Monday Rewind: Jake Bobo's Peyton Manning comp, and predicting the Pac-12's top pass-catchers
It was hard to escape the contrast on Saturday. USC held a live spring game, and UCLA held a… well… it just had another practice.
The Bruins’ spring showcase was early Saturday morning and it was just another of the 15 allotted practices college football teams get in the spring. This was Practice No. 12. It was on the Pac-12 Network early Saturday morning because, as coach Chip Kelly explained it plainly, that’s when the network asked to do it and that was that.
UCLA took quite a bit of flak for the day’s juxtaposition, particularly because their Los Angeles counterparts got the ESPN treatment for their spring game. I suspect Chip Kelly doesn’t care. He shouldn’t care about USC’s hype. He shouldn’t care about Lincoln Riley’s roster-building tactics. He shouldn’t care about anything that isn’t related to beating USC. At times this spring he’s been asked about USC head coach Lincoln Riley—if they’ve talked, how Riley’s doing at USC, etc.—and looked like Nick Young’s meme. Kelly knows this is a big year for UCLA; I’d think any suggestion otherwise is disingenuous.
So the spring showcase should be viewed as what it was: a practice. Does it stink we’ll have to wait a few more months to see Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet and Darius Muasau in a game-like setting? It does. Oh well.
The far more interesting thing to come out of UCLA’s Saturday was Kelly’s glowing remark on Duke transfer wideout Jake Bobo.
If the Bruins’ offense is going to continue to hum in 2022 as it did to close out 2021, finding a new favorite pass-catcher for Thompson-Robinson is priority No. 1. According to PFF’s tracking numbers, the duo of Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich have garnered 357 combined targets over the last three seasons. That’s about 40% of the UCLA passing game over those three years.
With both moving to the NFL, Kelly and the Bruins brought in Bobo from the ACC where he caught 126 balls in four years, including the sixth-most of any league player last season (74). Bobo’s 774 yards in an offense that ranked 96th in the end-of-year SP+ rankings felt like a pretty good individual showing.
He entered the transfer portal at the end of November 2021, then committed to the Bruins a few weeks later.
“Jake’s been outstanding. Really pushed himself to WR1 right now,” Kelly told the Pac-12 Network’s Yogi Roth. “I talked to (former Duke coach) David Cutcliffe extensively about him and when he said this statement to me that the three best practice players he ever coached were Peyton Manning, Noah (Gray), and Jake Bobo, we knew he was the type of kid we wanted.
“I know Dorian and all our quarterbacks are really happy they can look out wide and see No. 9 out there.”
Roth said during the showcase broadcast he thinks Bobo could be an All-Pac-12 kind of receiver for the Bruins.
If the thought is that Thompson-Robinson will be one of the better quarterbacks in the league (which I’d agree with), and the Bruin offense will be one of the better offenses in the league (which I’d agree with), it’s not hard to envision the 6-foot-5 Bobo putting up numbers. As a reliable option, he could absolutely finish among the league leaders in receptions.
Which got me thinking… Only two of the Pac-12’s top 10 receiving yardage leaders from last season return in 2022. With new quarterbacks around the league as well, there will undoubtedly be some new faces who emerge as premier pass-catchers around the league.
If I had to guess right now who finishes in the top five for yardage next season, Bobo will be right there if he gets the kind of volume that comes with being a No. 1 in the Bruins’ offense.
Here’s how I’d lean:
No. 5: TE Brant Kuithe, Utah
The Utes’ offense last season supported three tailbacks who ran for a combined yardage total north of 2,000, a 611-yard receiver (Kuithe, who finished 10th in the league in yardage), a 514-yard receiver (Britain Covey), and a 510-yard receiver (Dalton Kincaid). I suspect wideout Devaughn Vele can up his 2021 total (389) to be about where Covey was. In fact, that might be a baseline given how excited Utah seems to be about his development and chemistry with quarterback Cameron Rising.
I feel really good about the Utah passing game moving forward. They should have one of the more efficient offenses in the country with Rising operating as the full-time guy all year, and Kuithe has spent most of the summer training as a wideout. He’s a new-age breed of tight end, a versatile player who won’t do a ton of in-line work, instead getting the ball in less-traditional spots. He’s not the biggest tight end you’ll find—standing 6-foot-2, 222 pounds—but he’s most definitely skilled.
The fifth-leading receiver in the Pac-12 last season finished with only 128 more yards than Kuithe. He can hit that number in 2022.
