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Five predictions for Washington Huskies’ football team heading into Aug. 31 opener against EWU

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

Regardless of the program, spring football and its 15 practices provide very little in the way of stone-cold certainties. But here are five predictions as coach Chris Petersen and his Washington Huskies head into the summer.

1. Jacob Eason will be the starting quarterback against Eastern Washington.

Let’s start under center. Unsurprisingly, junior Jacob Eason and sophomore Jake Haener shared first-team quarterback reps throughout the spring. The expectation entering April was that Eason – the former five-star phenom from Lake Stevens – would eventually win the job, and that’s still the case. Haener was probably the more consistently accurate of the two, but Eason simultaneously made more big plays and committed fewer costly errors.

That was also true in Washington’s annual scrimmage – the Spring Preview on April 27 – when Eason completed 7 of 12 passes for 42 yards and a 17-yard touchdown and Haener went 9 for 16 for 61 yards and an interception.

Don’t expect a hasty conclusion to this competition, but Eason ultimately gives the Huskies a higher ceiling and more options in the vertical passing game. If he can continue to limit mistakes, the junior Georgia transfer will start against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31.

2. Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton will form one of the best tight end tandems in the country.

It’s not often that a program loses a second-round tight end and somehow improves at the position.

But that may be the case for Washington this fall. The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Bryant – who was slowed by a knee injury in each of the past two seasons – is fully healthy, and it shows. He was UW’s most dynamic, consistent receiving threat throughout the spring. Likewise, Otton – who started 10 games as a redshirt freshman last season – has showcased reliable hands and a willingness to contribute in the running game.

Talent aside, Washington still has an unproven crop of wide receivers and a quarterback in Eason who was very comfortable throwing to his tight ends – specifically, Bryant – during the spring. The Huskies often operate in two tight end sets, and Bryant and Otton should be two of the best tight ends in the Pac-12

3. Jared Hilbers will be the Huskies’ starting right tackle.

OK, so this is less prediction and more spoiler. The thought prior to April was that the 6-7, 305-pound Hilbers – who started 11 games at left tackle in place of the injured Trey Adams last season – would be the frontrunner in a spirited competition to replace Kaleb McGary on the right side this spring. But that competition was essentially cancelled. Hilbers was the sole starter at right tackle during the practices open to the media.

Still, it’s conceivable that 6-6, 319-pound sophomore Henry Bainivalu – who appeared in all 14 games last season and can play both tackle positions – could challenge in August, especially considering that Hilbers appeared to struggle during the Spring Preview.

But don’t bet on it.

Barring any injuries or surprises, Washington’s starting offensive line on Aug. 31 will consist of left tackle Adams, left guard Luke Wattenberg, center Nick Harris, right guard Jaxson Kirkland and right tackle Hilbers. Specifically, Kirkland – a 6-7, 320-pound sophomore – was named one of six spring practice MVPs.

4. Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata will fuel an improved pass rush.

Washington’s four primary outside linebackers – Benning Potoa’e, Ryan Bowman, Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata – produced a combined three sacks last season.

Early in April, Tryon classified those contributions as “a pitiful amount.”

But how can the Huskies more consistently harass opposing quarterbacks? According to defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, Tryon and Ngata might be the answer.

“Those two names that you mentioned right there, from Day 1 to Day 15, are two guys that have really improved and have really shown up,” Lake said following the Spring Preview. “Our two focuses here in spring were getting more pressure on the quarterback and getting more turnovers, which we didn’t do enough of last year. I think those two guys really provided a spark for us.”

5. Julius Irvin will be a starting safety this fall.

It’s true, Julius Irvin did not participate in scrimmage drills this spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury.

But just listen to Lake.

“Kevin King played all the positions for us. I see Julius in the same mold,” Lake said in early April. “We could have him at corner. We could have him at nickel, or we could have him at either one of our safety spots. He’s that athletic. He’s that smart.”

If he’s that athletic, and he’s that smart – and he’s healthy – then Irvin should start. That would most likely happen at safety, where the redshirt freshman from Anaheim, Calif., lined up during individual drills throughout the spring. Consider also that Lake doesn’t seem set on starting junior Brandon McKinney, who was upstaged by early enrollee freshman Cam Williams late in April. And while Williams certainly impressed, it’s unlikely that Lake and Co. would want to insert a true freshman immediately in the starting lineup.

This is more of a hunch than a lock, but I’ll take Irvin to start alongside either McKinney or senior Myles Bryant in the season opener.

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