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Fall Camp Position Preview- Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

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Young Dawgs Can Push Veteran Huskies on Washington Depth Chart

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Husky pass catchers make up the most volatile position-group on the 2019 roster. With nearly the entire depth chart back from last year, it might seem like the unit should be easy to project. Instead, questions about the receivers abound. How will the gameplan change with a new QB- likely one with a very different playing style? What will be the in-game impact of a new position coach? Will the underperforming starters from last year take a step forward with more development time under their collective belt? Will the touted redshirt class make an impact a year after many fans hoped they would show up? Will prized recruit Puka Nacua see much of the field as a true freshman? Will Hunter Bryant consistently function as the needed big play threat he showed he could be late last season?

Let’s get into it.

Roster Breakdown

Receivers

Name Height Weight Class
Name Height Weight Class
Aaron Fuller 5’11 183 Sr
Ty Jones 6’4 209 Jr
Andre Baccellia 5’10 175 Sr (rs)
Chico McClatcher 5’8 184 Sr (rs)
Terrell Bynum 6’1 198 So (rs)
Quinten Pounds 6’0 179 Sr (rs)
Jordan Chin 6’0 174 Jr (rs)
Marquis Spiker 6’3 192 Fr (rs)
Austin Osborne 6’2 198 Fr (rs)
Trey Lowe 5’8 183 Fr (rs)
Puka Nacua 6’2 196 Fr
Taj Davis 6’1 192 Fr
David Pritchard 6’0 172 Fr (rs) (wo)
Fatu Sua-Godinet 5’11 187 Jr (wo)

Tight Ends

Name Height Weight Class
Name Height Weight Class
Hunter Bryant 6’2 241 Jr
Cade Otton 6’5 250 So (rs)
Jacob Kizer 6’4 264 Jr
Devin Culp 6’3 265 Fr (rs)
Jack Westover 6’3 237 Fr (rs) (wo)
Zeke Pelluer 6’5 226 Fr (wo)
Carson Smith 6’4 236 Fr (wo)

That’s a lot of players! Twelve scholarship wide receivers is a lot! Part of the reason this position group is so deep is that the upper-classmen have not excelled to this point. Since John Ross and Dante Pettis left the program, nobody has emerged to take their place. That has led to an emphasis on receiver recruiting coupled with a lack of early departures for the NFL and a very full position group (essentially five in, one out over the last two years).

It’s easy to see the change in philosophy as the Huskies have improved their overall recruiting baseline. Five of the six receivers who are at least 6’1, 190 lbs are under-classmen, meaning the coaching staff has intentionally shifted from finding undervalued recruits to targeting the sort of receiver prototypes that top programs employ. To that end, 2018 recruit Marquis Spiker was the #59 recruit in the country (#9 WR) and both Osborne and Lowe were solid 4-star recruits. Last year, Nacua rated just outside the national top 100 (#22 WR). Early 2020 commit Jalen McMillan is #50 nationally (#9 WR). The talent level is changing, but will the output on the field change, as well?

The tight end position is significantly more settled. Without an incoming scholarship freshman, the players are mostly known quantities. The coaches brought Hunter Bryant back into the lineup with five games to go rather than holding him out one more game to preserve his redshirt. That decision indicates the coaches think he will leave for the NFL after this season and the extra year of eligibility won’t matter. With Bryant’s matchup advantages, it’s no surprise that he has an eye on the next level. Otton and Kizer do yeoman’s work as hybrid blocker/pass-catchers. Culp redshirted last year, but should get a chance to rotate onto the field. He profiled as a more advanced pass-catcher than blocker coming out of high school, but the Husky scheme will likely require him to do both.

Playing Time Decisions

It’s no great secret that the Husky passing attack eroded from its high point in 2016. Jake Browning’s passing touchdowns declined from 43 to 19 to 16 over that span, and his adjusted yards per attempt dropped from 9.9 to 8.6 to 7.9. Several factors contributed to the degradation, but the receiver play was high on the list.

Aaron Fuller started last year as Browning’s #1 option. He excelled in the early going with four 100-yard games in the first six. He fell off severely, though, and didn’t have a single 100-yard game in the second half of the year. His lack of production was a major factor in the losses to Oregon and Cal- he totaled three catches for 38 yards in those two games. He finished strong with 80 yards in the Rose Bowl, but the overall profile did not have the consistency of a #1 receiver. It appeared that Fuller’s drop coincided with defenses becoming more physical with him and ensuring that he didn’t have free run to open areas in the zone. With his small stature, Fuller will have to show that he has developed the ability to get more separation against d-backs or catch contested balls. So far, his limitations in those areas has made him more of a complementary piece.

