Washington receiver Dante Pettis was fully aware of all the attention the Huskies received during the offseason. He didn’t really need to tune it out because, for him, it didn’t affect the way he went about his business.
From what he could tell, most of what was out there didn’t set the bar high enough.
“They were saying we could have a good year -- 10 wins or whatever,” Pettis said.
No problem, he thought. With the way the team finished last season, all the talent it had coming back and the return of fellow receiver John Ross, 10 wins might have been a little disappointing. Even so, what the Huskies -- and Pettis individually -- have accomplished to this point is no less satisfying.
Not only did they win the Pac-12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but Pettis and Ross also became one of the most feared receiving duos in the country and one of the most productive ever. Their 31 combined touchdown receptions -- 17 for Ross, 14 for Pettis -- are a Pac-12 record for teammates. Only 11 other teams in the country had that many receiving touchdowns this year.
“I was actually talking to [Ross] about that the other day,” Pettis said. “We’re like, ‘Dang, that’s pretty special.’ We’ve done some good things this year, but we’re not done yet.”
Before this year, Pettis was known more for his exploits as a punt returner. He took over that role in the second game of his true freshman year (2014), and since then, no one in college football has more punt return yards (841) or punt returns for touchdowns (5).
His most important came Oct. 29 in Salt Lake City.
The Huskies took an early 14-0 lead on then-No. 17 Utah, but the lead evaporated and the score was tied at 24 late in the game. With less than four minutes to play, Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky, the Ray Guy Award winner, boomed a punt from the back of his end zone that Pettis fielded at the UW 42. He retreated as he looked for space, and when he found it, he was off. A couple missed tackles (and questionable blocks) later, Pettis found the end zone for what turned out to be the game-winning score.
It was the most consequential play of Washington’s season. Without it, it’s fair to wonder if the Huskies would have found another way to secure the win -- one that was necessary for their playoff selection.
As a receiver, the strides Pettis has made this season were significant. He went from 17 to 30 catches in his first two years but had just one touchdown reception each year. Through the Pac-12 title game, Pettis has 50 catches for 796 yards to go with those 14 touchdowns.
“I think last year people would get kind of physical with him, and he’d have to work to get off that,” quarterback Jake Browning said. “Now I think the confidence part -- going into your third year of playing, he played a lot as a true freshman and then last year as a sophomore -- just taking that next step. I think he has always worked hard, but you kind of get over that curve where you have these little things you need to work on.”
Pettis has also developed a reputation for taking advantage of his uncommon leaping ability to make acrobatic catches. His highlight reel from the season will eventually be worth bookmarking on YouTube, but there are two catches worth watching right now.
On both plays, Pettis provided the ultimate humiliation for a defensive back: They were flagged for defensive pass interference, and Pettis still caught the ball and scored a touchdown. This one against Oregon required the use of just one hand, and this one in the Apple Cup against Washington State left the corner on the ground 10 yards away while Pettis walked into the end zone.
For Ross, it’s easy to understand why Pettis has blossomed into one of the nation’s best playmakers.
"Because he’s special,” said Ross, who hosted Pettis on his visit to Seattle as a recruit. “Everything about him -- his work ethic, his mental game. Everything that he has been working for is showing up.”
Of course, it helps that Ross, arguably the Pac-12’s most dangerous offensive threat, gets a healthy amount of attention from opposing defenses. Pettis knew that would be the case coming into the season.
“It changes a lot of things when there is a guy who can run a 4.2 [40-yard dash] on the field,” Pettis said. “Defenses look to at him, ‘We can’t let him run right past us.’ They see he needs an extra guy.”
Then again, so does Pettis.