The Pac-12 is brimming with some of the very best wide receivers in college football
Before proceeding with this week's Pac-12 Extra Points, go outside and walk about a half-mile.
Back from that jaunt? You just traveled the combined distance of the Pac-12's six leading receivers in Week 1.
A group of Stanford's JJ Arcega-Whiteside; Laviska Shenault Jr. and K.D. Nixon of Colorado; N'Keal Harry of Arizona State; Aaron Fuller of Washington; and Trevon Bradford of Oregon State combined for 928 yards, or 2,784 feet worth of receptions. Five of the six reached the end zone at least once, and three scored multiple touchdowns to kick off 2018.
All told, 2018 may well be The Year of the Receiver in the Pac-12.
Arcega-Whiteside and Shenault kicked off the weekend Friday night in blowouts of San Diego State and Colorado State, their respective 226 and 211 yards ranking them No. 2 and No. 3 nationally among all pass catchers for college football's first week.
"Laviska is an excellent athlete, phenomenal young man. He can do so many, different things," said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. "[Co-offensive coordinator Klayton Adams and Darrin] Chiaverini did a great job ... of getting [Shenault] in places to get the ball in his hands. We'll keep doing that throughout this year, and every game will probably be a little different, so they just can't key in on him."
An opponent being burned for keying in on a single player or facet of the game is exactly the theme Stanford exploited in its romp against San Diego State. With the Aztecs loading the box to slow Heisman Trophy finalist running back Bryce Love, Arcega-Whiteside was left on an island, which became a veritable vacation for the Stanford offense. Only, instead of Mai Tais, K.J. Costello served up touchdown passes.
Basketball is in Arcega-Whiteside's family history, as his mom played both in college and professionally. That pedigree's apparent when one compares footage of the 6-foot-3 swing-man exploding baseline to the rim...
...and the 6-foot-3 wide receiver going over top of and boxing out cornerbacks to make top-shelf catches.
As noted in last week's Pac-12 Extra Points, Arcega-Whiteside isn't the only star wideout in the conference with a basketball background. The hoop exploits of N'Keal Harry, combined with Arcega-Whiteside's transition from hardwood to gridiron, suggest playing some basketball readies one to become one of the best receivers in college football.
OK, so that may be an oversimplification. A more likely explanation in the development of standout receivers comes from Washington head coach Chris Petersen, whose program has been home to a string of top-flight pass catchers in recent years.
Both Jon Ross and Dante Pettis went from being big-play threats for the Huskies into highly coveted NFL draft prospects. Their respective exits in each of the last two seasons begat questions as to who might fill the voids. The play of Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones and Quinton Pounds in Week 1 against Auburn suggests Washington has its pick of potential No. 1 targets this season.
"I think it's how you coach them and how you play them," Petersen said. "You give them a little bit of a role before they have 'where-did-they-come-from' type years. So we've kind of always done that. We like to play a lot of guys; they might not [be[ ready for significant roles, but we give them something. And that develops them over time."
Evaluating past production for this year's initial breakout stars does indeed support Petersen's philosophy. At Washington, Fuller — who had seven catches for 135 yards against Auburn — was a No. 3 option. Jones, a secondary role player in 2017, stepped up as a deep threat in Week 1. And Pounds' circus catch for a touchdown at the Chick-Fil-A Classic gives him as many scores this season as a year ago.
It's a similar story at Colorado. The Buffaloes lost a bevy of proven veterans in the offseason. Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devon Fields, each of Colorado's top three pass-catchers a season ago, are gone. But Shenault demonstrated hints of the same explosive playmaking as a reserve option, averaging 24 yards per reception in 2017, that he torched Colorado State with in the opener as a No. 1 target.
Likewise, the indications that Arcega-Whiteside would evolve into arguably one of the two or three best receivers in the nation were evident before last Friday — and even before his three-touchdown effort in the Alamo Bowl. In much the same way he used some oddly basketball-looking moves to posterize San Diego State defensive backs, Arcega-Whiteside went up for an alley-oop touchdown catch to sink UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 2016.
"We put JJ out there one-on-one. He's a big receiver with a ridiculous vertical," said Stanford coach David Shaw that September evening in Pasadena.
Consider the comment foreshadowing of the impression Arcega-Whiteside made on USC head coach Clay Helton, who this week heaped praise on the receiver's ability to go over the top. Helton, whose team faces Stanford on Saturday, said Arcega-Whiteside's size differentiates him from the parade of excellent wide receivers to come through USC in recent years like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster, all of whom Helton said are in the "6-foot to 6-foot-1" range.
Of the Week 1 standouts cited above, only Arizona State's Harry debuted as a primary option in his team's passing attack. If there's a parallel among this year's Pac-12 newcomers, it's USC freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown.
A high school teammate of new quarterback JT Daniels, their chemistry became apparent immediately with St. Brown catching a team-high 98 yards in Week 1. The freshman may be next in line to carry the impressive lineage for USC wide receivers, and make his own contribution in Pac-12 receivers going the extra (half-)mile in 2018.