It's no secret that WSU has had its fair share of trouble this year with big, athletic receivers, specifically tight ends.
San Diego State abused the Cougars with multiple tight end sets. UCLA took advantage of the fact that WSU was hyper aware of Joseph Fauria. Stanford's super trio of tight ends pretty much did whatever they wanted in the second half of homecoming. Even Arizona State, which doesn't have tight ends per se, found success lining up their big receivers in the slot and sending them down the seam.
In Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, WSU is facing its biggest challenge since the Cardinal came to town last month. In fact, what WSU is able to do with him could be one of the deciding factors of the 2011 Apple Cup.
Seferian-Jenkins is the Huskies' third-leading receiver in both receptions (32) and yards (417). At one time, Washington was known as a bit of a tight end factory, but that reputation had taken a bit of a hit in recent years. Seferian-Jenkins -- a true freshman -- is doing his very best to turn that back around.
There was a time last year when I privately speculated with friends about whether he'd actually end up as a tight end at UW. His Scout.com profile listed him at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, which was patently laughable to anyone who saw him in person (as I did). He was pretty easily 270, if not more, and it appeared he just might be growing into a left tackle.
However, another thing that was obvious to anyone who saw him in person was that if he could keep his weight under control he wasn't just going to be a good tight end -- he was going to be incredibly special. His combination of size, speed and agility proved that the five-star rating was no joke. Gig Harbor's offense last year consisted of lining him up all over the field and throwing it up to him repeatedly. It worked most of the time, too.
Seferian-Jenkins did more than keep his weight under control -- he shed a few pounds and made an immediate impact for the Huskies. He suffered a little bit of a lull against Arizona and Oregon, catching just one ball in each of those games. And teams have done a better job in the second half of the season in limiting him from getting downfield. But UW found other ways to use him on Saturday against Oregon State, when he caught six balls, including two touchdowns.
And you can bet that the fact that WSU has had plenty of trouble covering comparably talented tight ends isn't lost on UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
How WSU does in containing Seferian-Jenkins likely will be an important factor on Saturday. The problem is that they can't just give him the Fauria treatment -- Keith Price will undoubtedly find Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar if they pay too much attention to the big tight end.
It doesn't help that WSU is facing personnel problems in the areas Seferian-Jenkins is likely to target. C.J. Mizell is still banged up, and Mike Ledgerwood has been hit and miss. Tyree Toomer's issues in coverage have been well documented, and Deone Bucannon hasn't been great in that respect, either, and he's battling injuries, too. Casey Locker is good at hitting people, but can he cover?
WSU is going to have to be stronger up the middle than it has been most of the year.