Through eight games of the 2013 season the two most productive, and now the two most important, receivers on the team have been Jaydon Mickens and Kevin Smith. Who, fan, sportswriter, or even coach, would have guessed that back in July?
Mickens was mostly unproductive as a true freshman last season and struggled with drops despite flashing some great speed, and Smith was held back by the nagging effects of a knee injury suffered before the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Last year the pair combined for 26 receptions, 158 yards, and a single touchdown. With five (assuming a bowl game) contests left, Mickens and Smith have combined for 75 catches, 1046 yards, and seven scores.
Even before he sustained a broken leg and a Lisfrance injury to his foot in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against Cal, Kasen Williams was lagging behind the pace set by Mickens and Smith. In that victory Mickens boosted his season totals tremendously with a six-catch, 180-yard performance, but heading into that game he was already first on the team in receptions, largely thanks to a steady stream of swing passes meant to take advantage of his fantastic burst, with Smith leading in yards.
With Williams gone for the year the success of Mickens and Smith can no longer be viewed as a pleasant first-half surprise or a quirk of the no-huddle attack implemented during the offseason. There is no fall-back cushion if the breakout duo falters, no option of intentionally targeting Williams more frequently in the event that Mickens or Smith start disappearing or dropping balls over an extended stretch.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins is healthy and playing, but his production thus far has lagged markedly behind even that of his freshman year, and certainly behind the pace set by Mickens and Smith. The only time he has caught more than four passes or totaled more than 58 yards in any one game was the blowout over FCS Idaho State, a five-catch, 62-yard day. Otherwise he has been invisible for long stretches, going without so much as a target for entire quarters.
Part of the problem appears to be how Coach Sark and the coaching staff are choosing to use him. Or, you know, not use him. It’s almost as if the team has sacrificed the use of ASJ as a super-productive auto-mismatch in order to allow the no-huddle attack to hum. Most of the plays that allowed ASJ to get the ball last year have been used sparingly or not at all. When the offense has started to show encouraging signs of getting the junior tight end going, such as in the first half against Cal, the effort is conspicuously absent later in the contest. The tradeoff doesn’t seem necessary.
It’s certainly frustrating to see such a rare asset, a tight end capable of improving on last year’s 69-catch, 852-yard season, basically going to waste. However, it’s uncertain if it’s simply an issue of scheme and playcalling, or if ASJ has also failed to fully grasp the new offense. After all, he missed most of the offseason implementation due to his DUI suspension.
All that we know for sure is that ASJ has not been his old self, and shouldn’t be depended on to suddenly return to form out of the blue. That means that Jaydon Mickens and Kevin Smith have to continue operating as the first and second most productive targets in the passing game. For Smith, a senior, that means finishing strong in order to secure a shot at a professional career. For Mickens, a sophomore, that means developing a higher level of consistency, so that huge performances against weak teams aren’t followed by slumps versus tougher opponents.
With a bye to prepare and a game against Colorado to adjust to the absence of Kasen Williams, the pair must play their best football if Washington is to have any chance of winning both at UCLA and at Oregon State.