University of Washington

As Huskies’ passing game struggles, will young wide receivers see more playing time?

Maybe you’ve seen the question, or maybe you’ve asked it. At the very least, you’ve probably thought about it.

And if the question wasn’t prevalent enough before Washington’s 23-13 loss to Stanford, it’s everywhere now. Coach Chris Petersen’s weekly press conference on Monday was no exception. After he finished his opening statement, the first inquiry was a familiar one. In short, is it time to increase the playing time for the young wide receivers?

“Here’s the thing,” Petersen said, preparing to answer a question he’s answered before and will likely answer again. “Guys, they put it on tape in practice, and people don’t understand ... you’ve got to do it in practice. You can’t do it half the time or three-quarters of the time.

“Now, maybe, do we need to rotate maybe some more guys in there? Actually we’ve been trying to do that with certain personnel groups. But they haven’t been getting called maybe as much as we thought they were. So we’ll take a better look at that and maybe rotate a few more guys in there.”

Seniors Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Chico McClatcher have been listed as UW’s starters all season. Fuller has caught 36 passes for 498 yards and four touchdowns. Baccellia has 19 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. McClatcher has caught nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.

But McClatcher hasn’t caught a pass since the Huskies’ Sept. 14 victory over Hawaii. His best performance came in the season opener against Eastern Washington, when he caught five passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. In three conference games — two of them losses — Baccellia has just six receptions for 41 yards.

During the loss to Stanford, quarterback Jacob Eason was often out of options — an observation Petersen confirmed after the game. As a result, Fuller was targeted 17 times but no other receiver was targeted more than five times. And while Fuller finished with nine receptions for 171 yards, only tight end Cade Otton also had more than one catch.

McClatcher didn’t have a reception. Bynum had one catch for 9 yards. Baccellia had one catch for 1 yard.

“Coverage dictates,” Petersen said. “That’s where it’s going to go. I think Aaron had two of them they were dropped, which is painful. When you’re playing a tight game, those are critical. But Aaron also made some tough catches and Aaron’s a good player. To your guys’ point, we would like some other guys to get involved, for sure. We never like it when the ball is going to one guy. That makes it easy for everybody on the other side.”

Listed behind the starters on the depth chart are true freshman Puka Nacua, redshirt freshman Austin Osborne and Bynum, a sophomore. Nacua and Bynum have played in all six games this season but have rarely been targeted.

Nacua — a four-star recruit considered the No. 1 player in Utah in his class — has been targeted a single time this season, and it resulted in a 28-yard touchdown. Bynum has three receptions for 41 yards. Osborne, who has played in three games, has one catch for -1 yard. Redshirt freshman Marquis Spiker has also made three appearances but doesn’t have a reception.

So what does Petersen need to see for the less experienced receivers to not only get more playing time, but also more targets?

Let him tell you.

“One: Be more detailed to what we’re doing out there,” Petersen said. “They’re making progress. They really are. They are practicing and they are getting a lot of reps out there. They just aren’t where the other guys are right now, but they are growing and they’re getting better all the time.

“(Reporters) don’t cover practice. You don’t see what’s going on out there. That’s no knock on those guys. They’re getting better. They’re young players. That’s what it is. We’re not going to put our best guys out there because we think we got better players sitting on the sidelines. That makes no sense.”

Petersen said the decision has little to do with age. He pointed to former receivers Dante Pettis and John Ross, who both contributed as freshmen.

“There’s no timetable,” he said. “It’s when a guy picks it up. … As long as they can pick it up, they can play. When a guy is playing, you’d love to get him more involved. Puka’s playing and we’d like to get him more involved just being out there on the field.”

When it comes to the loss to the Cardinal, Petersen said the bigger issue was UW not playing to its strengths. On that night, he said, the Huskies should have focused more on the ground game.

“If we’re going to second guess,” he said, “and all that which we always do as coaches and look back we probably should have ran the ball more. That’s what we were doing pretty effectively.”

Before he left the game with an injury in the third quarter, redshirt freshman Richard Newton had rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries. But UW finished the game with 88 rushing yards on 22 attempts. Starting running back Salvon Ahmed got just six carries for 28 yards. Ahmed’s limited attempts were situational, Petersen said.

“Rich Newton was doing some pretty good things,” Petersen said. “Put Sean McGrew in there, he was doing some pretty good things. That’s how it goes. Like I said before, I like how we rotate our backs. I don’t think we have one guy that needs to be in there the whole time.”

Once the Huskies fell behind against Stanford, running the ball became less of option. They needed to score — and quickly.

“(Stanford) got the lead and then they had the ball 40 minutes to our 20,” Petersen said. “So now you’re trying to make your drives really matter. So you’re picking, choosing when you’re going to try to throw the ball down the field and take a shot, as opposed to like a 4 yards and a cloud of dust kind of mentality.

“So it’s that cat-and-mouse game right there. It wasn’t like we didn’t have them on our sheet and weren’t trying to think of when we were going to do that. Then you get behind and they’re going to play a little bit softer and it’s a little bit harder to do that.”

Extra points

Newton was helped off the field in the third quarter against Stanford and didn’t return. After the game, Petersen said it appeared to be a foot injury. On Monday, he said Newton was seeing a specialist. “I still don’t know his status,” Petersen said. “Obviously he’s laying out on the field in pain and you think it’s going to be forever and it might not be forever.” ... UW dropped out of the top 25 this week. Three teams were ranked from the Pac-12: Oregon (13th), Utah (15th) and Arizona State (18th).

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription