This is the second 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 progression of the offensive and defensive units during the first few weeks of the season. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp.
Ryan Priest: And just like that, training camp is a thing of the past.
The season seems to be underway before we know it. Between the end of the Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 27, 2013, and Chris Petersen's opening press conference on Aug. 3, 2014, we endured an offseason that lasted seven months and seven days; 219 days of anticipation, followed by 13 days of practice. That's a whole lot of patience met by a short payoff period; take my advice, and do your best to enjoy the season while it lasts.
Of course, the last couple of weeks have been nothing if not productive, as we know far more about this team today than we did at the beginning of the month. For example, we've seen that Budda Baker isn't just a talented recruit, but instead the rare freshman who immediately places himself into the two-deeps at safety. We know that Jeff Lindquist, arguably the dark horse candidate for the job at the start of the fall, has played well enough to earn the start against Hawaii. Perhaps most importantly, we've seen the Huskies make it this far relatively unscathed, as the coaching staff has yet to announce that any key or reserve players have suffered long-term injuries so far.
Because the defense's core lineup is so solid, I can't help paying more attention to the offense's depth chart. For good reason, the running back and quarterback are almost always two of the most recognizable names on a team. It's not often that a squad must simultaneously replace players with the talent of Keith Price and Bishop Sankey, and normally, doing so would have the potential to become a doom-and-gloom exercise. One key factor keeps that from being the case this year in Montlake: Both positions are stocked with players more highly-rated as recruits than their predecessors, especially at quarterback. Despite the huge gains made by Washington's offense last year, it's not out of the question to think this year's team will meet, if not surpass, that standard
Have you caught offense-itis, like myself? Or are you more intrigued by what you see on the defensive side of the ball?
Alex Hyres: That's a tough question. Though Steve Sarkisian drove me crazy at times with his play calls in the red zone, the Husky offense was creative and explosive during his tenure. I expect to see even more creativity and explosiveness on offense this year with Petersen at the helm—that is, if the quarterbacks can deliver the ball to the playmakers. While I enjoy watching a creative and explosive offense, the heart of Husky football lies on defense. Thanks to Sarkisian and the previous staff, the new staff inherits long, physical, and athletic players from the front end to the back end, and up and down the defensive depth chart. And for the first time in years, the Huskies possess legitimate star power throughout the defense.
As one of those stars, Marcus Peters has the potential to shut down every team's best receiver, and by doing so, becoming a first-round pick in next April's NFL Draft. Peters' play should take pressure off the rest of the secondary. However, Budda Baker and the other freshman who play must excel if the Huskies intend to make a legitimate run at the Pac-12 championship.
Nothing helps an unproven and inexperienced secondary more than indomitable play from the front seven players. Shaq Thompson, John Timu, Travis Feeney, and Hau'oli Kikaha are all experienced playmakers that could make a claim as the best linebacking crew in the Pac-12. While the linebackers may be the strongest unit on the whole team, the most important unit is the defensive line.
Even the best cornerback can only cover a receiver for so long. Even the best linebacker can only take on so many offensive linemen. But a disruptive defensive line cannot be stopped. Sure, an offense can sacrifice a running back or tight end to block, but by doing so, the offense limits its options. Led by Danny Shelton in the middle with bash brothers Andrew and Evan Hudson as bookends, the Husky defensive line has the potential to take the pressure off the rest of the defense and, in turn, become an elite defense.
What intrigues you most about the Husky offense?
Ryan: The easy answer to your question is, of course, the quarterback battle. After all, it's considered the most important position in sports for a reason: imagine how Texas A&M would have looked in 2012 and 2013 without Johnny Football running the show, or recall how Oregon's offense hit a wall last season after Marcus Mariota hurt his knee and opposing defenses no longer feared him in the running game. Aside from Chris Petersen's assumption of the head-coaching gig, there's no bigger factor in Washington's ability to turn the corner and become a top-10 program in the next two to three years than the team's production at quarterback.
