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Originally published November 11, 2009 at 8:32 PM | Page modified November 11, 2009 at 11:16 PM

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Jermaine Kearse emerges as key part of Huskies' talented group of young receivers

Sophomore from Lakes leads Huskies in receiving yards, after slow start.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Oregon State, 12:30 p.m., FSN

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Jermaine Kearse isn't quite sure he can explain those plays where he simply leaps over a defender and comes down with the ball, as happened twice for touchdowns Saturday against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

"It's a weird feeling," said the sophomore receiver for the Washington Huskies. "It's just something I have a feel for, and it just happens to go my way a lot."

Washington receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty said he knows what that feeling is — confidence.

"He just believes when the ball goes up in the air that it is his," Dougherty said. "That goes a long way for a receiver. He's playing really, really confidently right now."

In the process, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Lakes High graduate has become one of UW's hottest receivers and worked his way into the Pac-10 leaders.

Kearse has 14 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns in the past three games, capped by a seven-catch, 114-yard day at UCLA, the latter number a career high.

He ranks eighth this week in the Pac-10 in receiving yards per game (61.7), and his 555 yards leads the Huskies.

This is what UW coaches expected last spring when they took over and Kearse turned in a number of good days to lead them to believe he might be the team's go-to receiver this fall.

Then August rolled around and Kearse suddenly began dropping almost as many balls as he was catching.

"He was struggling," Dougherty said. "He wasn't himself at all. He was kind of like a shell of a guy at that point."

Dougherty said he began to notice Kearse hanging his head at times, which led to something of an intervention with Kearse one day on the field at Husky Stadium. Dougherty told Kearse to watch clips of Kearse's spring catches, to "reaffirm that's who you were."

That day, Dougherty said, Kearse began to turn his season around, though first he had to get back in the lineup.

During his down period, freshman James Johnson emerged, creating even more competition in a crowded receiving corps. Kearse had just two catches for 12 yards in the opener against LSU, and in the fourth game of the year at Stanford, simply didn't get on the field much in the second half. Coaches said later they had to find a way to get Kearse more time, and that week began playing him more out of the slot instead of just out wide.

He responded the next week with a career-high eight catches against Notre Dame (helping take up the slack with Devin Aguilar out with an injury) and has averaged almost six catches a game since.

Kearse envisioned himself as strictly a basketball player during much of his youth — he teamed with UW football teammate Kavario Middleton to help lead Lakes to the 3A state title game as a senior — and UW coach Steve Sarkisian says those skills were evident in the two TD catches at UCLA.

"He's a good basketball player, and he's got great body control when the ball is in the air," Sarkisian said. "And one thing he does as good or better than anybody I've been around is he can high-point the football. You notice when he catches the ball his arms are completely extended. Some guys wait until the ball gets into the body. That's a difference of almost three feet."

The connection didn't work at a most critical time against UCLA — a Locker pass to Kearse that was broken up and intercepted with a minute left — though that doesn't diminish the coaches' good feeling about Kearse and the rest of the receivers.

Johnson (36 catches), Kearse (34) and Aguilar (31) have combined for 101 catches, and all have at least two more years with the Huskies, making the position maybe UW's strongest.

"We are excited about their potential and where they are headed and think they will only get better as they learn the nuances of the position," Dougherty said. "We are really excited about where those guys are at this young stage of their careers. They are really starting to turn it on right now."

Notes

• Sarkisian said DT Cameron Elisara (stinger) and LB E.J. Savannah (hand) won't play Saturday. Cort Dennison will start a second straight game in place of Savannah. The return from sickness of Everrette Thompson will help fill in for Elisara.

• Sarkisian confirmed that junior cornerback Matt Mosley will transfer, saying Mosley will graduate this winter and wants a chance to play.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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