This is the first entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week during the season, we'll look at the state of the Husky football program, break down the major story lines surrounding the team, and give predictions for the games. Up this week is the impact that Chris Petersen's hiring has made on the team, and how the Dawgs will replace talented contributors at key positions.
Alex Hyres: The Husky offseason was marked by defections and departures. Steve Sarkisian and most of the staff defected. Keith Price, Bishop Sankey, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Sean Parker: all departed. Yet with all defections and departures, the new and returning Huskies start this year in a better position to finally upend their fiercest rivals in the North Division of the Pac-12—the Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal. The biggest reason for optimism on Montlake is the hire of former Boise State coach Chris Petersen.
Unlike Sarkisian—who deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting the UW football program from the throes of a winless season in 2008—Petersen starts as a coach with a proven track record. At Boise State, Petersen led the Broncos to a 92-12 record with five bowl wins, including an unforgettable victory in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. In addition to his exceptional overall and bowl record, Petersen's two career victories against Oregon are two more than Sarkisian managed in his tenure at Washington.
While the majority of voices heralded the hiring of Chris Petersen, others question whether Petersen can handle the challenge of coaching against the elite teams in college football each and every week.
What would you say to persuade the naysayers to lay their questions to rest?
Ryan Priest: First of all, this has been one of the wildest off-seasons that I can remember. I was stunned at the news that Sark was leaving for USC; I reacted with disbelief when I first heard that Chris Petersen was finally leaving Boise State; I was amazed that the new staff reeled in both Budda Baker and Kaleb McGary on National Signing Day; and I was dumbfounded when the program's best young prospects at quarterback and wide receiver decided to recruit unwitting Seahawks fans into reenacting their favorite scenes from Street Fighter 2. It's hard to argue that the offseason leading into 2014 has been anything but a roller coaster for those who follow the Washington program.
And yet, as the season begins, it's not difficult to conclude that the program is in a better position this year than any other season in recent memory. You asked me what I would say to quiet the naysayers? I would point toward Petersen's 92-12 career record, including two BCS bowl wins, which ranks him among the best of all time. I would call attention to the defense, which has four players—Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and Marcus Peters—who have legitimate all-conference, if not All-American, potential. I'd mention an offense that returns the most experienced offensive line in the Pac-12, and a veritable avalanche of former four- and five-star recruits at the skill positions.
Of course, hope springs eternal in mid-August, when every program in America is undefeated. There's a definite chance that Washington's inexperience—especially at quarterback, running back, and safety—will catch up to them during the slog through the conference schedule. This is especially true during a year in which the Pac-12 quarterback corps is arguably deeper and more talented than ever before. I wouldn't be at all surprised to look back at this season next February, and point to one or two losses that we can put squarely on the shoulders of a young and inexperienced signal-caller. What do you think is the team's greatest weakness at this point, and what must Chris Petersen do to overcome it in his first year at the helm?
Alex: Inexperience in positions where experience matters most—quarterback and safety—is the Huskies greatest weakness.
Cyler Miles played significant and (mostly) meaningful minutes last year during the Idaho State, UCLA, and Oregon State games. Yet due to his aforementioned foray into life as a Street Fighter, he will watch the game from with the redshirts in Seattle. So for the first game at least, the Huskies will play a game with an inexperienced player at quarterback.
K.J. Carta-Samuels will be a good long-term option, but he shouldn't see the field this season. That leaves just two options for the opener: Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams. Lindquist possesses a decent mixture of size, mobility, and arm strength—he's a poor man's Kevin Hogan. Unfortunately, I don't believe in the abilities of the rich man's Kevin Hogan—he is the most overrated quarterback in the Pac-12, especially given the pieces and coaching around him—so its hard for me to imagine Lindquist taking center for the first snap of the Hawaii game. Besides being smaller, Troy Williams is a better version of Lindquist. Williams has good mobility, a strong arm, and a penchant for improvisation. Though Williams has turned the ball over too much during fall camp thus far, that has more to do with the strength of the Husky defense. The strengths in Williams' play would outweigh his current weakness, but I believe that the coaching staff will give the nod to the safer option—Jeff Lindquist—for the first game.
No matter who starts the first game and beyond, Petersen can help mitigate the challenges faced by the quarterbacks throughout the season. A commitment to running the football—including designed runs for the quarterback—will keep opposing defenses honest. Even moderate success running the ball will allow the Husky offense to employ play-action in the passing game. Petersen can also use receiver screens and other short passes to help the young quarterbacks settle into the game and build confidence. Jaydon Mickens, Marvin Hall, and John Ross definitely have the quickness and speed to turn an unsuspecting screen into six quick points. Though the lack of experience at quarterback is concerning, I am more worried about the secondary.
The secondary—besides the very talented Marcus Peters—is untested and inexperienced. The options to fill out the starters in the secondary include many highly regarded recruits from the past two classes; however, talent doesn't equal experience. The litany of experienced, talented, and savvy signal callers from around the Pac-12 will not make life any easier for the inexperienced members of the secondary. Fortunately for the secondary's young players, the soft opening schedule will provide them with ample time to gain experience before enduring the Pac-12 gauntlet.
How do you expect the Huskies to be different with Petersen as head coach as compared to Sarkisian?
Ryan: From all accounts, Sarkisian's departure and Petersen's arrival is a little like going from living with an older brother to moving back in with your parents. Living with your brother has a lot of positives. Life is a party: You're always in a good position to have a good time, and no one is talking down to you. But at some point, your growth hits a ceiling. Eventually, the adults need to step in if you're ever going to become an adult yourself.
Enter Chris Petersen. In short, I expect the Huskies to adopt a newer, more mature attitude. The process has already begun; see Jaydon Mickens' tweet from Saturday:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>For the Respect of Nike, My Teammates, and Coach Pette....My jersey will not be worn in this fashion... <a href="http://t.co/PWh8fv558x">http://t.co/PWh8fv558x</a></p>— jaydiizzle (@jaydiggla4) <a href="https://twitter.com/jaydiggla4/statuses/500657524526563328">August 16, 2014</a></blockquote>
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We all know that the only thing that Jaydon loves more than catching 12 balls per game is rolling up his jersey and showing off his abs. If you think that his ceasing to do so is his own decision, then I've got a bridge over Lake Union to sell you.
Mickens' tweet is just one example of how the team's identity has changed in the last 12 months. Hau'oli Kikaha talked about seeing Petersen picking up sunflower seed shells from the weight room floor, and how that convinced him that Petersen wasn't blowing smoke when he spoke about the importance of paying attention to details. John Timu mentioned the staff's efforts to integrate players from different position groups and classes, breaking down the walls of cliques that were allowed to stand under Sarkisian. In short, Petersen adopted a team, and is doing his best to make it a family.
The result is an atmosphere that might not be full of the day-to-day brotherly fun that was characteristic of Sarkisian's time as UW's head man, but has the potential to foster a tighter bond among players. To this point, that's been one of the keys to Petersen's success. He didn't consistently win marquee season openers and BCS bowl games with lower-rated talent by magic; he did it by convincing players to buy into his vision and to work harder than their opponents. As his stellar career record at Boise State can attest, two- and three-star hard workers will beat four- and five-star prima donnas more often than not. If Pete can replicate that success at Washington with its built-in recruiting advantages, there's no telling what levels of success his time in Seattle will bring.