The other obvious response is the contest between Dwayne Washington, Lavon Coleman, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier to break out and become the team's next Bishop Sankey. Running back, after all, is arguably the second-most impactful position on the team, as any lead tailback worth his salt should touch the ball more than any other player besides the signal caller. It's not just finding a player who can average four yards on dive plays, either—the modern running back needs to shed tackles, read holes and know when to bounce outside of the play's script He has to stand near the pocket and serve as the last line of defense against pass-rushing defensive ends and outside linebackers. He has to be a reliable check-down target when his fellow receivers are covered. And perhaps most importantly, he has to do all of this while staying relatively healthy in order to be considered successful.
Both of these position battles intrigue me, for good reason, but what I don't think has received enough attention yet is the way that Chris Strausser has quietly reshaped the offensive line.
The Husky offensive lines of the last five years excelled at paving running lanes for Chris Polk and Sankey but were positively woeful in providing pass protection. The quarterbacks were part of the problem; Jake Locker and (especially) Keith Price, loved extending pass plays and subsequently hanging onto the ball far longer than most offensive coordinators would prefer. Even controlling for that variable, though, it's hard to consider Washington's sacks allowed numbers of the last few years—30 in 2013, which ranked No. 80 in America; 38 in 2012, No. 110; 34 in 2011, No. 101; and 24 in 2010, No. 63—to be anything but abysmal.
That's why I'm so intrigued that Strausser has apparently retooled an offensive line that, had he left it as he found it, would have accounted for some of the most returning starts in the nation. Instead, he moved two-year starting guard Colin Tanigawa (Panda) to center to compete for snaps with 2013 starter Mike Criste, and inserted James Atoe, who bears more than a passing resemblance to The Mountain That Rides, into Panda's old position at right guard.
Will this pay off? Honestly, there have been so many changes to the Washington offense—from head coach, to coordinator, to quarterback and running back—that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pin any single change in performance to any single factor. What I do know is that if Washington's offensive line can even begin to emulate the effectiveness of Boise State's offensive line (which ranked Nos. 1, 4, 1 and 6 in sacks allowed from 2009 to 2012, respectively), Husky fans will be a happy bunch indeed.
We're just one week away from kickoff at Hawaii. With so little time remaining to iron out the kinks, what do you think poses Washington's greatest potential stumbling block in year No. 1 of the Chris Petersen era?
Alex: Inexperience in the secondary could be the greatest stumbling block. Or replacing the offensive production of Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be it. Or perhaps injuries. Notwithstanding the potential for injuries—which are unavoidable for any team, just ask Ohio State—the Huskies should be able to avoid these stumbling blocks.
The schedule will allow the young secondary to gain experience and confidence. With more experience and confidence, Baker and the other freshman will be able to play faster when it comes time for the Pac-12 games. Finding a single replacement for Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins respectively is impossible—so the Huskies won't try. Petersen and the coaching staff plan to replace them by committee. As long as Petersen and the offensive staff clearly define each player's roles, then I expect the Huskies to more than make up for the production of Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins. Though I believe these stumbling blocks will be avoided, I'm not so sure about another one: the quarterback play
The last time there was this much uncertainty and inexperience at quarterback—the spring following Jake Locker's graduation—Husky fans were treated to Keith Price, who went from relatively unknown beyond Montlake to outplaying the Heisman trophy winner in the Alamo Bowl.
I could be wrong—and I hope to be proved wrong—but I don't expect to see Keith Price 2.0 emerge from the group of Jeff Lindquist, Cyler Miles, and Troy Williams. With a better team around them, they don't need to be Keith Price 2.0. All of the quarterbacks were highly rated coming from high school; however, I've witnessed too many highly rated quarterback recruits (e.g., Casey Paus, Johnny DuRocher, Carl Bonnell) fall on their face to believe that the ratings mean much until we see them on the field.
Realistically, Husky fans should hope this year's starting quarterback performs comparably to two Husky legends—Marques Tuiasosopo and Jake Locker—in their first full year of play (1999 and 2007, respectively).
If the Huskies receive quarterback play comparable to Tuiasosopo or Locker in their rookie years, then the team should contend for the Pac-12 North; if the Huskies end up mired in a quarterback sinkhole comparable to 2005, then they will spend the holidays in Las Vegas. Here's to hoping it's the former.