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Washington 2019 offense primer: Can Huskies reach new heights with new starting backfield?

UPDATED: Tue., July 30, 2019

Washington’s Salvon Ahmed competes against North Dakota  in nonconference play on Sept. 8, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington’s Salvon Ahmed competes against North Dakota in nonconference play on Sept. 8, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It has been 93 days since Washington’s Spring Preview.

Ninety-three long, uneventful, mostly sunny Seattle summer days. If you’re like most healthy humans, you slept somewhere between 550 and 850 hours during those three-plus months.

That’s a lot of time for dreams. But what did you dream about?

If you’re reading this – and you obviously are – then perhaps you dreamed of a 2019 Washington offense that returns nearly all of its starters; that could boast a starting backfield featuring two talented in-state products; that will be expected to outpace the group that ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring (26.4 points a game) last season.

Perhaps you dreamed about a unit that improves its red-zone efficiency, after the Huskies entered the end zone on just 54.5% of their red-zone trips (105th nationally) in 2018.

Perhaps you dreamed about a play-caller – Bush Hamdan – with a better feel for the game in his second year on the job as offensive coordinator. Perhaps you shut your eyes and pictured the possibility of an upgraded wide-receivers room under first-year position coach Junior Adams.

Perhaps, deep in your REM cycle, you even saw a high-octane Husky offense run all over Oregon on Oct. 19.

Ninety-three days later, it’s time for the Huskies to stop dreaming and start doing.

Before training camp officially starts Friday, here’s a projected depth chart and analysis of the 2019 UW offense.

Quarterback

• Jacob Eason, jr., 6-6, 228

• Jake Haener, so., 6-0, 196

• Jacob Sirmon, rs.-fr., 6-5, 235

• Dylan Morris, fr., 6-0, 195

Outlook: Apologies, reader, if I seem distracted. It’s not you, I swear.

It’s the giant elephant in the room.

That would be UW’s ongoing quarterback competition, primarily between junior Jacob Eason (the heavy favorite) and sophomore Jake Haener (the underdog much of the fan base effectively wrote off last fall). Eason has the arm, the frame and the support from his home state. But neither candidate created much separation throughout the spring. It was the same story at the Spring Preview, when Eason completed 7 of 12 passes for 42 yards and a touchdown (while being sacked four times) and Haener completed 9 of 16 passes for 61 yards and an interception.

So, needless to say, expect the competition to continue Friday.

“I know there’s a lot of people ready to anoint certain guys at the quarterback position or at other positions. We’re really not,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said at Pac-12 Media Days last week. “I mean, this is going to be a really nice, awesome competition to go on in fall camp, (and) see how this thing shakes down.”

The most likely outcome, of course, is Eason – the former Lake Stevens five-star standout who started at Georgia as a true freshman – takes the opening snaps against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31. But with all practices after Aug. 6 closed to the media, it will be difficult to accurately gauge who’s pulling ahead (or falling behind) in the competition.

It’s fair to assume redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon won’t win it, but it will be interesting to see how the former four-star prospect progresses after briefly entering his name in the transfer portal this spring. Former Coeur d’Alene standout Colson Yankoff remained in the portal before ultimately landing at UCLA.

True freshman Dylan Morris will have to fight for available reps, with the understanding he could potentially compete for a starting job in 2020.

Add it all together, and you get a really nice, awesome elephant, but an elephant nonetheless.

Running back

• Salvon Ahmed, jr., 5-11, 193

• Sean McGrew, jr., 5-7, 184

• Kamari Pleasant, jr., 6-0, 215

• Richard Newton, rs.-fr., 6-0, 213

• Cameron Davis, fr., 6-2, 187

• *Malik Braxton, sr., 5-10, 206

*walk-on

Outlook: Salvon Ahmed is Washington’s starting running back.

But what does that mean?

It does not mean, for one, that the 5-11 junior needs to be Myles Gaskin, who received an average of 236.3 carries a season during his decorated four-year career. By comparison, Ahmed took 165 carries in his first two seasons on Montlake, rushing for 996 yards, 6 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns.

Ahmed’s athleticism is undeniable. He recorded a team-best 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the Husky Combine last March. But can he effectively run between the tackles? Can he fall forward for a yard on fourth-and-1? Can his body withstand a full season of Pac-12 punishment as a starter?

Or, perhaps the question should be: does it need to? After all, there’s no shortage of depth in UW’s running-backs room. Juniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant are proven commodities who have produced in the Pac-12. Redshirt freshman Richard Newton made the most of his reps last spring, and four-star freshman Cameron Davis could earn a role in the rotation as well.

So, yes, Ahmed is the starter. But, to borrow from Rudyard Kipling, the strength of the wolf is the pack – and the running-backs room might be stronger than ever.

Wide receiver

Outside

• Aaron Fuller, sr., 5-11, 183

• Austin Osborne, rs-fr., 6-2, 198

• Marquis Spiker, rs-fr., 6-3, 192

• Puka Nacua, fr., 6-2, 196

• *David Pritchard, rs-fr., 6-0, 172

Outside

• Ty Jones, jr., 6-4, 209

• Terrell Bynum, so., 6-1, 198

• Quinten Pounds, sr., 6-0, 179

• Taj Davis, fr., 6-1, 192

Slot

• Andre Baccellia, sr., 5-10, 175

• Chico McClatcher, sr., 5-8, 184

• Jordan Chin, jr., 6-0, 174

• Trey Lowe, rs-fr., 5-8, 183

• *Fatu Sua-Godinet, jr., 5-11, 187

Outlook: OK, prepare yourself. Here come the questions.

