University of Washington

What does ‘the next step’ look like for Huskies’ wide receivers?

Aaron Fuller talks about Huskies’ wide receivers

Washington senior Aaron Fuller talks about the Huskies' wide receivers ahead of Saturday's opener against Eastern Washington.
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Washington senior Aaron Fuller talks about the Huskies' wide receivers ahead of Saturday's opener against Eastern Washington.

Washington’s wide receivers don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what Aaron Fuller calls outside noise.

They’ll occasionally hear the criticism, usually because someone shared a link to a story or a tweet. While they don’t talk much about what’s being said, they can’t block it out completely.

Some of those words get through.

“Right now, there’s talk that we’re not that great,” Fuller said after practice on Wednesday. “Now we’re carrying that edge on our shoulder, trying to prove people wrong.”

Much of the outside concern stems from the receiving corps’ struggle to find consistency in 2018. UW averaged 12.6 passing yards per completion, which ranked 52nd in the country. The Huskies also finished the year with just two passes of 50 yards or more. And the red-zone offense had its own issues. UW scored a touchdown on just 56.5 percent of its trips to the red zone last season. In comparison, it converted 66.7 percent of its red-zone appearances into touchdowns in 2017.

So while UW returned all its top contributors and added some new talent, head coach Chris Petersen hesitated during his press conference on Monday to call it deepest receiving group he’s coached.

“I’m thinking about that word: deepest,” Petersen said. “Yeah, we got a lot of guys there. We need some guys to go out and that group to take the next step. That’s one group that really needs to come on for our offense to take the next step. I think that’s something that we’ve been (harping) on for a long time, and I’m not off that one yet.”

So what does that next step look like?

Said Fuller: “Just creating a lot of explosives, whether that’s in the run game or the pass game. Making plays downfield. Taking slants and taking it for 30 yards, 30-yards plus. And then the run game, creating blocks downfield for the running backs, quarterbacks, whoever it is who has the ball to go down and score.”

To help with that, Petersen hired Junior Adams to replace Matt Lubick — Lubick retired from the coaching profession after UW’s loss in the Rose Bowl — as the wide receivers coach. Adams served as the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Western Kentucky the last two seasons.

When Adams took over, he brought a spark — and an emphasis on blocking.

“He’s definitely a motivator. … I’m probably closer to him than I’ve been to any of my coaches,” junior Ty Jones said earlier in the fall. “He knows how to talk to you.”

Bynum said during spring practice that Adams generates a “different energy.” The atmosphere has been focused but fun; diligent yet lighthearted. Adams tells his receivers not to think too much, to have an edge. That’s one area where Fuller has seen a noticeable difference.

“I think a lot of people are coming out,” Fuller said. “There’s a lot of positions that need to be filled. We didn’t lose that many people but there’s a lot of kids that want to play whether that’s the young guys or people that are sophomores, juniors, things like that. They want to come in and play. I respect that fully. People just have that edge, coming to block, special teams. Just doing whatever they can do for the team.”

The Huskies returned all three starters from last season in Fuller, Jones and senior Andre Baccellia. Fuller, Baccellia and senior Chico McClatcher were listed as the starting wide receivers on the Huskies’ first depth chart. Jones, sophomore Terrell Bynum and senior Quinten Pounds were on the No. 2 line.

Fuller is the leading returning receiver, catching 58 passes for 874 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. He missed all of spring after undergoing what Petersen called a minor procedure. While Fuller said Wednesday that he’s not yet back to 100 percent, he felt his best during the final week of fall camp.

Asked about younger receivers who could make a splash this season, Fuller thought for a moment before pointing to redshirt freshman Trey Lowe, whom he compared to McClatcher, and true freshman Puka Nacua. Lowe (5-8, 182) was a four-star prospect out of Portland, Ore. who played in two games last season. One of the highest-ranked recruits in UW’s 2019 class, Nacua (6-1, 204) was a four-star receiver considered by 247Sports composite to be the No. 1 player in Utah and the No. 22 wide receiver in the country.

“Puka’s big, he’s strong,” Fuller said. “He has a little bit of speed to him, things like that that people haven’t seen yet.”

Petersen said Monday that Nacua will see the field this year. The question now is whether nor not he’s limited to four games in order to preserve his redshirt. When asked about Lowe, Petersen also pointed out his similarities to McClatcher.

“I think when we recruited him he was a running back in high school that played some receiver,” Petersen said. “You could see he had really good ball skills. So there’s a lot of different things. I remember when we first got Chico we’re thinking we need to play him. It was such a comfort level. We could play him at tailback if we got in trouble depth wise there.

“Because that’s what they were in high school – shifty and all those things. I always think we should do more with them in the backfield by giving them the ball, even though they’re a receiver, because they can give us some personal matchup things. So I think Trey is similar to that.”

No matter who is on the field, Fuller said the goals stay the same.

After all, this group has something to prove.

“I think a lot of it has to do with consistency and then just being deliberate,” Fuller said. “If we’re consistent, we’re going to come down and we’re going to execute every time. Everybody on the team is going to do their job whether it’s the quarterback, linemen, tight end, receiver, running back. Whoever it is.

“And then just being deliberate whether that’s in a release, blocking motions, whatever it is. Making sure you spend time on the little things to create those big explosives.”

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Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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