Last season's young receiving corps wasn't exempt from the offensive struggles of 2005. And when Craig Chambers, who accounted for half of the team's 12 receiving touchdowns, chose to transfer to Montana in search of a new start, the potential production appeared to have suffered a setback. But the building blocks are in place for a better passing game. Senior Sonny Shackelford, who doubled his season output to 41 catches last year, and junior Anthony Russo, whose average of 16.2 yards per catch was second highest amongst the principal receivers, return as seasoned starters. Including the development of newcomer Chancellor Young, the competition at receiver is one of the more encouraging signs of the spring.
A decorated talent from Seattle's O'Dea High School, Young took a circuitous route to Husky Stadium. After claiming the 3A state title in the 100- and 200-meter sprints in 2003, the Woodinville native led O'Dea to the championship game in his senior year with 25 receptions and 84 tackles from the safety spot. With his offensive prowess slightly obscured in a run-oriented offense, Young was one of four Washington high school players named to the U.S. Army All-American Game, primarily on the strength of his performance as a defensive back.
One of the state's most prized prospects from the class of 2004, Young received offers from several Pac-10 schools as well as Penn State and Notre Dame, but was lured to Duke by the opportunity for immediate playing time and the school's strong academic reputation. On a struggling team, the freshman struggled with the pressures of a more complex offense and the challenges of being so far from his family. After a season with muted results—two receptions for 15 yards, three kick returns for 67 yards—Young decided to return to the Emerald City and play for a family-approved coach. Chancellor's older brother, Charles, played for Tyrone Willingham at Stanford and was complimentary of his character and drive.
"For the most part, I was just an athlete in high school," said Young, whose father Charle finished his distinguished career at tight end in a Seattle Seahawks uniform. "Over the last year I've been working on the fundamentals of the receiver position."
Following the mandatory redshirt season, Young displayed the fruits of his labor this spring, culminating with a 55-yard touchdown catch in the Purple & Gold Game. The sophomore-to-be said he's improved his technique, including finding space in the zone, and his knowledge of the playbook, but Willingham lauded him for a different quality.
"Toughness. I think that one of his strong qualities is his toughness and how he plays physically," said the Husky head coach. "He's still learning the system and we have to be careful that you don't overload, in trying to give him everything (at once). But he seems to be one of those guys that when he catches it, likes to see if he can advance it on the run. He makes the tough catches and makes the tough blocks, and I like that. I think that's an ingredient that we need at our receiver position."
In an early April scrimmage, Young dispelled any notion that he's just a lightweight sprinter. The former DB shook off a punishing hit from Dashon Goldson that would have sidelined most players for at least a couple plays. With the speed necessary to be a deep threat, Young proved that he can come up with the catch in traffic, even if it means jeopardizing his body.
"People say we don't have the big-play receiver, but I think we do," said Russo, who flashed some speed in running under a 43-yard pass to open the Spring Game scoring. "We just have to execute the plays. People are going to be surprised by what we do next (season).
"(Chambers) was definitely a big-play guy—he made some huge plays for us. But we definitely have other big-play guys too. We have (JC transfer) Marcel Reece coming in too and he's a big guy and can make some plays."
Another transfer emerged in recent months to add spice to the battle for a spot in the WR two-deeps. Alex Mercier, a walk-on from neighboring Blanchet High School by way of Pasadena City College, garnered much praise in April for his abilities as a pass catcher and punt returner. A Music Management major, Mercier helped write and produce the single "Husky Nation," which he hopes will get noticed as quickly as his 4.4 speed.
"Alex Mercier had a great spring. Chancellor had a great spring," said Russo after the Purple & Gold Game. "Sonny was hurt unfortunately. Alex and Chancellor are making big pushes to start and Corey Williams has been playing the best I've seen him play."
With Isaiah Stanback exerting more leadership as he becomes more comfortable and knowledgeable in the quarterback role, the passing attack could become a more consistent weapon.
"Last year was (Stanback's) first real year at quarterback. Now that he's been able to focus (on the position), he's been able to harness his abilities," noted Young. "His reads are getting better and he's been more sharp and precise with his passes."
Along with his own strides, Stanback is optimistic the work ethic of the receivers will pay dividends in the fall. "Alex has really stepped up," said the senior signal-caller. "Russo really came off tough before he got the hip pointer. He's been aggressive and strong and he was one of the guys that did the best work in the off-season.
"Alex is one of those guys—in basketball they have gym rats—Alex is the same way with football. He loves the game and is always doing the extra work. In the off-season, he was always calling me, 'Isaiah, you want to go throw?'"
Charles Smith, one of a half-dozen juniors in the mix at receiver, joined Russo, Shackelford, Williams, and walk-on Sho Yoshinaga with two catches apiece as the Spring Game snaps were evenly divided. The passing game took a back seat in the second half because of the wind, which played a role in Stanback's only interception of the afternoon.
Cody Ellis supplied the other major highlight of the scrimmage as he slipped behind the Gold defense for a 67-yard catch-and-run to the goal line. Marlon Wood, who is progressing from the lower-leg fracture suffered at the end of a 92-yard kick return against USC, will also factor in the fall camp scramble at WR.
Russo said that receivers coach Eric Yarber has been emphasizing "yards after catch, being fast and explosive. That's the main thing that our coach was focusing on—explosion."
With more alert route adjustments and fewer drops, there are the makings of an improvement over last year's aerial attack, which averaged 222 yards per game, but tallied only 12 touchdowns.
"I definitely see the passing game putting up more points," said Young, who was a dedicated observer last season. "We're becoming crisper and we know each other better. The quarterbacks are reading better and are more comfortable in the pocket.
"Corey Williams has been having a fantastic spring ball, making some really good plays," Young continued. "Charles Smith has been doing a great job learning a new position within the receiving (group). Alex Mercier is fast and has been making big plays. Coaches have their eyes on them. There's going to be some pretty good competition in the fall. The receiving corps is going to have some really good guys vying for spots, so whoever you see out there, they're going to be doing a pretty good job."