with the ball in his hands a la John Ross to ignore. Even RB Salvon Ahmed is making his own waves as a receiver early in camp. But all of this potential has to be proven during the grind of training camp.

One Key Storyline

The pecking order and rotational depth issues noted above are fascinating and will provide for plenty of fall camp suspense. The storyline that intrigues me the most, however, is how all of the passing game gels with this receiving corps in place.

NCAA Football: Sacramento State at Washington
Birds of a feather.
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Browning clearly made John Ross his safety blanket during his record-setting campaign last season. With that gone and with no clear game-breaker teed up to take his place, the passing game by definition has to evolve. More players are going to have to emerge as pass catching threats while Browning has to become more comfortable spreading the passing game like peanut butter across the entire slice of the offense’s bread.

Can that happen? Can Browning take his game to the next level by elevating the performances of the other receivers on the roster not named John Ross or Dante Pettis? Can UW’s pass offense be just as much of a threat as it was a year ago through the integration of more passing options into the game plan?

This is the most intriguing storyline for me when it comes to the passing game. We’ll get our first indications of the answers to these questions as early as this week.

Conclusion

UW’s receiving corps is a work in progress, but one whose trajectory is clearly on the upswing. The next few weeks will help to define roles and offer significant clues as to where the future of the program is headed.