The receiver position has been a point of contention among Husky fans for the last few years. During Chris Petersen’s tenure, the early breakout of John Ross and the steady productivity of Dante Pettis buoyed a position group that was otherwise a general disappointment. While the likes of Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia lacked high-end athleticism and game-breaking dynamism, they continued to get the lion’s share of snaps at the receiver position. The outcome was a fairly average offense- 43rd in the nation in SP+. The passing productivity under cannon-armed Jacob Eason looked an awful lot like it did under brains-over-brawn Jake Browning. The 2018 and 2019 vintages of the Husky offense were both competent, but left something to be desired.
Much has changed headed into the upcoming season. Will the Jimmy Lake/John Donovan pairing remain as deferential to experience? Will the younger receivers who are bigger and more athletic be able to master the offensive concepts that seemingly kept them lower on the depth chart in the past? Will the playbook change in a way that prioritizes different types of receivers? Let’s take a look at the roster to separate what we know from what we don’t.
Perhaps the most relevant number about the receiver position is 66.8%. That’s the percentage of pass routes run in 2019 that won’t be on the 2020 roster. The departures include the two most used receivers from last year’s team- Fuller and Baccellia. It also includes Chico McClatcher, Hunter Bryant (who was used more like a receiver than a TE for most of the year), and Salvon Ahmed. Regardless of where the pass catcher lines up, that leaves a lot of openings for different receivers in 2020.
Among the true receivers, Fuller led the team in virtually every stat. He ran the most routes (340), he was targeted the most (91), and led the receivers in catches, yards, and TDs (59, 702, 6). If those numbers feel a little uninspired for a #1 receiver, it’s because they are. Among the 54 players in the Pac-12 who had at least 100 receiving yards last year, Fuller’s 11.9 yards per catch ranked 29th, in the 47th percentile. Every other school in the conference had at least one receiver average over 13 yards per catch (Bryant averaged 15.9, but we will cover TEs in another post).
None of that is to say that Fuller was bad; he was just average. He came to UW as the #198 receiver recruit in his class. He chose UW over Houston and Boston College. He’s 5’11” and 188 lbs. He doesn’t have top-end speed or elusiveness (he forced missed tackles on 2.2% of his opportunities, the lowest rate among his position group). He is a solid route runner, a solid blocker, and has fairly steady hands (5.5% drop rate, 2nd best on the team). The whole profile adds up to… <shrug>. He’s fine. If he’s you’re #3 receiver, you’re in good shape. You can probably get by with him as your #2. He’d be great in a group of five conference. But as a #1 receiver on a Pac-12 team that expected to contend for the conference title, he was below standard. The production speaks for itself.
While that might be a lot to say about a departed receiver, Fuller was something of a symbol for the position group. Although the coaching staff never said so explicitly, their implication was that the offense was difficult to master and the younger receivers remained lower on the depth chart because the veterans understood the entirety of their roles. Nonetheless, the end results were not strong. If running the playbook correctly yields middling results, then either the players or the playbook need to change.
Most of the same critiques of Fuller also apply to Baccellia, but he doesn’t have the sure hands and averaged even fewer yards per catch. If Fuller was overmatched as a #1 receiver on a Pac-12 team, Baccellia probably didn’t belong on the field at all for a team on that level. Chico McClatcher had some big moments earlier in his career, but injuries robbed him of the explosiveness that made him special. He also struggled with ball security in his final season, and had trouble finding a steady role in the offense.
Even though the majority of the snaps last year went to receivers with less raw physical ability, the changes have already started beneath the surface. Those improvements have largely originated with improved recruiting classes over the last three years. We’ll talk about the returners below, but the most recent class might be the strongest yet.
The headliner of the 2020 receiving recruiting class is Jalen McMillan. He was the consensus #11 receiving prospect in the country and #67 overall. He had offers from some of the top programs in the country and eventually chose UW over Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and LSU. McMillan’s greatest strengths are his route running and speed, which earned him a comparison to Keenan Allen. He played four sports in high school and had D-I offers to play college baseball. Due to his sound technique, he should be able to contribute right away. At 6’2”, 182 lbs, McMillan has room on his frame to add muscle to compete against bigger DBs, but there’s not much that needs to change for him to make an immediate impact.
Rome Odunze might not be as refined as McMillan, but he has every bit as much physical upside. Odunze is the #39 receiver and #220 recruit in the country and played high school ball at powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. He has blistering speed and very good strength at 6’3”, 205 lbs. It might take a bit more time for Odunze to hit his ceiling because he still has room to improve his route running and hands, but the physical tools are a breath of fresh air for Husky fans who are tired of seeing overmatched receivers grinding out short gains. If there are any questions about Odunze, his list of offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, Miami, and others should put those fears to rest.