The other two returning starters- Jones and Baccellia- also showed the ability to perform at a level commensurate with a conference champion, but neither did it consistently. Jones is the one upper-classman with prototypical size and even the conservative-minded Browning was more willing to throw to Jones while covered. He made some excellent catches and also disappeared for long stretches (four games with exactly one catch). If Jacob Eason indeed becomes the starter and is willing to take more risks, Jones could be one of the prime beneficiaries.

Baccellia is a different sort of player. He’s a smaller receiver who tends to catch the ball closer to the line of scrimmage and accumulate yards after catch. If that sounds a lot like Chico McClatcher, then it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Baccellia found his groove in the last quarter of the season when McClatcher was out. With Chico back in the fold, they’ll likely share slot time (perhaps with Trey Lowe). McClatcher looked good at times when he played last year, showing some of the burst he lost with his gruesome leg injury, but he also struggled to hold onto the ball, which made him a net negative. Hopefully, some additional recovery time will get him back to the level of solid contribution he showed earlier in his career.

That does it for the established wide receivers. Although they have shown flashes of competence, they all have at least one major weakness that will likely prevent them from ever becoming a true #1 receiver (Jones’s hands, Fuller’s lack of separation, Baccellia’s size). As mentioned earlier, the players behind them likely come with a higher pedigree. In addition to the obvious size difference noted above, look at the differences in recruiting rankings between the established receivers from the last two years and the top five successors behind them:

Established vs. Non-Established WRs

Name Rtg Stars Pos Rank
Name Rtg Stars Pos Rank
Andre Baccellia 0.8503 3 108
Aaron Fuller 0.8311 3 198
Ty Jones 0.9079 4 34
Chico McClatcher 0.8757 3 57
average 0.86625 3.25 99.25
Terrell Bynum 0.9105 4 32
Marquis Spiker 0.9703 4 9
Austin Osborne 0.918 4 39
Puka Nacua 0.9404 4 136
Trey Lowe 0.9094 4 43
average 0.92972 4 51.8

[Note: Bynum falls somewhere between the two groups because he is a redshirt sophomore and has seen some playing time, but he has yet to become a regular part of the full-time rotation. McClatcher and Lowe were both rated as all-purpose backs, so their position rankings reflect where their overall ratings would have placed them as receivers.]

Suffice to say, the younger receivers were perceived as a different caliber of player than the more experienced ones when they entered college. Rumors emerged after the season that departed position coach Matt Lubick preferred to hold the younger players out of the rotation to give them more seasoning in practice. Does that mean they could have made a difference if they played last year? There’s no way for us to know, especially without seeing them play in practices. Fall camp will tell us a great deal, not only about the progress of players like Spiker and Bynum, but the coaching staff’s willingness to integrate them into the regular rotation.

In the big picture, I believe at least one or two of the latter group will become substantively more productive than anyone on the first list. I don’t know if that will happen this year and I don’t know if they will even get the opportunity this year.

The tight end picture is considerably clearer. Bryant’s size and speed make him almost impossible for either a linebacker or a d-back to cover. He totaled 238 yards in only five games and became progressively more involved and productive in his abbreviated season. If Bryant plays a full season, he is the best bet to lead the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. While nobody wants him to leave early, everyone would love to see him put up the kind of season that would make it an easy decision to enter the draft (we hate to see him go, but we love watching him leave). Otton, Kizer, and Culp should rotate through as hybrid tight ends. The Huskies have had one of these outlet tight ends total about 250-300 yards each of the last three years (Drew Sample, Will Dissly, Darrell Daniels) and one of this group is likely to fill that same role.

There’s another significant variable that will impact the passing game that is outside the control of any of the receivers listed here. After four years of Jake Browning, Washington fans might take his style of play as a given- uninspiring arm strength, solid ability to read a defense, and a preference for finding receivers who are already open rather than throwing into coverage. If Jake Haener upsets Eason in the QB competition, we can probably expect an offense that looks fairly similar to the Browning years. If Eason indeed wins out, not only will we see more deep balls, we’ll see more balls to the sidelines and bullets into tighter coverage. That profile likely benefits Jones and several of the younger receivers who are bigger, more athletic, and can beat defenders physically.

Another complicating factor is that Chris Petersen has never coached a QB like Eason. National top-10 prospects were not an option at Boise, and he has erred on the side of brains-over-brawn when forced to choose. One would expect Petersen and his staff to make the most out of new weapons like Eason’s arm and the receivers’ size/speed combination. For a coaching staff that has historically tended to be conservative in nature, will it take time to put those weapons on the field? And when they are on the field, will the play calls utilize them to their fullest? These are questions we can’t answer until we see them play out on the field, which is precisely why this position group is both volatile and fascinating.