Fall training done, the sixth-ranked Washington Huskies (3-0) soon will have to go to class during the day, then go to work in the afternoon prepping for opponents of a caliber similar to their own. If they take anything from the eggless omelette of the preseason, which concluded Saturday night with a 48-16 win (box) over overwhelmed Fresno State, it is that they have a singular weapon capable of bending foes to his will and skill.
Who isn’t the graduated John Ross.
Dante Pettis has been revealed at a higher level this season, a Ross-style slayer of football worlds.
His four touchdowns, three by receptions and one by an NCAA-record-tying punt return, underscored what was known of him entering the season. But there was that first-quarter pass he threw, 36 yards to TE Hunter Bryant . . .
“I wish I could have led him more down the sideline instead of straight upfield,” he said.
So is he a better passer than a punt returner?
“I think so,” he said.
He was grinning. If it were really true, he’d be playing the Seahawks Sunday as the rookie quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
But Pettis remains a Husky for his senior season, whose possibilities seem larger with each weekend.
He has a punt return for a TD in each of the first three games, tying the NCAA record, and equaling the UW record for a single season. His 77-yarder Saturday, which put the Huskies up 27-0 before the game was 10 minutes old, tied the NCAA record for career punt return TDs with eight, shared by Wes Welker (Texas Tech, 2000-03) and Antonio Perkins (Oklahoma, 2001-04).
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said he thought his coverage team had him right where they wanted.
“We punted the ball into the boundary and tried to pin him in and he still got out of there,” said Tedford, who spent last season at Washington as an offensive consultant. “He is so slippery, and has great balance and great speed.
“He’s an excellent player.”
Pettis scored UW’s second TD on a four-yard pass from QB Jake Browning, and the fifth TD early in the second quarter from seven yards on a perfect fade route throw-and-catch. He capped Washington’s scoring on the second play of the second half, a 73-yard bomb over the top of the Bulldogs’ defense that looked so casually easy it almost snored.
That brought his career TD total to 20, sixth all-time on the Washington list, one behind TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Pettis hasn’t quite processed the ascent up the charts.
“Kinda crazy,” he said. “Coming into college it was something I never thought I could do. I didn’t even know I was going to be a punt returner, to be honest.”
When he arrived in 2013 from San Clemente, CA., Pettis found Jaydon Mickens and Marvin Hall ensconced as the holdover punt returners. But Huskies coach Chris Petersen, who mentors the special teams personally, always holds open tryouts for the return jobs.
“Coach Pete was like, ‘If you want to be a punt returner, come back here,” Pettis said. “I stuck around. He’s the same kind of coach on special teams: Very detailed. Everything has to be perfect.
“It pays off.”
Petersen recalled what most impressed him about the freshman was his comfort and security in handling the ball.
“He was a natural catcher,” Petersen said. “We try out guys with four or five balls. You can tell right away guys who have a natural feel for catching.
“I think Dante’s gotten better, I really do. He’s got a lot of confidence, and a lot of confidence in his blockers. He’s gotten better as a runner in the open field, breaking tackles.”
Chuckling about Pettis’s pass to Hunter, a play that began as a lateral from Browning, he said he might have to see Pettis can kick field goals and punt too. But now that word has gone national about Pettis, his opportunities for returns figure to dwindle.
“It’s going get harder for him, I know that,” he said. “They’ll kick it in front of him, away from him, out of bounds.”
Regarding the bigger picture, he pumped the brakes a little: “We don’t want to turn this into the Dante Pettis Show, because that eventually goes away.”
But Pdttis did lead UW’s receivers with five catches for 92 yards and had the game’s two biggest plays.
Part of Pettis’s dominance was because Fresno State loaded up to stop the run, which they did fairly well: Washington had 92 yards on 30 carries. Another part of it was the injury absences of WRs Chico McClatcher and Andrew Baccellia.
Nine Huskies besides Pettis had their hands on passes on a night when Browning was white-hot — 19 of 22 for 255 yards and four TDs.
“A lot of guys caught a lot of balls tonight and that’s how we want it,” Petersen said. “He’s not just throwing to throw to Dante, Jake is throwing it to the open guy.”
Still, no one gets open as much and as quickly as Pettis. Sure, results have come in a three-game exhibition season, but it’s also true if you don’t keep him busy, Pettis will be happy to run with Petersen’s job too.