There has been so much to talk about in the wake of Washington’s 38-6 smashing of Boise State that developments that would have been major story lines last season have gone mostly undiscussed. Even within the category of players recovered from injury, there were so many big returns from the sideline that a few have been lost.
Everyone had been waiting for running back Deontae Cooper to receive his first carry after three consecutive ACL tears, and he did so alongside fellow running back Jesse Callier, who also tore his ACL last year. Kikaha Jamora came back with a new first name (probably the last time I mention that) and a new number and played well after losing nearly two seasons to various knee injuries.
Additional depth behind Sankey and Dwayne Washington at halfback can’t hurt, but given Washington’s lack of wide receiver depth last season, by season’s end the return of senior wide receiver Kevin Smith may prove second only to Kikaha’s return (Washington really needs skilled pass-rushers on the defensive line) in the impact had on the team’s success.
On Saturday, star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was suspended and primary wide receiver Kasen Williams was held to a single 11-yard catch through the entire first half. Last season that would have meant tons of carries for Bishop Sankey and perhaps a few heaves to a then-inconsistent Jaydon Mickens. But this is 2013, and instead Keith Price had amassed 193 passing yards by halftime. How?
For one, Jaydon Mickens and John Ross appear to have formed a duo of swing pass-catching speedsters that served almost as a sort of alternative running game of low-risk tosses near or behind the line of scrimmage. But if no one else had been keeping the defensive backs honest, I highly doubt Mickens and Ross would have found so much success early on. It was Kevin Smith’s 3 catches for 62 yards in the first quarter, including a well-caught 42 yard pass downfield, that played the largest individual role from a receiver in helping Price and the Washington’s offense recover from the first-drive interception.
He finished with 4 catches for 69 yards. Mickens was a bigger contributor with 9 catches for 109 yards and Williams bounced back from the first half with 3 for 68 and a 19-yard touchdown. Both stat lines are superior to Smith’s overall. But his contributions brought about balance in the passing game, and meant that when Washington lined up Williams, Mickens, Smith, and say tight end Joshua Perkins, the Boise defense had to legitimately respect every single receiver on the field. This is a new and exciting development for Price and for Husky fans.
Coach Sark raved about Smith during fall camp, calling him one of the fall’s biggest surprises. He was rewarded with a starting spot opposite Kasen. And if Saturday was any indication, he is going to play the part Washington most needs him to play. Sark doesn’t need 100-yard days from Smith (though I’m sure he wouldn’t mind). He doesn’t need big-time touchdown totals. What he needs is 4 catches for 69 yards. He needs those catches to come when defensive backs are blanketing Kasen or ASJ, when they are doing a good job stuffing the run game or blowing up blocks to get to Ross and Mickens in the swing-game.
And then when Smith is open downfield by a couple strides, Price can throw him another 42-yard bomb and force the defense to change everything up, freeing up more high-profile pass-catchers. Even now that he has done just that, giving opposing coaches fair warning that he has finally returned from the 2011 knee injury that robbed him of parts of two seasons, it’s not as if the Illinois defensive coordinator will stand up in team meeting and say “Keep your eye on Kevin Smith! He’s the key to this whole thing!” They just can’t pay him that much attention.
They will be saying “Kasen Williams! He will physically outmatch any corner on this roster. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, every linebacker and defensive back will have to chip in to control him. Mickens and Ross, they will make you pay for a lack of discipline down field or behind the line of scrimmage.” And meanwhile, Smith, inconspicuous at 5’11” and 214 pounds, will basically be hiding in plain sight out wide.
With ASJ back, I don’t know how the game plan will change or how Smith’s targets will be impacted. But let’s just say that hypothetically he fulfills the exact same role for all 12 regular season games. 4 catches for 69 yards. By season’s end, that becomes 48 receptions and 828 receiving yards. From a guy that many had basically written off in favor of newcomers like Ross and Stringfellow, that’s all gravy. And every catch and every yard gained will be like a crowbar prying defensive backs further and further away from ASJ, Williams, Mickens, and Ross.