Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
University of Washington Huskies Football
Sports >  UW football

Analysis: Under JaMarcus Shephard’s leadership, will Washington’s wide receivers finally play to their potential?

JaMarcus Shephard coached inside linebackers in 2016 at Washington State and appears to be headed to Washington as its new receivers coach.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
JaMarcus Shephard coached inside linebackers in 2016 at Washington State and appears to be headed to Washington as its new receivers coach.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

JaMarcus Shephard knows what a dynamic Washington wide receiver corps looks like.

On Nov. 25, 2016, he saw one up close.

In a 45-17 Apple Cup win over Washington State, Husky wideouts Dante Pettis, John Ross and Chico McClatcher ran wild — combining for 17 catches, 246 receiving yards and three touchdowns, all while Shephard looked on from the opposite sideline.

Washington’s wide receivers haven’t reached the same standard since.

Which is what pulled Shephard back to the Pacific Northwest. After serving for a single season as the Cougs’ inside wide receivers coach, he accepted the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach position at Purdue — before being elevated to co-offensive coordinator a year later. In West Lafayette, Ind., Shephard developed two of the premier wide receivers in program history, in Rondale Moore (a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2021) and David Bell. He also signed twice as many four-star wide receivers in his tenure (4) than any other position group.

On Wednesday, Rivals and Yahoo reported that Shephard will be the next associate head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at Washington — where he inherits five years of increasingly underwhelming results.

John Ross and Dante Pettis are gone.

As are Rondale Moore and David Bell, for that matter.

But there’s hope that the future will outshine the past. After all, since 2016, zero Washington wide receivers have eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in a season – while that feat has been accomplished 160 times elsewhere in the FBS. That’s despite UW signing 10 four-star wideouts since that fateful 2016 Apple Cup – Terrell Bynum, Ty Jones, Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne, Trey Lowe, Puka Nacua, Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze, Jabez Tinae and Germie Bernard (who asked out of his national letter of intent this month, before resurfacing at Michigan State).

Seven of those 10 blue-chip wide receivers ultimately transferred, a startling exodus at an underperforming position.

But this can’t be exclusively classified as a wide receiver problem.

The offensive system and quarterback play are also partially responsible for a wide receiver’s ultimate production. And in the latter half of the Chris Petersen era, questions arose as to whether Washington’s most talented wide receivers were put in positions to succeed.

Remember Puka Nacua’s true freshman season in 2019? The former four-star recruit and USC commit exploded onto the scene in an October road win at Arizona … after inexplicably struggling to see the field for the first six games.

(Nacua, by the way, produced 43 catches for 805 yards with 18.7 yards per reception and six touchdowns in his first season after transferring from UW to BYU last fall.)

Former UW offensive coordinator John Donovan, who was fired on Nov. 7 after 13 games, also did little to highlight the Husky wide receivers. Rome Odunze led all Huskies with 41 catches and four touchdowns last fall … despite appearing in just nine games. Fellow second-year wide receiver Jalen McMillan’s 470 receiving yards also topped a group that appeared to improve, but received precious few opportunities in a unit that lacked any semblance of an offensive identity.

It didn’t help, of course, that quarterback Dylan Morris’ 12 interceptions were the most in the Pac-12. The redshirt freshman also ranked 10th in pass efficiency rating (123.61), completion percentage (60.6%) and yards per pass attempt (6.8).

But, given the arrival of first-year UW head coach Kalen DeBoer – who has improved offenses at every successive stop – there’s hope that UW’s wide receivers will be schemed into opportunistic positions. And, with the transfer of Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. and expected improvement of Morris and redshirt freshman Sam Huard, the Husky quarterbacks could take a significant step this offseason as well.

Which brings us back to the wide receivers. As it stands, UW is expected to tout seven scholarship wideouts in 2022 – junior Giles Jackson, sophomores McMillan, Odunze and Taj Davis, redshirt freshmen Ja’Lynn Polk and Jabez Tinae, and true freshman Denzel Boston. It’s possible Shephard could add to the position via the transfer portal as well.

McMillan and Odunze return as expected starters, while Davis (26 catches for 329 receiving yards and a touchdown) and Polk (five catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in three games) also flashed in limited opportunities in 2021.

Next fall, there should be room for all four to flourish. After all, while Bell was Purdue’s obvious headliner in 2021, a total of five Purdue wide receivers made significant contributions. Bell (93 catches, 1,286 receiving yards, 6 TD), Milton Wright (57, 732, 7), Jackson Anthrop (53, 570, 5), Broc Thompson (30, 457, 4) and TJ Sheffield (36, 325, 5) formed one of the nation’s most productive wide receiver rooms.

So, what is Shephard capable of at Washington? That will depend both on his ability to develop UW’s existing wide receivers and his success in recruiting battles against Oregon – featuring former UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams – USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and many others.

Of course, this hire looks good on paper – but the proof will ultimately be in the production.

Five years after an uneven Apple Cup, it’s time for Washington’s wideouts to finally play to their potential.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.