Says former Husky All-American Mario Bailey: “This is the most fun I’ve had in years watching them. It all starts with John Ross. They’re scared of him.”
By now, everyone knows about Jake Browning. Entering Saturday’s game at No. 17 Utah, Washington’s sophomore quarterback ranks among the best in the nation in touchdown passes, quarterback rating and completion percentage.
The guys catching passes from him have also exceeded expectations for the No. 4 Huskies.
Juniors John Ross III and Dante Pettis, UW’s starting outside receivers, are two of the most productive pass-catchers in the Pac-12 Conference this season. Ross, with nine, and Pettis, with eight, have combined for 17 touchdown receptions, more than any other duo in the league.
Those numbers are all the more impressive when considering the Huskies throw the ball just 40 percent of the time. Their 185 passing attempts are almost exactly half as many as California (363 attempts), the conference’s top passing offense.
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“It definitely helps when your quarterback is playing like he is, but it goes both ways,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “Jake’s playing at a high level because those guys are making plays for him. They’ve been lights-out.”
Smith pointed to Pettis as one of the two most-improved players on the entire team, along with junior running back Lavon Coleman. As a sophomore in 2015, Pettis had 30 catches for 414 yards and one TD in 13 games. He’s surpassed almost every single one of those statistics in seven games this season, hauling in 27 passes for 457 yards and those eight TDs.
“Now,” Ross said, “they’ve got to worry about more than me and the running backs. They’ve also got to worry about him.”
In UW’s 41-17 rout of Oregon State last Saturday, Ross and Pettis each totaled more than 100 yards receiving, the first time the Huskies have had two receivers do that in the same game since 2002 (Reggie Williams and Patrick Reddick).
“This is the most fun I’ve had in years watching them,” former UW receiver Mario Bailey said. “It all starts with John Ross. They’re scared of him.”
Bailey, who set the school record with 18 touchdown receptions during his All-America season in 1991, has followed the Huskies closely this season. He said it’s too early to make any overarching comparisons to the ’91 national-championship team, but he freely concedes that this UW offense has more playmakers. This offense, averaging 48.3 points, is on track to break the scoring record of 41.9 points per game set by the ’91 team.
“What I’m seeing is what makes the good teams great — they’re competing against each other,” he added. “There’s a silent competition. And that’s a good, healthy competition because that makes everybody better. Who’s going to make the play? You don’t want to be on the other side when the other guy is making all the touchdowns. You don’t want to go over there and celebrate with him every time. People don’t talk about that, but that’s the truth. It’s like, you’ve got to celebrate with me sometimes.”
In his return from two major knee injuries that sidelined him for all of 2015, Ross has re-emerged as one of the most explosive players in college football. He returned his opening kickoff of the season 92 yards for a touchdown — Pettis said he predicted that would happen — and Ross’ 11 total TDs (including one rushing) are the most of any receiver in the nation.
Ross has been compared to former Cal receiver DeSean Jackson, and some are projecting him as a first-round NFL pick.
Bailey and Ross chatted occasionally during the buildup to this season, and Bailey watched UW’s summer one-on-one passing drills, happy to offer a few pointers here and there. Bailey also dangled his touchdown record as a carrot, and he admits he’s a little worried Ross — or Pettis — might catch up to it.
“Slow down, little buddy,” he messaged Ross after Ross’ three touchdowns in the 70-21 victory over Oregon.
Bush Hamdan, UW’s first-year receivers coach, didn’t have to manufacture motivation for this unit in the offseason, when the receivers were seen as perhaps a liability for the offense.
“For sure, before the season there were a lot of question marks at the position,” Hamdan said. “I didn’t feel like I had to create it this preseason. I tell those guys all the time, there really aren’t any pep talks for this type of season. Where we were when we started this thing, there was a natural edge, a buzz in the air. I felt those guys were tired of hearing it, and for all of us there was something to prove.”
Sophomore receiver Chico McClatcher, limited by a knee injury the past few weeks, is UW’s most versatile threat, and he leads a young crew that includes redshirt freshmen Andre Baccellia and Quinten Pounds and true freshman Aaron Fuller — all of whom have helped answer the many questions about the position.
“I wouldn’t say we took that (criticism) personally,” Pettis said, “but it was more like, ‘OK, we know what can do. Nobody else thinks we can. Let’s just go out and show ’em.’”
And it doesn’t look like they’ll be slowing down any time soon.