The most important player on any college football team, we all know, is its starting quarterback. It might be the most important position in sports. And certainly, without Jake Browning, the Washington Huskies would not have won 12 games last season, or won the Pac-12 championship, or played in the College Football Playoff.
But if a receiver could ever mean as much to his team as the guy throwing him the ball, that was John Ross III last season for the Huskies. His speed, of course — you may have heard something about a record-breaking, 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in early March — made him the league’s premier deep threat, and it helped him catch 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the country.
Ross turned slightly-underthrown passes into dazzling touchdown receptions (see UW at California, 2016). Against Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game, Ross made a leaping, one-handed catch of a pass Browning was trying to throw away, and turned it into a 19-yard score. He juked star USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson so badly that Jackson fell down and Ross zipped past him for an easy touchdown grab. His red-zone touchdown catches against Oregon were elite-level stuff. He was everything a quarterback could ever want. And he wasn’t so bad at returning kicks, either.
But Ross also helped open the passing game to create opportunities for others. Dante Pettis thrived as the No. 2 option behind Ross, catching 53 passes for 822 yards and 15 touchdowns of his own. Chico McClatcher found a role as a speedy inside-receiver-and-occasional-ballcarrier who caught 31 passes for 574 yards, and took 18 carries for 131 yards. Darrell Daniels and Aaron Fuller caught double-digit passes, too.
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To be sure, Browning’s development and newfound pre-snap autonomy — an area in which he excels — added a different element to Washington’s offense last season. It helped Browning tie the single-season Pac-12 record with 43 touchdown passes and win league Offensive Player of the Year honors.
But Ross’ presence certainly helped, too, even when he wasn’t catching and running with the ball.
“He ran a 4.2, so everybody is worried about him going deep,” Pettis said. “The safety will move over to the other side. He has two people on him at all times. The defense is always worried if he’s going to take them up top, so he obviously takes a lot of pressure off whoever’s on the opposite side of him.”
For all the offensive talent that UW will return in 2017 — Browning, Pettis, McClatcher and tailbacks Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman plus three full-time starting offensive linemen — there can be no true replacement for Ross.
But the Huskies hope to at least replace his production, and they seem to think they have the pieces necessary to again assemble a diverse passing attack. They just need those guys to assume more important roles. The spring preview at noon on Saturday at Husky Stadium is the public’s first chance to see what UW’s receiver group looks like post-Ross.
That effort begins with Pettis, who enters his senior season as the team’s clear-cut No. 1 receiver. He established himself last season as a legitimate playmaker, a fine complement opposite Ross on the outside.
He figures to receive far more attention from opposing defensive backs in 2017 with Ross gone. Same goes for McClatcher, whose speed and versatility — he’s likely to play more on the outside this season, he said — could make him an asset (though he’s been limited by injury in recent practices).
“Ross was a great player, (and) no one can replace him. But for us, what can we do as a group to be better than last year?” McClatcher said. “What little things can we improve on to execute well on the field?”
Fuller is back as a sophomore. So are tight end Drew Sample and receivers Andre Baccellia and Quinten Pounds, all of whom played and caught passes last season. Also back is fourth-year junior Brayden Lenius, who redshirted last season but has impressed at times during spring practices, and Jordan Chin, a redshirt freshman. Two freshmen — Terrell Bynum and Alex Cook — will compete for playing time in fall camp, and another true freshman, Ty Jones, has already enrolled and is participating. Oklahoma transfer K.J. Young returns after redshirting last season, but has been injured most of spring.
The group is again getting used to a new instructor, first-year receivers coach Matt Lubick, their third position coach in three years. But UW coach Chris Petersen has raved about Lubick’s perspective, and the former Oregon assistant seems to like what he has inherited.
“I think the guys that have coached them before me have done a great job of installing work habits and creating a great culture of guys that want to work hard and get better,” Lubick said earlier this spring. “They’ve been awesome.”
Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith acknowledges that Ross “demanded a certain type of coverage” and played a style that “you can’t exactly replicate. But he hopes the rest of the receivers view Ross’ departure as a personal challenge.
“You’ve got to find other ways to create offense,” Smith said. “Other guys feel like, ‘I’ve got to step up my game,’ to find that other offense, those yards, those points. So that’s the approach among everybody — yeah, next year, the guys that are returning (are thinking) ‘I’ve got to step up my game.’ ”