It looks as if the off-season saga of star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and his March DUI is finally over now that ASJ has served his one-game suspension and has healed from his fall camp pinkie injury. Now he is back practicing with the team full-time to prepare for next Saturday’s game against Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago. Apparently it’s a good thing he has had an extra bye week to work, because it has been noted by Sark that his conditioning is lagging behind that of his teammates due to how many reps he lost due to his legal issues.
So does that mean that expectations should be reduced for ASJ in his first game, or few games, back? Will he be spending valuable snaps sucking wind on the sideline? I highly doubt it. Against Boise State, Sark was rotating his offensive players in and out very regularly. Even Sankey was given regular breathers, during which capable backup Dwayne Washington would carry the ball. With both Michael Hartvigson and Joshua Perkins capable of subbing in for ASJ throughout the game (Perkins caught a touchdown last week), he will get some breaks if he needs them. But it isn’t as if ASJ is in terrible shape. He has actually mentioned throughout the last few weeks that he has slimmed down. It was previously thought that his new listed weight of 276 is an increase of ten pounds from last year’s listed weight of 266. But ASJ commented that he played closer to 285 last season and that he feels much lighter at 270.
With a full two weeks to run in the no-huddle and get his conditioning in order, and with regular periods of rest during which Perkins and Hartvigson can spell him, I think we’ll be seeing the same ASJ we’re used to seeing, with the possibility that a full off-season has led to additional growth in skill as a blocker and pass-catcher.
So what are my expectations for ASJ? At the risk of sounding like a hype-man, I expect him to kill it. He caught 69 passes for 852 yards and 7 scores in 2012. At that time Kasen Williams was the only other reliable pass-catcher on the team, which is definitely not the case this season with Kevin Smith, Jaydon Mickens, and John Ross all putting up big numbers in week one. But though he may have benefited statistically from a lack of wide receiver depth, ASJ was hurt by the poor play of Keith Price.
Without any trust in his offensive line and with only Williams and Seferian-Jenkins regularly open, Price’s play was mediocre at best, and even though ASJ was fairly open nearly every play in which he ran routes, Price was not always confident enough to make the tough throws, and when he did, they often missed badly.
But operating within the new no-huddle, hurry-up offense, and protected by a now-experienced offensive line, Price looked wonderful shredding the Boise State secondary. To me, that signals that the sky is the limit for the Price to ASJ connection, even with so many other great pass-catchers to target, because it’s almost impossible for an opposing defense to properly cover ASJ.
I believe it’s going to be even tougher this year with Washington going to so many two tight end sets (and this was without ASJ) that featured tight ends split out wide or in the slot like wide receivers. If a defense faces ASJ split out wide, they face a significant problem. They can’t expect a linebacker to move over and cover him on the edge of the field, though linebackers are the only players that have the size to even sort of match up. But if you keep a corner or a safety on ASJ, he now has a massive advantage based on his 6’6″ 270-pound body and his ability to use that frame to shield the ball from defenders. Tack on the fact that the defense will have to process this quandary in the handful of seconds it will take Washington to snap the ball, and it’s that much easier for Washington. Oh, and keep in mind that Washington also ran up the middle with Sankey or threw bubble screens to the waiting Mickens out of the same formations that featured tight-ends split wide, so defenders have that to worry about as well.
So more specifically, what kind of stats do I expect from ASJ? On the season, I’m thinking around 80 catches (only about ten more than last year, given the greater number of players to target) for 1,000 or so yards and at least 10 scores. He’s the best tight end in the country and he’s going to catch passes from a newly-confident quarterback, so I feel that those predictions are realistic.
For the game against Illinois on the 14th? Single-game receiving predictions are a little hairy, but he will certainly make an impact. Let’s say 5 or 6 catches, 60+ yards, and at least one touchdown. For Husky fans, even one catch from ASJ will be a welcome sight, and a sign of things to come in what is now a highly optimistic season for Husky football.