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Five questions to answer as fall camp gets underway at Washington

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 1, 2019

Washington wide receiver Aaron Fuller catches a pass over Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade during the second half of the Rose Bowl  Jan. 1, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)
Washington wide receiver Aaron Fuller catches a pass over Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade during the second half of the Rose Bowl Jan. 1, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Washington’s 2019 season will come down to the following questions.

(OK, before you protest, a disclaimer: We all know it’s never that simple. Football games are decided by dozens of simultaneous collisions – by play calls and penalties and injuries and fluttering 40-yard kicks. A bad bounce or blown ligament can puncture your playoff hopes. A missed assignment can mean the difference between a conference title and a national coaching search. The totality of a season cannot be contained in a single story. But …)

For the sake of this exercise, let’s embrace the above premise. Let’s shut our eyes and pretend that, if these five questions are effectively answered, Washington will break through its recent 10-win barrier. Let’s accept that the following topics are the final rungs on a ladder that leads to the CFP promise land.

Before UW officially kicks off training camp on Friday, let’s look at five questions the Huskies need to answer to rule the Pac-12 again.

1. Has Washington upgraded the quarterback position?

This may seem on the surface like an unfair question, considering that the Huskies’ previous starter – Jake Browning – holds program records for career passing yards, completions, touchdowns, pass efficiency rating and lowest interception percentage.

But in this case, the statistics deceive. Browning’s relative decline is well-documented; the current Minnesota Viking threw 43 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in 2016, as opposed to 16 touchdowns and 10 picks last season. His 228 passing yards per game ranked 45th nationally and eighth in the Pac-12.

It’s not that Browning was bad. His receiving corps, without John Ross and Dante Pettis, left much to be desired, and first-year offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan’s play-calling was the subject of near-constant scrutiny.

Still, there is inarguably room for an upgrade. Can either junior Jacob Eason or sophomore Jake Haener deliver it? It’s worth noting that, of the 20 starting quarterbacks who have participated in the College Football Playoff, 10 finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency rating.

The (exceedingly obvious) lesson: You don’t necessarily need elite quarterback play to reach the playoff, but it sure helps.

Browning ranked 42nd in passing efficiency last season, sandwiched between Florida’s Feleipe Franks and Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins.

Washington doesn’t need its starting quarterback to be simply serviceable, as Eason and Haener were throughout the spring. If the Huskies are to deliver a 2016 sequel, they need comparable results under center.

But the quarterback can’t do it alone.

2. Do the Huskies have a true No. 1 receiver?

They definitely didn’t in 2018. That isn’t to say that then-junior Aaron Fuller’s contributions – 58 catches, 874 yards, four touchdowns – were not appreciated. But in UW’s regular-season losses to Oregon and Cal, Fuller was contained to the tune of three combined catches for 35 yards. Likewise, Andre Baccellia (55 catches, 584 yards, no touchdowns) and Ty Jones (31, 491, six TDs) both produced more momentary flashes than regular fireworks.

The receiving corps’ inconsistency was most apparent in two specific areas. The Huskies converted red-zone trips into touchdowns just 56.45 percent of the time, which ranked 105th nationally. That marks a continued decline from 2017 (66.67 percent) and 2016 (75.86 percent).

Not only that, but Washington’s offense also struggled to pile up explosive plays. The Huskies managed two passes of 50 yards or more in 2018 (105th nationally), after compiling five in 2017 and eight in 2016.

This is not an unfortunate coincidence. The Huskies need someone, anyone, to take the top off of opposing defenses. It’s a role Fuller, Baccellia, Quinten Pounds, Terrell Bynum, Chico McClatcher or highly touted freshman Puka Nacua could all conceivably fill this fall.

As for the red-zone struggles, a healthy tight end tandem of Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton, as well as an improved Ty Jones, could all seemingly contribute.

Sure, there’s no shortage of available bodies. But are any of them elite?

3. Can UW’s offensive line stay healthy?

The Huskies’ projected starting front – left tackle Trey Adams, left guard Luke Wattenberg, center Nick Harris, right guard Jaxson Kirkland and right tackle Jared Hilbers – appears formidable, arguably the top offensive line in the West.

But if the injury bug bites, uncertainty will abound.

