Heading into last Saturday night's game at Arizona State, about the only thing Washington's receivers had caught was a lot of flak. Dismissed by reporters and dissed by opponents, they were a motley crew with a checkered past. There was the tight end trying to learn his sixth position (not including left out), the frustrated basketball player who was cajoled back onto the gridiron by his old junior high school quarterback, the world-class sprinter killing time until the Olympics, the 5'7" longhaired former walk-on and the knee-injury poster boy. These bits of biographical minutiae were all there was to talk about because there were no statistics to speak of—the Huskies' leading returning receiver caught eight balls last year, and he was their backup tailback.
"They're a real mysterious bunch," Arizona State's standout free safety Mitchell (Fright Night) Freedman said before the game. "I've been looking at some film, but I still can't figure out who's going to catch the ball for them."
Just about everybody, Fright Night Throughout Washington's wild 42-38 victory at Sun Devils Stadium, the Huskies receiving corps bedeviled Arizona State. In the game's final minute, on a nerve-jangling fourth-and-17, senior tight end Reggie Davis beat two defenders—including a late-arriving Freedman—on a 63-yard touchdown that killed the eighth-ranked Sun Devils. That brought his touchdown total for the game to two, which was the number of career receptions he had coming in. Amazingly, Davis didn't even rate as Washington's biggest surprise. That would be junior Dane Looker, who in the first game of his college career tied a 32-year-old school record with 11 catches, including two for touchdowns. Looker has been Washington quarterback Brock Huard's favorite target since they were junior high teammates in Puyallup, Wash., and it was Huard who persuaded Looker to give up his basketball career at Western Washington.
What made this coming-out party even more delicious was that Arizona State's receiving corps had been ranked third best in the nation by The Sporting News. Washington, meanwhile, was bemoaning the loss of star wideouts Jerome Pathon and Fred Coleman, who combined for 111 catches and 15 touchdowns last season, to the pros. But it was the loss of All- Pac-10 tailback Rashaan Shehee, another of the 10 Huskies taken in last year's NFL draft, that forced Washington to build its offense around Huard and his unheralded receivers. Lacking explosive backs, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan came up with a playbook full of four-and five-receiver sets, a modified West Coast offense that, with a wink, he calls the Pacific Northwest Coast offense. Against Arizona State the various spread formations allowed sophomore Ja'Warren Hooker, the NCAA indoor champion in the 55 meters and Pac-10 champ in the 100 and 200, to run fly routes that opened up the middle of the field for Joe Jarzynka, a diminutive junior with rock-star hair, who caught three passes, and Gerald Harris, a fourth-year sophomore coming back from separate surgeries for torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, who caught four passes. Huard threw 47 times, connecting on a career-high 27 passes (for 318 yards), spread out among six receivers. "There was a lot of confusion out there," said Sun Devils cornerback Courtney Jackson, "because on film we had never seen any Washington set that had four receivers, let alone five. Just goes to show how much you can do in a summer."
Indeed, Huard had put his receivers through extensive workouts this off-season, displaying the leadership expected from one of the few junior co-captains in the history of a program that has always revered seniors. Huard had been promised by no less an authority than agent Leigh Steinberg that he would have been the third quarterback taken in the NFL draft last January had he turned pro, but he stayed in Seattle because, he says, "I've got too much unfinished business to take care of in college football."
Huard already has 16 Husky career passing records, one of which is his 40 touchdown passes, six more than were thrown by his brother Damon, a three-year starter from 1993 to '95 who is now Dan Marino's backup in Miami. But Brock has been overshadowed by some of the conference's other top guns, among them UCLA's Cade McNown, a fellow lefthander with whom his Pac-10 career will always be linked. Coming out of Puyallup High, Huard was considered the top schoolboy quarterback on the West Coast, and he narrowed his choices to Washington and UCLA. McNown settled on those two schools also, and he made it clear he would go where Huard didn't. Huard signed with Washington, leaving UCLA for McNown—and both schools have been exceedingly happy ever since.
Following Saturday's victory Huard talked about his two star receivers, Davis and Looker, and the circuitous paths they have followed in their careers. A redshirt freshman in 1995, Davis showed considerable promise at linebacker, but over the next two seasons he unselfishly moved from H-back to inside linebacker to rover-back, all the while pulling double duty with special teams (for which he earned second-team, All- Pac-10 honors last year). When Davis was elected a co-captain this season, the joke was he got the nod only because he was friendly with players at so many positions. A formidable combination of size and speed at 6'3" and 235 pounds, Davis has finally found his best position. "Do I like tight end?" he said late Saturday night. "I love it now."
Size and speed—or the lack thereof—have been an issue for Looker throughout his athletic career, going all the way back to his first encounter with Huard, when the two were in fifth grade and met in the finals of a one-on-one tournament at a basketball camp. "I was at least half a foot taller, and I just abused him," says Huard, who at 6'5" is still four inches taller than his roommate. They became best friends, and the core of a potent passing attack in high school, where both were all-state. But Looker was a skinny 160 pounds, and no major football program was willing to spend a scholarship on him. He accepted a basketball scholarship to Western Washington, a Division II school in Bellingham, where he played both guard positions over two seasons with mixed success. During his time there, Looker spoke regularly to Huard by phone, and they often hung out in the summer. Looker says Huard had a habit of steering the conversation in a particular direction. "I wouldn't say he was recruiting me," Looker says, "but he'd be like, 'You know, we could sure use some more receivers.' "
Looker eventually gave in, his confidence stoked by the 30 pounds of muscle he had put on since high school. Though he has earned praise for his precise routes and Velcro hands, Looker's greatest strength may be the rapport he has with his quarterback. "Those two are on their own private wavelength," says Davis.
As the Huskies were milling around outside Sun Devil Stadium, waiting to pile onto the team bus, Looker was signing autographs while leaning heavily on a pair of crutches, made necessary by cramps in both legs as well as a deep thigh contusion. A red-eyed Huard, who had been so overwrought by the victory that he wept on the sideline, draped an arm over his friend's shoulder. "I'm so glad you made it," Huard said, beaming. "Could it be any better than this?"