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Meet college football's best receiving corps

STILLWATER, Okla. — This fall, Oklahoma State will be able to send the preseason favorite for the Biletnikoff Award out wide on one side.

Rotate a pair of athletic specimens opposite him.

Line up the Big 12’s top returning pass-catcher out of the slot.

And bring two former ESPN 300 recruits off the bench.

Oklahoma State's receiving corps has all the pieces to be the best in school history.

And, perhaps, the best in college football in 2017.

“It’s loaded,” said Cowboys senior quarterback Mason Rudolph, who smiled while seemingly contemplating the array of enticing options he’ll have. “That was part of the reason I came back. What quarterback wouldn't want to with the momentum and the depth chart and the team I’ve got to distribute the ball to?

“It’s going to be fun.”

For opposing defenses? Not so much.

At receiver, the Cowboys boast depth, size, speed, playmaking, versatility and, above all, a premier go-to option in James Washington.

Like Rudolph, Washington had the opportunity to leave for the NFL draft but elected to return for his senior year. Having already delivered back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Washington compiled more receiving yards in 2016 than any other returning Power 5 wideout with 1,380.

“Tremendous ball skills,” said Rudolph, who still marvels that Washington was just a two-star recruit coming out of Stamford, Texas. “Explosive, has body control, and he can just run by you.”

Colorado’s highly touted defense discovered that the hard way in the Valero Alamo Bowl, as Washington torched the Pac-12 South champs for 171 yards on nine catches. Coach Mike Gundy agrees that Washington is “comparable” to former Oklahoma State great Justin Blackmon, who twice captured the Biletnikoff as the nation’s most outstanding receiver.

In the past, defenses have been able to limit Washington’s damage with double-teams and bracket coverage. This season, that won't be so easy.

“If they want to try and double-team James, we’ll have somebody else open,” fellow wideout Chris Lacy said. “With as many weapons as we have, defenses are not going to be able to focus on just one person. We have a lot of different players that can make plays.”

Lacy is one of those players after a breakout junior season that featured 100-yard receiving showings against TCU and Texas Tech and a two-touchdown performance in a win over Texas.

“Cerebral, smart, a great blocker, physical,” Rudolph said of Lacy, who’s an engineering major. “He’s a playmaker now, too. That was his knock — in practice, he would run the route perfectly, blow by somebody and wouldn’t make the catch. But he was money last year.”

Three-year starting slot man Jalen McCleskey was money, as well, finishing third in the Big 12 last year with 73 receptions to go along with seven touchdowns.

“He’s a shorter guy, but he’s got a lot of explosiveness and power,” Washington said of the 5-foot-10 McCleskey, whose father, J.J., played in the NFL for the Saints and Cardinals. “In practice, sometimes bigger guys will get under his skin, and he just goes right back at them.”

Yet as prolific as the returning trio of Washington, Lacy and McCleskey is, it’s what Oklahoma State will be adding to its receiving corps that could make it the envy of the country.

2015 starter Marcell Ateman has rejoined the offense after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The silver lining of that injury was Ateman was able to redshirt during what was supposed to be his senior year to be eligible for this season. Ateman, who finished with 766 receiving yards in 2015, has bulked up his 6-foot-4 frame to more than 225 pounds, without, according to Rudolph, losing any of his speed from two seasons ago.

“I love throwing to him,” Rudolph said. “You’ve got room for error with him.”

Ateman’s return, however, hasn’t been the only noteworthy development for the Cowboy receivers this spring. LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, a former ESPN 300 signee, has been dazzling coaches and teammates with his knack for producing big plays.

“He’ll be something big for us this year,” Washington said.

Gundy noted he’s being cautious about “drinking the Kool-Aid too early” with Johnson, but also confessed that “to this point, he's been pretty impressive with some of the plays he's made.”

Rudolph went even as far as to call Johnson the Cowboys’ best “guy with the ball in his hands with people in front of him,” a lofty compliment given Oklahoma State’s other weapons.

“He’s got Odell Beckham-like feet,” said Rudolph, referring to another former LSU receiver who went on to become an All-Pro with the New York Giants. “A quick twitch, shifty, great hands — a natural talent. We’re trying to reel him in. Reel him in and you’ve got a dude.”

Considering Oklahoma State has another ESPN 300 recruit on the way in Tylan Wallace to go along with yet even more capable returning options such as Dillon Stoner, and, well, it's not difficult to see why Rudolph has been smiling this spring.

“We have a bunch of weapons,” Lacy said. “We have a lot of speed. A lot of size.

“We have everything.”