They are known in football parlance as “50-50 balls,” and Washington Huskies receivers coach Bush Hamdan says there are about seven or eight of them in each fall camp practice.
They are exactly the kind of passes that Washington’s receivers too often struggled to corral last season — throws into tight, one-on-one coverage that are just as likely to be caught by the receiver as they are to fall incomplete or be intercepted.
How much the Huskies improve on such 50-50 catch opportunities could dictate how much better UW’s offense can be this season.
“It’s either a jump ball on a deeper route, (or) it’s a slant route where both guys are coming after it,” Hamdan said. “So we make a huge emphasis there, and just from everything we’re doing, continue to emphasize separation and attacking the football.”
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UW head coach Chris Petersen lamented last season that his receivers had a hard time catching passes that weren’t thrown perfectly, or catching passes when they weren’t wide open — problems that were particularly unwelcome with true freshman Jake Browning starting at quarterback.
“I didn’t think we made enough game-changing plays,” said junior Dante Pettis, UW’s most experienced returning receiver. “Or when it was crunch time, I don’t think we showed up as well as we wanted to.”
At season’s end, Petersen fired receivers coach Brent Pease and promoted Hamdan, a former Boise State quarterback who worked as a quality control assistant at UW last season. Hamdan’s high-energy approach emphasizes playing with “an edge,” and he says that begins at the line of scrimmage.
“Aside from catching the football and running the route, I think that’s probably the biggest thing we’ve got to work on every single day,” he said. “These days, you see a lot of press coverage from everybody. So it’s like, the days of just being able to run routes with guys off you are long gone, and we’ve got to be able to get off the ball.”
Hamdan said that’s particularly important for players with top-end speed, such as Pettis, fourth-year junior John Ross and redshirt freshman Quinten Pounds, because they can open up underneath routes by getting open deep down field.
“I think the No. 1 thing is getting those guys to compete,” Hamdan said. “Things aren’t always going to be perfect. We’re trying to find those guys — maybe the coverage changes on them, (or) the corner uses a technique they’re not used to — (who) can play through that and continue to make plays.”
And the Huskies likely will need some younger players to fit that description. Pettis had modest numbers last season — 30 catches for 414 yards — but he is UW’s top returning pass-catcher. Junior Brayden Lenius and sophomore Chico McClatcher are the only other UW receivers who saw significant playing time last season, and Ross hasn’t played receiver since halfway through the 2014 season.
So Pettis points to players such as Pounds — who played three games last season before injuring his knee and being forced to redshirt — and redshirt freshman Andre Baccellia as new faces who could contribute this season.
Oklahoma transfer K.J. Young, a junior who joined the team just before the start of fall camp, looks “pretty smooth” so far, Pettis said, though Hamdan said Young’s conditioning isn’t yet where it needs to be.
But anyone who can make the kind of plays the Huskies didn’t make often enough last season is likely to see the field.
“That’s really what receiver is. At the end of the day, once the quarterback throws the ball, it’s up to you to make the play,” Pettis said. “No matter where the DB is, where the ball is, the quarterback trusts you and you’ve got to make the play.”