The Huskies have a gargantuan security blanket in 6-foot-6, 319-pound sophomore Henry Bainivalu, who played in all 14 games last fall and could slot into either tackle spot. Senior Henry Roberts has also appeared in 16 games across the last three seasons.

Besides those seven, though, Washington’s 12 remaining offensive linemen have a combined one Division I game to their names.

Now, a lack of experience is not the same as a lack of talent, and position coach Scott Huff has recruited exceedingly well in recent years. But it’s worth remembering that UW’s backup offensive linemen struggled during the spring, allowing six sacks and 11 tackles for loss in April’s ugly Spring Preview (against a previously underwhelming UW pass rush).

Can Adams – who missed 16 consecutive games across 2017 and 2018 – return to first-round form for a full season? Can he provide ample protection for a not particularly mobile Eason (or Haener)?

If healthy, the offensive line will be a strength of the 2019 Husky offense.

If. Healthy.

4. Does the defense have quality depth up the middle?

The key word here is “quality.”

Because, sure, there’s depth. Washington enters fall camp with 11 inside linebackers on its roster. But that group, as a whole, has compiled 84 career tackles. That’s 92 fewer stops than UW All-American Ben Burr-Kirven produced in 2018 by himself.

The departures of Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, compounded by the medical retirement of D.J. Beavers, have left inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory with a predicament up the middle. Senior Brandon Wellington, who has started all of two games in three seasons, is the closest thing to a proven commodity. Senior Kyler Manu, redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon, M.J. Tafisi and Edefuan Ulofoshio and true freshmen Josh Calvert and Daniel Heimuli could all contend for the other starting spot.

Likewise, the Huskies are looking to replace veteran leaders Greg Gaines, Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson on the defensive line. Junior Levi Onwuzurike appears up to the task, after piling up 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in his sophomore season. But who else will earn roles in the rotation?

A veritable mob of massive men – Josiah Bronson (6-3, 290), John Clark (6-4, 280), Benning Potoa’e (6-3, 285), Sam Taimani (6-2, 322), Tuli Letuligasenoa (6-2, 318), Jacob Bandes (6-2, 307), Faatui Tuitele (6-3, 304) – will lobby for the leftovers.

But will all that beef bombard opposing running backs? That has never previously been a problem in the Chris Petersen era, with the Huskies finishing 14th nationally in opponent yards per carry in 2014 (3.28), 10th in 2015 (3.29), 23rd in 2016 (3.65), second in 2017 (2.86) and 21st in 2018 (3.53).

Simply put, the Huskies always stop the run. But they aren’t the only ones. Four of the seven CFP national champions have finished either first or second nationwide in rushing defense.

It’s true, Washington’s stifling secondary has earned a national reputation. But the 2019 Husky defense may hinge on its quality up the middle.

5. Where will the sacks come from (if they come at all)?

The statistics speak for themselves.

Behold, Washington’s national ranking in sacks per game in its first five seasons under Chris Petersen.

2014: Second (3.71)

2015: 26th (2.62)

2016: 19th (2.86)

2017: 11th (3.0)

(On social media, this is where you’d see a GIF of an out-of-control race car tumbling off a cliff.)

2018: 100th (1.71)

So, yes, the sack numbers took a sudden, dramatic nosedive. But more telling, the Huskies finished 118th nationally with just 4.57 tackles for loss per game. Now, Jimmy Lake and other Huskies coaches are looking for marked improvement with much of the same personnel. The hope is that, with another year of seasoning, sophomore outside linebackers Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata will produce simultaneous breakout seasons. Both Tryon and Ngata capped an impressive April with two sacks apiece in UW’s Spring Preview.

The Huskies could also use a bounce-back effort from junior Ryan Bowman, who led the team with 5.5 sacks in 2017 but mustered just one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss last season.

The wild card here is 6-4, 272-pound true freshman Laiatu Latu, who was credited with 29.5 tackles for loss in his senior season at Sacramento Jesuit High School in 2018.

If the Huskies can revive their pass rush, it will alleviate pressure from a secondary that has once again reloaded with legitimate early-round talent. It will force opposing quarterbacks into premature decisions.

And, as long as the aforementioned questions are also answered, it might just bulldoze a path to another Pac-12 title.

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