Sean Mannion didn’t need the subtle playfake.

He didn’t need to square his shoulders to running back Storm Woods, feigning a handoff – receiver Brandin Cooks had already executed the slant to perfection, scampering inside of ULCA cornerback Sheldon Price. When Mannion turned to look downfield, he needed only fire a 10-yard rocket to his target and Cooks would handle the remaining 65. He burned past Price and a safety whose angle was nullified by Cooks’ speed. Eight seconds. Six points. 

Later in the same quarter, Mannion hurled a rainbow to his other prized wideout, Markus Wheaton, who had beaten Price in a 50-yard footrace to the back of the end zone. Different target, different throw, same result.

In the waning minutes of the first half, Oregon State led undefeated, and scorching-hot, UCLA. The Beavers’ combustible receiving duo – the speedy sophomore Cooks and the versatile senior Wheaton – accounted for both scores. The pair would go on to amass 15 catches for 325 yards – 65 percent of the team’s offense and 86 percent of yardage gained through the air. Thanks in large part to the receivers’ dual dominance, the Beavers pulled off a convincing 27-20 upset against the Bruins last week.

"I was very impressed -- not only with their defense, which I knew would be good going into the game -- but their offense,” Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr. told the Associated Press after the game. “They have two very explosive wide receivers."

RECEIVING YARDS PER GAME
NO. NAME SCHOOL YPG
1 Austin Franklin New Mex. St. 130.5
2 Marqise Lee Southern Cal 130.3
3 Brandin Cooks Oregon St. 127.5
4 Alex Amidon Boston Coll. 122.0
5 Markus Wheaton Oregon St. 118.5
6 Terrance Williams Baylor 117.7
7 Tavon Austin West Virginia 115.0
8 Stedman Bailey West Virginia 110.7
9 Jaime Wilson Western Mich. 107.5
10 Cobi Hamilton Arkansas 107.3
11 Quinton Patton La. Tech 106.3
12 Michael Campanaro Wake Forest 105.3
13 Justin Hunter Tennessee 102.5
14 Deandre Hopkins Clemson 101.8
15 Tevin Reese Baylor 101.3
Complete Receiving Statistics
All NCAA Statistics

Explosive, indeed. Cooks is currently second in the nation in receiving, averaging 127.5 yards-per-game. Wheaton stands fourth with an average of 118.5.

But they’re far from the only prevalent receiving duo this year. In fact, they might be the most unheralded among the nation’s budding crop of dynamic tandems.

As offenses have spread the field and sped up the pace in nearly every conference, the longstanding need for one overpowering receiver has doubled. Gone are the days of Jordy Nelson catching 122 balls for 1,606 yards – 1,001 yards more than any teammate – for Kansas State in 2007. Dez Bryant caught twice as many balls for three times as many yards as talented teammate Brandon Pettigrew – the team’s second-leading receiver – for Oklahoma State in 2008.

That blueprint, though followed for so long by so many, is gradually fading. In recent years, a few teams have had two receivers among the nation’s yardage leaders – Ryan Grice-Mullen and Davone Bess both finished in the top 15 in yards-per-game for Hawaii in 2007; James Casey and Jarett Dillard placed in the top 10 for Rice the next year – but it typically occurs at programs with unique, pass-happy systems outside of the big six conferences. But through the first third of this season, some notable duos comprised of four and five-star recruits at major programs have risen to prominence. Rather than looking to outshine teammates in a position sometimes characterized, especially professionally, by ego and selfishness, receivers have begun to embrace the concept of playing – and winning – as a unit.

“We said all this offseason we could be something special,” Cooks told the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., this week. “A lot of guys overlook our tandem. You gotta look at USC [Marqise Lee and Robert Woods] and guys like that which are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s time for us to step up and show the world that we can be a great tandem also.”

While Lee and Woods may have generated the most preseason fanfare, the nation’s best pair may reside far from the sunny shoes of Southern California. In the hills of West Virginia, receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey stand sixth and eighth, respecitvely, in receiving yards per game. The duo has caught more than half of Heisman candidate Geno Smith’s completed passes, snatched 10 scores and accounted for more than half of the Mountaineers’ receiving yards.

This weekend, they’ll square off against another standout twosome from Baylor. Terrance Williams (fifth nationally in YPG; 117.7) and Tevin Reese (15th; 101.3) have played integral roles in Baylor’s 3-0 start. Collectively, the four receivers are ranked Nos. 1-4 in receiving yards in the pass-happy Big 12. West Virginia may have more firepower overall, but the Mountaineers respect the emerging Bear duo.

“The receiving corps is so fast and quick that if you get the ball in their hands early and they make you miss, it's ugly," WVU co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest told the West Virginia MetroNews this week.

Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins stands 14th nationally in yards per game and may not even be the most talented receiver on the Tigers – Sammy Watkins, who finished 16th in the nation in yards per game as a freshman last year, is returning to form after a two-game suspension. While Hopkins kept Clemson’s aerial attack afloat in Watkins’ absence, hauling in 31 catches for 407 yards and five touchdowns (tied for second in the nation), Watkins has proved an extremely versatile weapon in his brief return. The sophomore tossed a 50-yard touchdown last week against Florida State and took a handoff 58 yards to the end zone in his first game back two weeks ago against Furman. In all, he’s amassed 95 rushing yards in two games along with his 10 catches. Boston College has the dubious honor of trying to stop the Clemson offense this weekend.

“They have all the weapons; they have it all,” Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani said this week on BCEagles.com. “Of course they have Watkins at wide receiver, but they have some other good players at wide receiver with very good speed.”

Woods and Lee of USC, the duo against which all others will be measured this season, are living up to the preseason hype.

In the upset loss to Stanford, USC head coach Lane Kiffin opted to go for it on fourth-and-19 in the first half. USC quarterback Matt Barkley dumped it underneath on a crossing route to Woods and let the junior do the rest. Woods got the 19, then five more yards for good measure. 

In USC’s Week 2 showdown with Syracuse, Woods and Lee were both offered the opportunity to run wild on reverses. Lee took his for 23 yards and Woods, after cutting back from one sideline to the other, galloped for 76. No surprise, Lee caught the ensuing four-yard touchdown pass from Barkley after Woods’ romp. Lee already has 40 grabs for 457 yards this year. Woods has 25 for 203 of his own. Together the duo has scored 10 of the Trojans 16 offensive touchdowns – the offense’s success rests almost entirely on their ability to make magic after Barkley delivers the ball. 

“That’s why you recruit; that’s why you spend so much time,” Kiffin said after the win against Syracuse. “You get guys like No. 9 [Lee] and No. 2 [Woods]. They make the plays look good.”