Jaydon Mickens and John Ross are remarkably similar football players. Both play slot receiver for the University of Washington. Both stand under six foot, and both weigh under 180 pounds. Both hail from the greater Los Angeles area, Ross from Long Beach Jordan and Mickens from Dorsey. Both played a significant role in defeating the Boise State Broncos 38-6 to open the 2013 season. Both are listed as “or” starters in the slot.
There are differences, of course. Mickens is a sophomore with a full year under his belt while Ross is a true freshman who has played in a single game. Further, Mickens had a bigger performance against Boise State, catching a career-high 9 passes for 109 yards. Ross chipped in 4 receptions for 39 yards, but also had a chance at at least one big-time downfield pass that Price overthrew.
Two very similar players vying to fill the same role for Coach Sark’s offense. That has to be a problem, right? Well, it certainly didn’t seem like a problem on August 31st. Early in the game, it was Ross that Price hit multiple times on swing passes or other short completions, and the freshman showed off his elusiveness and speed in gaining multiple first downs.
In the no-huddle attack, players at every position rotated in and out of the game with great frequency. That meant that even with Ross finding early success, Mickens was rotated in often, sometimes even lining up in the backfield. By the end of the game, it was Mickens that had caught the most passes and made the biggest difference in the game, even when compared to the impact of star wide receiver Kasen Williams, who reeled in a touchdown in the third quarter.
To some, the huge game from Mickens would represent him winning the starting spot from Ross. It certainly looks like a breakout performance, but I think anyone who saw the season-opening win as a loss for John Ross is misunderstanding Washington’s new offense. As Coach Sark said, the move to a simplified, hyper-speed attack was meant to take emphasis away from the offensive line while allowing Washington’s skill players to shine. Sark has two fantastic play-making, home-run threats in Ross and Mickens, and I highly doubt he sees that as a problem to sort out. It’s an asset and an opportunity.
I am confident that both Ross and Mickens will see a nearly equal number of snaps against Illinois, and I suspect that over the course of the year who has the big-time, 9 catch, 109-yard type performances will switch back and forth. Perhaps Mickens will finish the year as the more productive player. He certainly has an edge in experience and he started off hot right away. Yet Ross should improve over the course of the year at an accelerated rate, considering that he’s only been a member of the team for a few months. He is also contributing in the return game, and judging by the outrageous number of return touchdowns he racked up his senior year in high school, I would expect he breaks a few large kickoff returns by year’s end.
Not only will both players see time in the slot, Ross and Mickens can line up at the same time. In a four-wide set, one can be lined up in the slot on either side. In a three-receiver set, Ross can line up in the slot while Mickens stays in the backfield. The same can be said for a bunch, trips formation with Ross or Mickens in the middle of the trio and the other either lined up beside him, in the backfield, or on the other side of the field. And regardless of where they start out, or whether one or both of them is on the field, you can count on Sark motioning them back and forth all over the field just like he did against Boise State.
Ross and Mickens are valuable chess pieces to both stretch the field vertically and keep defenses honest on the perimeter with the aforementioned swing passes or bubble screens. The only thing limiting the pair’s impact is the limited number of targets Price has to offer, what with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams, and Kevin Smith running routes as well. Oh, and that Bishop Sankey fellow needing his 20-30 carries a game. But that’s a wonderful problem for Coach Sark to sort out, and as long as defenses are paying a lot of their attention to controlling Sankey, ASJ, and Kasen, both Ross and Mickens should rack up catches, yards, and touchdowns regardless of how well one or the other does in a single game.