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CU football: Pac-12 builds on heritage of elite wide receivers

Colorado senior wide receiver Nelson Spruce is the all-time Pac-12 leader in receptions and one of the conference stars at the position.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado senior wide receiver Nelson Spruce is the all-time Pac-12 leader in receptions and one of the conference stars at the position.

Best of the best

The Pac-12 Conference is loaded with talent at wide receiver. In fact, the talent might be more impressive than ever before. Here’s a look at 10 of the best:

Bralon Addison, Oregon, Jr.: His numbers (45 catches, 564 yards, six TDs) don’t jump off the page, but he might be the first Pac-12 receiver drafted in 2016 if he leaves school early.

Thomas Duarte, UCLA, Jr.: On 44 catches, Duarte has 696 yards – an impressive average of 15.8 yards per catch.

Shay Fields, Colorado, So.: An injured ankle has slowed him down during the second half of this season, but he has proven to be a dangerous threat on deep routes.

Cayleb Jones, Arizona, Jr.: His numbers are down a bit from last year, when he topped the 1,000-yard mark, but he’s still one of the most dangerous threats in the Pac-12.

Kenny Lawler, California, Jr.: Cal spreads the ball around so much that none of their receivers have huge numbers, but Lawler is one of the top playmakers in the conference. He has 10 touchdowns among his 46 catches.

Gabe Marks, Washington State, Jr.: A semifinalist for the Belitnikoff Award, he the Pac-12 in catches per game (8.1) and TD catches (13), and ranks second in receiving yards (95.7 per game).

Jordan Payton, UCLA, Sr.: The top target for freshman QB Josh Rosen, Payton came into the weekend with 64 catches for 904 yards.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC, So.: A semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, he leads the Pac-12 in yards (116.0 per game) and averages18.4 yards per catch.

Nelson Spruce, Colorado, Sr.: The Pac-12’s all-time leader in catches (279), Spruce is the first player in Colorado history with 3,000 receiving yards (3,116).

Dom Williams, Washington State, Sr.: He came into the weekend ranking third in school history in reception yards and fifth in catches. This year, he’s fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per game.

Over the years, Troy Walters has seen dozens of great wide receivers come through the Pac-12 Conference.

There might be more great ones in the conference now, however, than at any time in the past.

“I don’t know if they had the depth, but each team probably had one guy that was their go-to elite (receiver),” Walters, now the receivers coach at Colorado, said of his time as player at Stanford, from 1996-99. “After that it might have been a drop-off.

“Now each team has two guys, maybe three, that you really have to pay attention to.”

On Saturday night, five of those guys played in Pullman, Wash., as Colorado took on Washington State.

Colorado’s Nelson Spruce is the all-time Pac-12 leader in catches, while sophomore Shay Fields is already making his mark as an elite playmaker in the passing game.

On the other side of the field, Washington State features Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and River Cracraft.

Those five players all came into the weekend ranked among the Pac-12’s top 10 in receiving yards per game. Marks leads the conference in catches per game (8.1), while Spruce is second (6.7).

That group is hardly alone.

USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the best receiver in the country. UCLA’s Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, Oregon’s Bralon Addison, Cal’s Kenny Lawley, Arizona State’s D.J. Foster and Arizona’s Cayleb Jones are all among the elite.

Marks and Smith-Schuster are both among the 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top receiver in college football.

“It’s talented from top to bottom,” said Walters, the 1999 Biletnikoff winner and still the Pac-12’s leader in career receiving yards (4,047). “That’s been the story of the Pac-12. Even when I played, it was a skill man’s league. You need skill on the outside.”

The skill on the outside is probably greater than it’s ever been in the Pac-12, which makes Spruce proud to be considered among the elite.

“Yeah, I do (take pride in that), especially because I’m someone that, coming out of high school, flew under the radar,” he said. “Now that I’m getting my opportunity, it’s good to be showing that I can be one of the top guys in a top conference.”

Being one of the top guys in this conference might mean more, Spruce said.

“I think the Pac-12 is known as one of the top two conferences in America,” he said. “The type of secondaries we face, we face a lot of man coverage, so I think it does mean a little bit more playing in the Pac-12.”

Playing receiver in the Pac-12 means that there will be plenty of opportunities to make plays. Pac-12 teams love throwing the ball, and that has created some big-time receiving numbers.

A year ago. Spruce was one of three players to catch more than 100 passes. In conference history, there has been just nine 100-catch seasons, so to have three in one year is remarkable.

The big numbers are helping today’s receivers set records, but Walters said those numbers shouldn’t be downplayed.

“When you throw the ball 50-60 times, you’re going to have those type of numbers, but also you have to get open,” Walters said. “It’s a receiver-driven league, but it’s also a (defensive back)-driven league. There are a lot of great secondaries and corners, so you’ve got to get open. If you have those numbers, it’s because you’ve worked to get them.”

Colorado’s defensive backs enjoy the challenge of trying to make opposing receivers work hard for their stats. It’s not an easy challenge, though.

“You just have to prepare,” CU cornerback Kenneth Crawley said. “You know you’re going to go against some of the best receivers. These are the best receivers in the country. It’s a good opportunity to challenge yourself and be on your A game.”

The level of talent at receiver doesn’t appear to be diminishing any time soon. Even at Colorado, losing Spruce will be huge, but Fields is waiting in the wings.

“He has all the physical ability,” Spruce said. “I just try to get on him about the little things, the mental side of the game, being a pro day in and day out.

“If he really focused and puts the work in, he can be a really big playmaker in this league.”

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.