They like a high bar on Montlake. A national championship and 14 Rose Bowls have helped set it.
But until the Washington Huskies took down Utah in that dullsville Pac-12 championship game last November, they’d never cleared this one: three consecutive double-digit-win seasons. Sheesh, even their cousins over the Cascades had managed that.
So that was fun and all, and now that the Huskies have to replace nine starters on defense and the school’s career rushing and passing leaders, surely the bar is lower this time around.
Except that’s surely not the case at all.
Despite all those losses to graduation and the NFL, it’s been suggested that this isn’t a rebuilding year at all for the Huskies and that they might be even more talented — if far less experienced — this time around. So why not another 10 wins?
If you’re drawing a green card from your Apples to Apples deck, you’re likely to come up with this one:
If the three 10-win seasons aren’t enough to confirm the direction coach Chris Petersen has the program headed, there’s another. Consider that under Petersen, the number of four- and five-star high school recruits on UW’s roster has risen from about 20 percent to 54 this season.
The Pac-12’s highest paid assistant coach, Jimmy Lake, now has a real chance to earn that money. Given the keys to Husky defense last year when staffmate Pete Kwiatkowski stepped back to let him call the plays, Lake’s unit returns just two fulltime starters — linebacker-turned-defensive lineman Benning Potoa’e and nickel-turned-safety Miles Bryant. To be fair, six other returning Huskies started multiple games on the defensive side.
Center Nick Harris is getting some All-American run after an All-Pac-12 season, but the bigger consideration is the return of left tackle Trey Adams. A second-team All-American in 2017, a bad back shelved the 6-foot-8, 315-pound giant last year.
The new game piece of special note is quarterback Jacob Eason, who set all sorts of records at Lake Stevens High School before taking his talents cross country to Georgia. But when he lost his starting job there — first to injury, then to Jake Fromm — he beat it back home.
How to play
In one respect, Eason is already filling Jake Browning’s shoes.
The Pac-12 offensive player of the year as a sophomore, Browning was always a lightning rod for fan discontent — especially when the Huskies stubbed their toe in losses to Arizona State, Auburn, Oregon and Cal the past two years. Eason was supposed to be the hot new sure-thing — except only a week ago was he revealed as UW’s starter, having battled with Jake Haener — who quickly left the program, leaving a shaky backup situation.
There was more intrigue, for different reasons, in settling who Eason’s main targets might be. Receiver might be the Huskies’ deepest position with three starters back — Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones — plus a couple of reclamation projects, oft-injured Quinten Pounds and Chico McClatcher, who actually left the team last season as his confidence eroded in his injury comeback. There are also several options at tight end, where Hunter Bryant would like to get through a season whole. Cade Otton is a solid second option, but look out for Spokane’s Devin Culp, too.
Just as experienced but not nearly as deep is the offensive line, where four 2018 starters return along with Adams.
But most of the questions reside on the defensive side. A few part-timers from last year — outside linebackers Joe Tryon and Ryan Bowman, lineman Levi Onwuzurike and inside backer Brandon Wellington — will get a chance to have their moment, but there’s also opportunity for some of the Huskies’ many-starred freshmen like outside backer Laiatu Latu.
And, naturally, all eyes will be on the rebuilt secondary, where Lake and Co. seem to just manufacture NFL-quality fly chasers. Besides Myles Bryant, new nickel Elijah Molden and corner Kyler Gordon have a handful of starts to fall back on. But one freshman, Cameron Williams, has already busted into the starting lineup and safety, and another, Trent McDuffie, figures to be heard from.
How to win
As mentioned, it’s complicated.
For all their success, the Huskies’ offensive efficiency has been spotty for a couple years now — and it wasn’t necessarily all Browning’s doing. UW’s wideouts are capable but haven’t revealed themselves to be special. Maybe a gifted freshman like Puka Nacua will get a chance to change that. In any event, Eason will take the heat or get the praise. He should get great protection and has physical gifts Browning doesn’t; he just needs to deliver.
It would help, too, if junior tailback Salvon Ahmed is truly the successor to Myles Gaskin that his 2018 season suggested. He was mostly a third-down back, but he’s averaged six yards a carry as a Husky and is also viable receiver. He looks durable enough to be the every-down guy.
The offensive needs to improve just to give the defense time to grow an identity. The Huskies have had the luxury of relying on stellar secondaries, but it’s time to generate a pass rush — they had just 24 sacks in 14 games last fall. The recruiting rankings say the Huskies keep reloading with better guys. This year will be the true test of that.
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