Oregon football has a legacy of accomplished receivers. Let’s examine the attributes they have had in the past and what this year’s group needs to continue a fine tradition.
We’ll look at the talent side first.
Fast is always good. Stretching defenses is critical, and breakaway speed does that in spades!
Patrick Johnson and Sammie Parker were past burners who readily come to mind. You can’t coach “lightning in a bottle” either. Defenses must constantly account for it; getting behind them is a sure six! A streaking open wideout is a thing of beauty we all cheer.
Who will have blazing speed this season?
Fast is useless if unable to hang on to the pigskin — it doesn’t matter if you’re open if you can’t catch the ball! Catching a ball in traffic and holding on when DB’s are ripping at it requires both a deft touch and strength. Dropping passes — let alone fumbling after the catch — drives coaches and fans crazy.
We use the term “sure hands” for quality receivers like Demetrius Williams and Keenan Howry from the past. If a receiver shows the dreaded “stone hands” he usually gets moved to the defense. If a pass is close, the good players bring it in consistently.
Who has those supple hands this year?
Good receivers have an particular ability to see the ball in flight, and make adjustments to the pace and arc of the ball. It is amazing to watch these Ducks see through sun, wind, rain, sweat, stadium lights, their gear and those nasty defenders to haul in the ball!
Who will forget Marshaun Tucker‘s great catch to beat ASU, with mere seconds left, looking into the misty evening lights of Autzen Stadium? He turned ASU’s corner around and stepped just inside the corner pylon of the end zone for six.
Who will focus their eyes and concentration on the ball this year?
Now, we’ll look at the coachable skills.
Great receivers run precise routes. A few of those routes are curls, seams, goes, posts, slants, wheels, fades, drags and square outs.
Execution with precision and pace is vital to getting open. David Paulson and Braylon Addison were never burners, but they were seemingly always open. They ran great routes! Having the ability to modify or break off a pattern to get open space is developed with time and repetition.
Our new receiver core must develop these traits.
Making positional changes while tracking a ball in flight is a honed skill. A receiver has to be aware of quite a few things to make a completion: the chains, hash marks, end zone lines, boundary lines, the ball’s spin and arc, and, of course, the defenders. Knowing how to get separation or seal the defender with the body is an art on the gridiron.
High pointing the ball, in heavy traffic at full speed, is thing of beauty. A receiver adjusting to an under-thrown ball is riveting and thrilling. Jeff Maehl and Josh Huff were particularly good at this. No one will soon forget Huff’s winning TD catch to beat the Beavs, by turning his body and hands to catch a ball slightly above and behind him!
It takes plenty of courage to focus on catching the ball on a middle crossing route when you know the free safety is about to light you up. Getting and staying in great shape to play all four quarters is difficult. Putting in the time studying film, lifting and running drills is just plain hard work. These take courage, too, especially so when a player is tired, discouraged or injured.
Pharaoh Brown is a good recent example of great courage. During a play, he hyper-extended his knee so badly that an artery ruptured. His doctors weren’t sure that they could save his leg, and told him that it was unlikely that he would play football again. Yet, a year later, he was back on the field as a starter.
It is critical that receivers be on the same page as quarterbacks. Knowing the pre-snap audibles and hand signals makes for easy pass and catch plays. Understanding verbal and visual check downs, as well as who the safety valve or “hot receiver” is, are vital to avoid big losses, broken plays and interceptions.
Cohesion, trust and preparation are essential to the football being placed with correct pace, in exact spots, where only our guys can catch it. Keenan Lowe and Ed Dickson are past players who exhibited these skills.
One simple example: suppose the QB and WR recognize single coverage with no safety over the top (the safety is cheating inside). The QB realizes that a fly or go route could hit for six. So he calls an audible, changing the play to one of these. He then delivers the ball over the WR’s outside shoulder, twenty yards down the sideline where only he can make the play. Touchdown! We love it.
Our new coaching staff is striving for players to care and understand each other on and off the field, so this sort of interplay should happen often this season.
“Without the block, you don’t get the rock.” This mantra has been vital to Oregon’s leading the Pac-12 in rushing for nine years in a row. A WR who always blocks makes it hard for a DB to know whether he’s looking at a run or pass play.
Most long runs are the end result of great downfield blocking. Running backs value receivers moving foes out of the way, and creating angles to allow runs to daylight. In return, RBs pick up blitzing LBs and safeties on pass plays, allowing time for receivers to get open.
A quality QB and O-line are crucial for success. Both are on the rise this season at Oregon, after the trial by fire last year of the many new faces on the field. Improved strength and experience with our “bigs” buys time for seams, creases and gaps to come open — no QB, Justin Herbert included, can complete a pass from the recumbent position. Putting proper spin and touch on the football is a thing of satisfaction to receiver and fan alike.
This takes time and timing for success on the field. From Dan Fouts to Marcus Mariota, we have been blessed with terrific QBs and receivers. Charles Nelson, Dillon Mitchell, Alex Ofodile, Jacob Breeland, Casey Eugenio, Daewood Davis, Darrian McNeal, Johnny Johnson, et al will now need to emerge and become the new legacy of fine receivers this season.
We are far from doomed! With their talent and these coachable skills, our Duck receivers are going to score and move the chains. It is literally now “in their hands.”
Powell Butte, Oregon
Top photo by Gary Breedlove