Pac-12 Football: Top Returning Wide Receivers in 2013
The Pac-12's Best Returning Wide Receivers of 2013
The Pac-12 has produced scores of NFL-caliber wide receivers over the years, from James Lofton to Keyshawn Johnson to Steve Smith. Five of the conference’s top ten pass catchers from 2012 were drafted in April, but there’s plenty of talent around the league to step up and fill those positions.
The most high-profile returner is USC’s Marqise Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and a consensus All-American in 2012. A junior heading into this season, Lee was one of the most exciting players in college football last year and easily would’ve been an early draft had he been eligible.
While the Trojans have a known star in the starting lineup, other Pac-12 receivers are hoping to finally get their big breaks.
With Markus Wheaton now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oregon State’s No. 2 receiver Brandin Cooks has the opportunity to make even more of a name for himself. Former Cal receiver Keenan Allen moved down the coast to become a San Diego Charger, and young receivers like Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs will get their chances to take on a larger role in new head coach Sonny Dykes’ offense.
Some receivers, like Washington’s Kasen Williams and UCLA’s Shaquelle Evans, are looking to build on strong 2012 seasons and become national names in the upcoming year, while at other schools, spring and fall practices will essentially be open tryouts for the starting wide receiver roles.
Here’s a look at some of the returning wide receivers (in no particular order, tight ends and incoming freshmen not included) projected to be among the Pac-12's best in 2013.
Marqise Lee, USC Trojans
No list of college football wide receivers, returning stars, or potential Heisman Trophy contenders in 2013 will be complete without Lee somewhere near the top. As a true sophomore in 2012, he stole the spotlight from former Trojans All-American WR Robert Woods and became the first Biletnikoff Award winner in school history.
His Pac-12 record 118 catches and 1,721 receiving yards last season were second in the nation, and he was third nationally in all-purpose yards. Between receptions and kickoff returns, Lee averaged 16.7 yards every time he touched the ball, and the average length of one of his 15 touchdown catches was 40.8 yards.
Lee's all-star season in 2012 wasn't an anomaly. As a freshman in 2011, he had 73 catches for 1,143 yards and was the Pac-12 Freshman Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
Lee won't have veteran quarterback Matt Barkley throwing to him for the first time in his career, but he has the speed and talent to make plays regardless of who's under center.
Kasen Williams, Washington
Kasen Williams is a strong, explosive player, but for him to get to the next level in 2013, he'll need a better year from his quarterback, Keith Price. (Conversely, for Price to have a better year, he'll need fewer drops and better routes from his receivers.)
Williams led the Huskies with 77 receptions and 878 yards, but his goal for this season is 100 receptions, which would set a new Washington single-season record (Williams is currently third on the all-time list). He averaged just over 11 yards per catch in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, but that won't be good enough to move up from 2012's All Pac-12 Honorable Mention to first or second team.
To help him improve, Williams got back on the track, joining UW's track and field team this offseason. A track star at Washington's Skyline High, Williams hopes the extra conditioning and varied training will help him become more explosive and make more long long plays this season.
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Last season, the Brandin Cooks - Markus Wheaton duo was the second-most prolific pair in the nation, behind West Virginia's Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. They were a key part of the Beavers' surprise resurgence in 2012, but after his breakout season opposite Wheaton, this year, Cooks is on his own.
He caught 67 passes for 1,511 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2012, and his 17.2 yards per catch was the longest average in the conference. Cooks has shown steady improvement since his freshman season, when he had 31 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns, and his coaches say his remarkable maturity will help him as he becomes the team's most visible target. Now that he's the guy, can he continue to build on past success when opposing teams are planning for him?
Shaquelle Evans, UCLA
Shaq Evans might not have the most raw talent on the UCLA roster, but among the Bruins' flashy young receivers, he's the seasoned veteran. Evans, a California native who transferred from Notre Dame in 2010, was the team's leading receiver last year, with 60 catches for 877 yards in 2012. A 14-game starter, he earned All Pac-12 Honorable Mention.
He didn't have impressive touchdown numbers -- just three on the year -- but he was a valuable mentor for last year's rookie wide receivers, and running back Johnathan Franklin gave Evans credit for key blocks on several of Franklin's touchdowns. Without tight end Joseph Fauria, who had 12 receiving touchdowns for the Bruins in 2012, Evans might have more opportunities to get in the end zone.
Josh Huff, Oregon
Oregon senior Josh Huff is often overshadowed by the brilliant play of RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas, QB Marcus Mariota, and TE Colt Lyerla, but he was once the Ducks' newest speedster on offense. As a freshman in 2010, he played the running back/receiver hybrid position in former coach Chip Kelly's offense, with 19 catches for 303 yards and 12 rushes for 214 yards.
A year later, Thomas came along and put up superhuman numbers (595 receiving yards and 605 rushing), and a year after that, Mariota was the center of attention, and Huff was all but forgotten -- which makes him very, very dangerous.