Lastly, the Huskies got a very early commitment from versatile in-state receiver Sawyer Racanelli. After a strong junior year that showed D-I potential on both sides of the ball, Racanelli tore his ACL last summer and missed his senior year. Those missed games hurt his overall recruiting rankings, but his size, strength, hands, and body control still make him a very intriguing prospect. Due to his injury recovery, he’s likely a year away from seeing meaningful playing time.
Despite losing so much overall production, the Huskies return many receivers who are interesting for very distinct reasons. Perhaps the most important returning receiver is Terrell Bynum. Playing mostly out of the slot, Bynum became the most productive Husky receiver toward the end of last season. After playing sparingly in the first half of the year, Bynum averaged 55 yards per game over the final six, including touchdowns in the Apple Cup and the Las Vegas Bowl. He offered a needed combination of consistency and play-making. Only Fuller and Cade Otton had a lower drop rate, but Bynum was much more prolific at breaking tackles and getting first downs. In fact, Bynum led the team in the percentages of his targets that resulted in a first down. Bynum doesn’t have the pure size or speed to break games open on his own, but he is more dynamic than Fuller. Unlike Fuller, he should be part of a more robust position group that won’t have to ask him to be something he’s not.
One of the biggest reasons Bynum won’t have to carry a disproportionate load is the return of Puka Nacua. Everything about Nacua has been exciting so far, from his blizzard-delayed live commitment to his penchant for acrobatic catches. Nacua finally worked his way into the regular rotation midway through the season and made a significant impact against Arizona and Oregon with 140 yards and a TD. Then, he broke his foot and missed the rest of the year. Have we ever had higher hopes for someone coming off a seven catch season? While Nacua offers a great ability to pull in tough catches and make plays with the ball in his hands, we heard about his “it” factor before he ever took the field. I’m typically skeptical of that sort of subjective description, but it’s hard to deny Nacua’s gravitational pull, and the early returns on the field bear that out. If Nacua can stay healthy in his sophomore year, he could have the best receiver season at UW since Dante Pettis was a Husky.
As I mentioned before, the improvement in receiver recruiting goes back at least a couple years. As highly-touted as McMillan was as a recruit, Marquis Spiker edged him out by a thousandth of a rating point for the honor of “top WR recruit since Kasen Williams.” Spiker needed to bulk up and refine his knowledge of the playbook. With two years and an extra 20 lbs under his belt, Spiker should be ready for more than a cameo in his RS-So season. Spiker’s classmate Austin Osborne is in a similar position. He came in as a four-star recruit and has the dubious distinction of having negative receiving yards through two seasons.
Ty Jones is in a very different spot from many of his younger classmates. Jones is a physical specimen at 6’4”, 210 lbs, and that stature got him on the field quickly in spite of some issues with drops. He played 11 games as a true freshman and became a regular starter as a sophomore in 2018. A wrist injury side-tracked him last year and he ultimately took a red shirt after playing in only four games. Jones had 491 yards and 6 TDs last time he played a full season. At a position where many of the players have little to no game experience, those accomplishments could mean something.
UW returns two other scholarship receivers. Jordan Chin saw a few deep balls thrown his way last season due to the lack of speed in the starting lineup, but he enters his senior year with several obstacles to a significant role. Likewise, Taj Davis was a red shirt last year and will enter his RS-Fr season likely to fill more of a depth role.
Position Battle to Watch
It seems likely that Nacua will take one starting receiver spot and Bynum will get the most reps in the slot. The race for the other outside receiver job appears to be wide open. A year ago, Jones would have been the presumptive starter. Three important factors have changed since then. One is that the younger players behind Jones have had an extra year of practice and development in the program to close the gap. The second is that Jones’s size is less unique with less diminutive receivers around him. Finally, the new offensive system means that Jones does not have an experience advantage with this specific playbook.
What does that all mean? It likely means that Jones, Spiker, Osborne, and McMillan will all compete for reps with the first team. Last year, eight players (including two TEs and a RB) saw double-digit targets. The TEs are unlikely to repeat last season’s 123 targets without Hunter Bryant across from Cade Otton, which opens up additional opportunities. Perhaps there will be enough targets to go around for all of Nacua, Bynum, Jones, Spiker, Osborne, and McMillan to be major contributors. It’s also possible that injuries or other factors will eliminate one or more players from contention. Ultimately, Jimmy Lake has repeatedly said on the record that he wants his offense to function in a way that can make the most of talented young players right away. It would be strange if he made that statement and didn’t put it into practice. That sentiment, combined with McMillan’s mature skill set, makes me believe that we’ll see a heavy dose of the talented freshman through the season, even if he’s not the third WR on the field for the first snap.
Projected Depth Chart
WR - Puka Nacua, Marquis Spiker
WR – Jalen McMillan, Ty Jones
Slot – Terrell Bynum, Austin Osborne
Which Receiver Will Have the 3rd Most Targets this Season?
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