After losing Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler in consecutive seasons, Iowa State was without a true “alpha” receiver for the 2019 season. No matter, as the Cyclone passing attack set a bunch of school records and ranked as one of the best in the country overall.
Heading into 2020, Iowa State loses two big pieces in Deshaunte Jones and La’Michael Pettway, both of whom were crucial third down targets and could effectively pick up yards after the catch. Tarique Milton and Sean Shaw appear to be the two shoe-in starters at this point, but the Cyclones will be looking for their third starter to make an impact early on.
Enter sought-after JUCO signee Xavier Hutchinson, who’s transferring from Blinn College in Texas. At 6’3” 200 lbs, Hutchinson will likely get his first looks on the outside at either the X or Z positions, but he has the skill and athleticism to slide inside as well.
Even at his size, Xavier is a versatile receiver that can be used all over the field, but I think his first action at Iowa State will be as a downfield threat. He’s not necessarily a field-stretching speed demon, but he’s got enough speed and quickness to combine with his ability to track deep balls in the air and a pair of soft hands to become an effective deep threat almost immediately.
His route-running is currently ahead of most receivers that come out of JUCO. At Blinn, we saw him all over the field in all sorts of roles. Tunnel screens, drags, crosses, sticks, flies/gos, posts, corners, curls/hitches, and pretty much everything else. He’s got a huge route tree, and can be Iowa State’s route running extraordinaire.
Another thing that will get him on the field early is his ability and willingness as a blocker in the running game. As has been demonstrated in the past, if a receiver is a willing blocker, Matt Campbell will find a way to get him some early playing time.
Let’s start with Xavier as a vertical threat. He gets a solid jump off the line and does a nice job making a quick move to the outside to force the cornerback to turn his hips and lose a bit of speed. Xavier then turns his head and makes a contested catch almost identical to Allen Lazard’s game-winning TD catch down in Norman in 2017.
Here, we see a nice explosion off the line before Xavier shows us something interesting. If you blink you’ll miss it, but five yards downfield, he makes an ever so slight stutter step to cause just little a hesitation and give himself a chance to eat up some extra vertical ground while the defensive back recovers.
The DB does a solid job in recovery, but then Mr. Hutchinson absolutely Mosses him for a long gain.
On multiple occasions, Xavier used that quick first step to flat-out burn safeties over the top, but I didn’t include those clips in this piece since plays like that are harder to project to the Power 5 level, where those positions will have significantly better talent.
Now that we’ve successfully hit the defense vertically, let’s break tendency. Like a great baseball pitcher using a similar arm angle to disguise his changeup and fastball, Xavier uses multiple “looks” to disguise his routes. Here, we see that explosion off the line yet again, and Xavier appears to be streaking down the sideline. Then, he quickly plants is foot fifteen yards down field and turns to the sideline on a well-executed hitch route.
Let’s get away from the sideline and work the middle of the field. We see another good release off the line before Xavier plants his foot and uses his hands to brush away the defender that’s still trying to turn his hips around and catch up to Xavier’s route. Then, he makes the catch and picks up a few extra yards.
Hopefully the pattern you’re seeing is Xavier’s ability to read his defender and take advantage of poor technique and/or positioning. He runs his routes like he’s always one step ahead of his defender. Chess instead of checkers.
If you recognize this route, it’s likely because you’ve watched a Cowboys game some time over the past couple decades. Jason Witten essentially pioneered this route called “stick.” When executed properly, it’s virtually impossible to defend. Fortunately, Xavier is pretty good at it, and the defender has absolutely no hope of catching up to the receiver after he makes his turn.
I really like this route. The play doesn’t end in a huge gain, but the route running here is fun to watch. We see Xavier start off with a hesitation to lull his defender to sleep before quickly turning on the jets and coming across the field on a drag route. Not only is this a showcase of his quickness in space, but it shows intelligence in finding that space and using timing and footwork to take advantage of imperfect defenders.
But what can he do after the catch? Here, he’s already made a catch in space on a well-run delay route. Now watch him take on basically the entire defense and fight for extra yards. Xavier does this on an extremely consistent basis. He’s never satisfied with simply catching the ball and going down.
I promised you run blocking, so here’s your run blocking. Xavier does a textbook job here of sealing off his defender to the inside to create room along the sideline for the ballcarrier to burst upfield. He also does a nice job sticking with his block and letting the ball carrier do his job, rather than releasing from his block too early and allowing the defender to make a stop from behind.
As with all of my player comps I do in scouting reports, they are a reflection of a style of play, and not that of overall talent level. I try to find more recognizable players so people can get a good sense of what a player is like without having to look up some obscure player that’s only marginally more comparable.
That said, I like a comparison to former Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. The Cowboy offense put the 6’1” Blackmon all over the field, and used him to eat up a ton of targets in the Brandon Weeden-led offense. Blackmon had good speed (4.46 at the combine) and good hands, but his greatest trait was his ability to use his route running and his physicality to be open on basically every route he ran. Even on crossing routes with a defensive back right on his back shoulder, he had the ability to box that defender out and make the catch.
That’s Xavier’s greatest trait as well. He’s just really good at getting open. Whether it’s making a great turn on a stick route, selling the go route before quickly stopping and turning on a hitch, or using his hands to create separation off the line of scrimmage for a slant route, he has whatever he tool he needs on any given route to get open.
He’s got great size at 6’3”, so he can make the contested downfield catches and win the 50/50 balls against smaller defensive backs. However, he’s also quick in and out of his route breaks, and has a quick first step off the line of scrimmage to help him maneuver around the linebackers and safeties that can contend better with his size.
So what does all that mean for Iowa State? It means you can put Xavier Hutchinson anywhere on the field and give him any route to run, and he will find a way to get open more times than not. Want to stretch the field a little? Send him on a fly or post route. Need a first down? Run him on a slant against man coverage and let him use that size to box out his man.
With all of the receivers, tight ends, and running backs Brock Purdy has at his disposal, there won’t be very many opportunities to dedicate multiple defenders to defending Hutchinson. If the defense turns their attention to Mr. Hutchinson, they still have to deal with Charlie Kolar, Tarique Milton, Sean Shaw, Breece Hall, and a bevvy of other talented playmakers.
Even better is that you don’t need to take him off the field on running downs. Xavier is a willing and capable blocker in the running game that could nicely compliment a slot tight end in creating some space on an outside zone or stretch type of run.
He’s a guy that you can keep on the field every single down.
Xavier Hutchinson is as complete of a receiver as we’ve seen under Matt Campbell. He’s part Deshaunte Jones, part Hakeem Butler. He can run and get open on any route in the tree. He can make plays after the catch. He’s a capable and willing blocker in the running game.
The entire catch with JUCO guys is how quickly they can pick up the playbook and system and get up to speed with a Power 5 team. With an odd schedule due to the pandemic, I don’t know how fast he can transition. Heck, sometimes JUCO guys just never make the transition. For the record, I think he’ll be just fine.
No matter what, he’ll still have to earn his snaps in a crowded and talented wide receiver room. Even once he’s on the field, he’ll still have to share targets with the rest of those receivers, as well as a couple solid pass-catching running backs and what might be the best tight end group in college football.
However, if he’s able to get on the same page with Brock Purdy and pick up the offense quickly, Xavier Hutchinson has the ability to be a big time difference-maker in the offense sooner than later.
It could be October or later, before we really see Xavier get up to speed and start making a consistent impact, but his tape shows that if and when that time comes, he has the skill, athleticism, and talent to be a bonafide number one receiver in a Cyclone passing game that ranked as one of the best in the country in 2019.