In the first four games of the season, few receivers were dominating as James Washington was for Oklahoma State. He was sitting among the Big 12’s leaders in virtually every category in large part thanks to a 296-yard, two touchdown performance to take down Pittsburgh.
He was playing as everyone expected coming off a thousand-yard campaign his sophomore season, earning a seat on the all-conference preseason team. Now that the Cowboys are in the thick of their conference schedule — playing the teams most familiar with how the Pokes roll — teams have started to lock down on him, and Jalen McCleskey has been the main benefactor.
“He’s in the right spot in our schemes if the other team is trying to play heavy on James (Washington). He’s also a good football player,” coach Mike Gundy said Monday.
“He plays fearlessly and has a gym rat mentality. We wouldn’t be near as successful now, or maybe not even remotely close, if he wasn’t in our lineup.”
If you want to measure “gym rat-ness” for a slot receiver, it doesn’t get much greater than McCleskey clocking in at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash out of high school last year. He has only gotten better physically since then, making defenses attention on Washington only half of the equation.
In the past four games, McCleskey leads the team with 378 yards and four touchdowns. Each week he has posted at least 60 yards whereas Washington has been shut out on occasion. Washington is second on the team with 369 yards and three touchdowns over that span, so he’s not that far off. What’s most striking, though, is how McCleskey is providing a dual role as both a possession receiver and a deep threat.
The past four contests, he has two games averaging over 20 yards per reception (each ending in 100 yards). His season average now stands at 12.3 yards, 30 percent better than his average catch last season, in which he was solely a slot receiver. However, he can still fulfill that role when the game plan calls for it, as showcased against West Virginia with his second double-digit reception game (the only two for the Cowboys this season).
This emergence has also caught the eye of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
“A lot of our players aren’t surprised by the limelight or the attention or the statistics and I think McCleskey falls into that category,” Yurcich said. “He’s always seen himself as a productive player and has anticipated his success.”
McCleskey has not been the sole beneficiary of teams trying to double down on Washington. In the beginning of the season, Jhajuan Seales seemed to the Robin to his Batman having a 129-yard performance against Pittsburgh. He has since dropped off being replaced by McCleskey, and against West Virginia, the 6-foot-3 Chris Lacy had two touchdowns on just three receptions.
Despite the drop in his own production, Washington seems to be taking this all in stride even if it’s costing him a bid for a Biletnikoff campaign.
“He’s such a humble guy, I don’t know if he thinks about that, but he should have pride in that,” Yurcich said. “Those numbers and to be diverse as a receiving corps, he should be proud of that. They make each other better in a lot of different ways.”