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Spring Position Previews: Wide Receiver

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We don’t know what we don’t know

Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl - Washington v Boise State Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

A prediction is, essentially, an educated guess. The guess is educated because the guesser gets to use data to inform that guess. The data is drawn from prior experience, statistics, anecdotes, and the like. What happens when that pool of data dries up due to a confluence of nearly impossible factors? With a new offense, a freshman quarterback, a shortened season, a dearth of practice reports, and a big old pile of roster churn, that’s the situation in which we find ourselves regarding the UW receiver group.

A couple decades ago, Donald Rumsfeld- who is easily one of the 100 greatest Defense Secretaries of my lifetime- made a logic soup out of known knowns and known unknowns. Sadly, that’s the situation that this receiving corps is now in, so let’s let Rummy guide us through the Spring Preview.

Known Known

There is only one known known on the roster, and that’s senior slot receiver Terrell Bynum. Headed into his senior season, Bynum has established himself as a steady pass catcher who can make big plays on occasion. He lined up in the slot over 80% of the time last season, so even though his 6’1, 190 lb frame compares reasonably well to some outside options, he’s likely to spend the majority of his time inside. It might come as a surprise to hear that Bynum only caught 8 passes on 15 targets, but that’s what happens when the team plays a four game schedule, he misses one, and the offense leans heavily toward the run. More encouragingly, Bynum trailed only Cade Otton and the departed Puka Nacua with 1.94 yards per route run. Altogether, the receiving corps is filled with uncertainty and Bynum appears to be the one predictable element.

Known Unknowns

Nacua’s unexpected transfer late in the offseason further disrupted an already uncertain depth chart. Moreover, Ty Jones leaving for a bigger role in the Mountain West took away a proven option with size and strength. Without the top returning receiver, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze will likely receive ample opportunities to live up to their recruiting pedigrees early in their careers. While McMillan was the higher-rated recruit, Odunze made more of an impact in his truncated true freshman season. For someone known as a burner, Odunze made more of an impact in the intermediate part of the field, snagging three of his six catches in the central-mid part of the field. Meanwhile, McMillan only received five targets, but three of them travelled at least 20 yards in the air. Neither one will have the luxury of being a specialist in year two.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Stanford at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like McMillan and Odunze, Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne came into the program together as highly-touted prospects. Now entering their junior seasons, neither player has made the expected impact so far. In fact, transfer rumors swirled around both for most of the winter, but as of now, it appears that both will remain at UW with fewer obstacles to enhanced roles. At 6’3 and 200 lb, Spiker cuts the figure of the physical receiver the Dawgs need on the outside. He saw a fair amount of action in 2019, but didn’t get on the field in 2020. Is his lack of opportunity a reflection of his skill, or will he break out when given the opportunity? Most of the same comments apply to Osborne, though he did see the field in the blowout win over Arizona. If one of these two lives up to their initial hype, it will resolve a lot of the depth questions about the receiving group.

There is a group even further down on the depth chart that could still produce contributors. Sophomore Taj Davis opted out last year, but returns to provide needed depth at the position. Sawyer Racanelli missed his freshman season rehabbing a knee injury. He is one of the bigger and more physical receivers on the team so he could carve out a role for himself.

Unknown Unknowns

Ja’Lynn Polk essentially filled Nacua’s spot on the roster when he transferred from Texas Tech after his freshman year. Polk went to high school with UW’s Caleb Berry, which gave him some familiarity with the coaching staff. Polk mostly played in the slot at Texas Tech and put up strong numbers- 28 catches for 264 yards in seven starts. If Polk can diversify his performance and excel on the outside, he immediately joins McMillan and Odunze as prime candidates to complement Bynum.

Texas v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Finally, Jabez Tinae enters the program as a freshman from Kennedy Catholic. Behind Bynum and Polk, Tinae gives the Dawgs an embarrassment of riches in the slot, but a need for more proven performance outside. UW just missed on a handful of other WR targets (notably, five-star recruits Emeka Egbuka and Troy Franklin), so it falls on Tinae to carry the class.

Summary

At first glance, it might look like a problem to lose Nacua and Jones while only adding Polk and Tinae, who essentially fall behind Bynum in the slot depth chart. While it’s true that the overall receiving corps has less experience than it looked like it would at the end of last season, that scholarship allocation might better fit the offensive system the Huskies want to utilize. With a run-heavy approach and multiple tight ends on many snaps, there’s less of a need for experience for the fifth, sixth, and seventh receivers than there would be in an Air Raid system. Likewise, those depth pieces would need playing time to develop and remain invested, so a smaller corps might prove to be a better fit.

Nonetheless, it’s not just the depth pieces that are unproven. UW simply does not have a proven #1 receiving option (other than TE Cade Otton). There are multiple players who could rise to the opportunity. Until we see one or more of them emerge, there’s an understandable feeling of uncertainty in the position.