He averaged 15.4 yards per catch in 2012, with 493 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but the passing game hasn't been the centerpiece of Oregon's offense in several seasons. With running backs like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and Thomas, it hasn't needed to be. This year, new head coach Mark Helfrich indicated he wants to pass the ball more, possibly because there are questions about Thomas' durability as an every down back, and the more Mariota throws the ball, the more chances Huff will have to remind everyone what he can do.
Paul Richardson, Colorado
Paul Richardson was one of the better receivers in the Pac-12, a bright spot in some very down years for Colorado, but he missed all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL. No one can say for sure if he'll be the same player he was before his knee injury, although this spring, he said he felt even better than before.
He has 73 catches for 1,069 yards and 11 touchdowns in two years at Colorado, but he has yet to play a full season. As a freshman, he didn't make it into the lineup until partway through the season, and he battled injuries as a sophomore. On the Buffaloes' post-spring depth chart, Richardson is slated in as a starter, opposite redshirt sophomore Nelson Spruce. With a year of experience under his belt and a veteran leader like Richardson across from him, Spruce could very well supplant Richardson on this list by the end of the year.
Gabe Marks, Washington State
A year ago, the question was who would be the next star freshman wide receiver in a conference that had been stocked with them in recent seasons, and Washington State's Gabe Marks was one of the favorites.
With incoming head coach Mike Leach and two talented quarterback options, many hoped for big things from Marks and returning starter Marquess Wilson. It didn't quite happen that way. Wilson's midseason departure launched school and conference investigations into the football program, and Marks finished his freshman campaign with good numbers for a rookie, but nothing too eye-popping.
Marks' 49 catches were third on the team, and he was second with 560 receiving yards. He scored two touchdowns, and he also had two 100-yard receiving games.
Things look to be trending upward for Marks, and the Cougars, in 2013. With a full year to adjust to Leach's coaching style and expectations, the entire team should function more smoothly. If Leach names a starting quarterback and sticks with him, the receivers and quarterback will be able to establish a stronger rapport and likely have a better season in 2013.
Dominique Williams, Washington State
Last season, many expected Marquess Wilson to become one of the best players in the nation, with Marks penciled in as the freshman most likely to make an impact. That power duo never came to be, but the Cougars could pack another one-two punch with Marks and fellow sophomore Dominique Williams.
Williams was one of the stars of WSU's 2013 spring game, and his freshman year numbers were on par with Marks': 34 catches for 536 yards and 3 touchdowns -- and he had two 100-yard games of his own. If he continues to average 16.1 yards per reception, he'll be one of the conference's top up-and-coming receivers, and if he and Marks continue to improve, the Cougs' starting quarterback will be throwing to one heck of a receiving corps.
Nelson Agholor, USC
Former USC receiver Robert Woods' true freshman season was impressive for a player of any age. A year later, when Marqise Lee came in and played incredibly well right off the bat, some said he was following in Woods' footsteps. Nelson Agholor probably would've followed in both his predecessors' footsteps -- except they were both still in the starting lineup.
At a school without a logjam of All-American receivers, Agholor's freshman year numbers could have been better than 19 catches for 340 yards and two touchdowns, but he had limited playing time in the No. 3 spot. On special teams, he returned 5 kickoffs for 121 yards, averaging 24.2 yards per return.
When Agholor was on the field, he made his presence known, with big receptions, key blocks, and even a fumble recovery, and he made spectators wonder how good he could be if he played regularly. With Agholor set to take over Woods' vacant spot, it won't be long before they find out.
Dres Anderson, Utah
2012 was supposed to be Dres Anderson's breakout year. Instead, he spent the season adjusting to three different starting quarterbacks. This year, with a starter locked in and a new offensive coordinator, the entire offense hopes to function much better, which is good news for Anderson.
The son of NFL veteran Willie "Flipper" Anderson, Dres has played in all 25 games during his first two years at Utah. In his freshman season, he was second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Last year as a sophomore, his 36 catches and 365 yards were the Utes' best, and he was also the team's third-leading rusher.
2012 was a disappointing year for Utah, but if the offseason changes lead to positive changes in the upcoming season, Anderson will be a player to watch.
Chris Harper, Cal
Very few things will look the same on Cal's offense this fall. There's a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new leading rusher, and a new top receiver. The new coaches may evaluate things differently, but based on last season's play, sophomore Chris Harper should be the Bears' next No. 1 WR.
Harper was second on the team, behind senior Keenan Allen, with 41 catches for 544 yards and two touchdowns. He was the only receiver, besides Allen, to score multiple touchdowns in 2012, and he proved he was reliable, which will be critical to an offense that's breaking in a new quarterback.
Harper's fellow sophomore, Bryce Treggs, was in the mix of freshmen most likely to make an impact last preseason, but Harper's the one who came through in game time. In the first game of his freshman season, Harper had five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Harper, Treggs might be gaining on him. Harper missed spring workouts recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, so the coaching staff hasn't had a chance to see him live. His success will depend largely on the new offense, and the new quarterback's ability to run it, but when he's back and healthy, Harper could be one of the top receivers in the conference in 2013.