Says Husky QB Jake Browning of his speedy junior receiver: “I think the next level for him is being able to know, ‘Here’s how I need to get open.’ Feeling his space. Being able to pull up in certain areas ...”
Unbeknownst to him, Chico McClatcher repeated what his predecessor, John Ross III, said last year when asked what he needs to improve upon entering his third season with the Washington football team.
“I got to slow down, man,” the junior slot receiver said this week. “And for a fast guy like me, that can be hard. But I need to if I’m going to take that next step and be a complete receiver.
“I never really ran routes. I was just running fast to wherever I can get to. But in Year 3, I’m more detailed at wide receiver and in the slot. I’m learning how to run routes in zone coverage and against press man.”
Standing in same hallway beneath Husky Stadium, Ross made a similar observation last August before a remarkable junior season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“I used to think that all I had was speed,” said Ross, who named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press and was an ESPN first-team All-American. “If I’m faster than the guy in front of me, then I’m going to win every time. But that’s what the DBs have already identified me as — the fast guy.
“So they’re trying to take away the fast part of my game. … I can’t be a guy out there running fast and catching passes. I’ve got to learn how to be a receiver. And to be honest, I’m nowhere close to where I need to be with that.”
Ross, arguably the fastest player in UW history, ran 40 yards in a record 4.22 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in March before being selected ninth overall in the draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Meanwhile, McClatcher ran 4.45 seconds in the 40 during the Husky Combine workout in March. Only running back Jomon Dotson (4.38) and cornerback Jordan Miller and receiver Andre Baccellia, who were both clocked at 4.39, produced faster times.
“I’m pretty fast,” McClatcher said, smiling. “I’m fast enough.”
No one doubts that. Certainly not Jake Browning, UW’s record-breaking quarterback who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting last season.
“What Chico was doing his freshman year was going 110 mph,” Browning said. “He’s obviously really fast and … he’s good with the ball in his hands.
“But I think the next level for him is being able to know, ‘Here’s how I need to get open.’ Feeling his space. Being able to pull up in certain areas and just growing as a receiver. He has all the tools for it. The more reps he gets, the more he’s learning when to pull up and all that.”
McClatcher, a 5-foot-7, 181-pound Federal Way native, made the switch from running back to slot receiver as a freshman in 2015 when he played every game and totaled 885 all-purpose yards (582 kick returns, 153 rushing, 78 receiving and 72 punt returns).
Admittedly, McClatcher still struggles to identify defensive schemes.
“Recognizing how to run routes versus zone or man (is) something that a lot of receivers struggle with, especially him coming from running back,” said senior receiver Dante Pettis, who had 53 catches, 822 yards and 15 TDs last season. “He’s still hasn’t fully gotten it down yet. He’s getting better at it, but I think that’s the thing he could really improve on.”
Last season, the Huskies increased McClatcher’s role in the passing game (31 receptions for 574 yards and 5 TDs). His rushing yards fell to 131, and he didn’t log a return on special teams.
McClatcher proved to be invaluable on third-down situations and established himself as a big-play threat who led the Pac-12 with 18.5 yards per catch.
However, his production dipped dramatically in the second half of the season after suffering a knee injury Sept. 30 against Stanford.
McClatcher sat out the following week and played sparingly in the next game against Oregon State. While playing with a knee brace for the first time in his football career, he had just four catches for 98 yards in the next three games.
“I really lost confidence in my play because I wasn’t feeling as agile,” McClatcher said. “I wasn’t feeling quick or fast enough. I did as much as I could with my knee brace on, but it was kind of uncomfortable running in that thing.”
Against Arizona State, McClatcher turned a short pass into a 75-yard reception on Nov. 19, which signaled he was getting healthy. The next week in the Apple Cup, he produced perhaps his best game as a receiver when he caught a personal-best six passes for 80 yards.
It was the high point of a season in which he finished with a combined three catches for 5 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game and the College Football Playoff semifinal.
“I’m 100 percent healthy,” McClatcher said. “I’m feeling good. My body is feeling good. I did a lot of preparation in the offseason. I worked on my flexibility and my speed.”
He also spent countless hours watching Ross’ highlights, studying video of opposing defenses and anticipating a bigger role in an offense that led the Pac-12 in scoring last season.
The McClatcher-Ross comparisons will persist throughout the season, and McClatcher’s ability to mimic his predecessor likely will play a major role in Washington’s chase for a national title.
“I try to keep it more simple,” he said. “John Ross was a great player for us last year, but I just want to play my type of game. I may not do it like him. And I might. I don’t know.
“But any way that you can get me the ball, I’m going to make sure you get an explosive play out of it.”