How will Washington’s wide receivers respond to new position coach Junior Adams? How will veterans Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones and Quinten Pounds rebound from injuries that kept them out most (or all) of the spring? What will Chico McClatcher be capable of after temporarily stepping away from the team last October? Will sophomore Terrell Bynum’s spring surge be sustainable? Will highly touted redshirt freshmen Austin Osborne, Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe begin to fulfill their potential? Will there be an immediate role for four-star freshman Puka Nacua?

For now, the answers are out of reach. But the good news here is that every Huskies wide receiver who caught a pass last season (except for Alex Cook, who switched to safety) is set to return in 2019. The ceiling is high; the room is positively teeming with talent.

Still, there needs to be more consistent production than what the Washington wideouts mustered in 2018, and it’s still unclear whether there’s a legitimate game-breaker on the roster.

Under Adams, it’s realistic to expect Fuller, Jones, Baccellia and others to take another step forward this fall. But there are only so many footballs to go around. Some will seize opportunities; others will fall through the cracks.

Despite all the uncertainty, there’s no question one of the most hotly contested competitions this fall can be found at wide receiver.

Tight end

• Hunter Bryant, jr., 6-2, 241

• Cade Otton, so., 6-5, 250

• Jacob Kizer, jr., 6-4, 264

• Devin Culp, rs-fr., 6-3, 265

• *Jack Westover, rs-fr., 6-3, 237

• *Zeke Pelluer, fr., 6-5, 226

• *Carson Smith, fr., 6-4, 236

Outlook: “We’ve got a lot of playmakers and our offense is designed to let the playmakers in our offense make plays and do what athletes do,” Washington tight end Hunter Bryant told the Times last spring. “So it’s pretty exciting, just the energy we have in practice right now on both sides of the ball. It’s going to be a good year.”

Now, Bryant isn’t normally one for guarantees, but his enthusiasm is understandable – especially at this position. Speaking of playmakers, Bryant might be the Huskies’ biggest, a bona fide All-America candidate if the 6-2 junior can stay healthy. He dominated last spring and specifically showcased a consistent chemistry with Eason. Bryant has caught 33 passes for 569 yards and two touchdowns in 14 career games. What would he be capable of if he played a full season?

Washington fans certainly hope to find out this fall. They’ll likely see a healthy dose of two-tight end sets, featuring Bryant and rising sophomore Cade Otton. Otton recorded 13 catches for 174 yards and three scores in his freshman season and might already be the most complete tight end on the roster. Junior Jacob Kizer is another capable blocker, and redshirt freshman Devin Culp is a gargantuan athlete who impressed last spring and could become a staple of the Huskies’ offense as soon as 2020.

If Washington does indeed become a more reliable red-zone offense, the talented tight ends could (literally) be a big reason why.

Offensive line

Left tackle

• Trey Adams, sr., 6-8, 306

• Henry Roberts, sr., 6-6, 316

• Matteo Mele, rs-fr., 6-5, 298

• Troy Fautanu, fr., 6-4, 296

Left guard

• Luke Wattenberg, jr., 6-5, 300

• M.J. Ale, rs-fr., 6-6, 349

• *Will Pliska, rs-fr., 6-5, 295

• *Chase Skuza, so., 6-6, 309

Center

• Nick Harris, sr., 6-1, 302

• Cole Norgaard, so., 6-5, 302

• Corey Luciano, rs-so., 6-3, 274

Right guard

• Jaxson Kirkland, so., 6-7, 320

• Victor Curne, rs-fr., 6-3, 310

• *Gage Harty, rs-fr., 6-4, 267

• *Noah Hellyer, rs-fr., 6-1, 259

Right tackle

• Jared Hilbers, sr., 6-7, 305

• Henry Bainivalu, so., 6-6, 319

• Julius Buelow, fr., 6-8, 341

• Nate Kalepo, fr., 6-6, 341

Outlook: Washington’s projected starting offensive line – left tackle Trey Adams, left guard Luke Wattenberg, center Nick Harris, right guard Jaxson Kirkland and right tackle Jared Hilbers – has played in a combined 137 career games.

That will work.

The team’s 14 other offensive linemen, by comparison, have played in a combined 31 games.

That might be a reason to worry.

The Huskies tout perhaps the Pac-12’s premier offensive line, with a potential first-round tackle (Adams) protecting Eason or Haener’s blind side and a 2018 first-team All-Pac-12 selection (Harris) snapping the football. Hilbers, who started 11 games at left tackle last season while Adams recovered from an injury, anchored the right side throughout the spring and is expected to do the same this fall. If he or Adams fall or falter, sophomore Henry Bainivalu – who played in all 14 games last season – could slide in at either tackle spot.

If the offensive line remains intact, that experienced unit should provide ample protection for new starters at quarterback and running back. But beyond the established starters, offensive line coach Scott Huff’s group needs to continue to convert potential into legitimate Pac-12-ready depth.

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