No. 4: WR Jacob Cowing, Arizona
Cowing finished the 2021 season as the ninth-leading receiver in all of college football. The former UTEP man went for 1,367 yards on 69 catches. He averaged a wonderful 19.8 yards per catch, an average target depth of 15 yards, and an elite 3.82 yards per route run (second nationally). Cowing was an elite producer for the Miners’ offense.
Arizona is going to get him the football often and in a number of ways. With quarterback Jayden de Laura, there’s more confidence in the offensive attack going forward with the Wildcats after a 1-11 season. Cowing will also play alongside Dorian Singer and Tetairoa McMillan, guys who will more than likely take some targets from him, but there should be more than enough to go around in that offense given where the Wildcats are at in their rebuild.
No. 3: WR Seven McGee, Oregon
De’Anthony Thomas called plays for the Yellow team during Oregon’s spring game on Saturday. Fitting that the first offensive play for Yellow went for 70 yards to De’Anthony Thomas 2.0.
It’s entirely unfair to the sophomore wideout from Rochester, New York, to compare him to one of the most electric and entertaining college football players this century. Thomas is not just an Oregon legend, but a college football icon. But in watching McGee play, it’s just so hard not to think back to Thomas. He fits that ilk of Oregon speedsters who weren’t necessarily the biggest but would dazzle with their talent and quickness. “It means a lot, you know,” McGee said in the run-up to the spring game. “Watching the Ducks in the Rose Bowl, watching the Ducks who went to the national championship, watching De’Anthony Thomas when he was here, he’s a great player.”
McGee finished Oregon’s spring exhibition with 116 yards and a score on six catches. He earned a red-zone target flashing across the middle of the defense and paying off the drive that began with his first-play crosser. This is projecting quite a leap, considering that he finished with seven catches for 84 yards last season and thought about leaving the program after the coaching change, but there should be plenty of opportunities for Oregon pass-catchers in what looks to be an aggressive, downfield approach.
No. 2: WR Mario Williams, USC
Lincoln Riley had four 1,000-yard receivers in his first three seasons as the Oklahoma head coach—Hollywood Brown had 1,095 in 2017, then had 1,318 in 2018 while CeeDee Lamb had 1,158, then Lamb had 1,327 in 2019. In 11 games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Oklahoma’s leading receiver had 610 yards. Last season, Oklahoma’s leading receiver had 705.
That player was not Williams. The former top-50 recruit from the 2021 class finished fourth on his team with 35 catches for 380 yards and four scores. His breakout came in a 100-yard performance against the vaunted defense of Texas Tech.
This is, once again, projecting a leap. A few things are working in Williams’ favor, though. The first is that he has the best relationship with the guy who will be throwing him the football. With Mario Williams and Caleb Williams both at USC, it seems pretty likely that Mario will be one of Caleb’s favorite targets, particularly early in the season as the offense is trying to establish a rhythm. According to PFF’s numbers, he was one of only five Power Five wideouts to see at least 40 targets and drop none of them, and though he’s only 5-foot-9, he spent a large chunk of time outside. He caught two touchdowns in Saturday’s spring game, and both of them came from down in close. This is a very good receiver.
No. 1: WR Lincoln Victor, Washington State
All in on Washington State. All in on quarterback Cameron Ward. All in on the Coug Raid. All. In.
The Cougars ran the ball 26 times during their spring game on Saturday and threw it 76 times. Ward, the FCS transfer who looks like a legitimate potential star, went 21-for-30 on his pass attempts and totaled 246 yards and four scores. The Cougars are going to throw the ball all over the yard and given the four interceptions tossed by the other four WSU quarterbacks who played, there is no one coming to take Ward’s job. They are going to live by his arm or die by it.
And there should be some good living. Wazzu has an interesting collection of talent at pass-catcher. De’Zhaun Stribling had 483 yards and five touchdowns last season. He’s back. The tight end has returned to the Cougar offense with offensive coordinator Eric Morris now running the show. Redshirt freshman Josh Meredith looked promising in the spring game.
And then there’s Victor, the junior who shines as a route-runner. He caught six balls for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, Victor was a stalwart on coverage teams (love that) and caught 22 balls for 296 yards and two scores. He had a healthy 13.5 yards-per-catch average and no drops in 35 targets. Among Pac-12 receivers with at least 30 targets last season, PFF gave Victor the eighth-best receiving grade.
This offense is going to produce a 1,000-yard receiver, and Victor could very well be that guy.