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 Hawaii. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One).
Alex: The end of fall practice and the beginning of game week means the first official depth chart. After looking over the depth chart for the Hawaii game, I was more surprised than I had anticipated.
Budda Baker's start at safety was the biggest surprise for me. Some may be surprised to see Marvin Hall ahead of Kasen Williams or DiAndre Campbell ahead of John Ross, but Williams is returning from a major injury and Ross will potentially make an impact in all phases—offense, defense and special teams. Receivers tend to rotate more than most positions, and the depth chart isn't a guarantee that players will see more time if they are listed as a starter—the chart just indicates who will line up with the offense on the first snap. While the number of players involved at receiver is fluid, the number of players involved at safety is less so.
Petersen and the coaching staff must have the utmost confidence in Baker's ability to start him in a crucial position in his first collegiate game—and on the road, no less. Baker will account for some mistakes—as will other players as Petersen alluded to in his Monday press conference. Secondary coach Jimmy Lake must believe Baker possesses a quality that few freshman or even sophomores have: confidence in his abilities, no matter what happens. Regardless of the game's outcome, Baker's start is a good indication for Husky fans that he isn't just a big-time recruit; he could be a big-time college player.
What were you most surprised to see on the depth chart? Which unit—offense, defense, or special teams—are you most worried about going into the first game?
Ryan: Considering that Washington will take the field Saturday with an almost entirely new coaching staff, it's natural to have expected that the season's first depth chart would include a few wrinkles. What took me aback was the nature of those specific wrinkles. Let's start with two of the big surprises on defense: Budda Baker and Keishawn Bierria.
Now, it's difficult to call Budda seizing one of the starting safety roles a complete surprise, considering his talent and the numerous accolades that the coaching staff has thrown his way. But even heralded freshmen typically require an adjustment period to the college game's speed and intensity. Budda's presence atop the depth chart lends credence to the stories of his work ethic and talent as a high school all-star were well deserved, and aren't solely products of the modern recruiting hype engine.
The other surprise is redshirt freshman Keishaw Bierria's status as an "OR" starter at one of the outside linebacker positions alongside Travis Feeney. As a fourth-year junior, Feeney has had an interesting career at UW: It began with assuming a starting role as a freshman, which he then ceded to Princeton Fuiamaono last season. With Princeton's graduation, the natural assumption was that Feeney would be a lock to start for the Husky front seven alongside fellow linebackers John Timu and Shaq Thompson. Dawg fans should take heart from the fact that Feeney is a known quantity, and a good one at that. Therefore, Bierria's presence on the depth chart shouldn't be taken as a sign that Chris Petersen is having to resort to throwing untested bodies into the heart of the defense, but rather that Bierria's play has been so good this fall that the staff simply can't come up with an acceptable reason to keep him on the sidelines. The next few weeks may prove me wrong, but it feels like this is a decision made from a position of strength as opposed to weakness.
As to your other question—which unit I'm most worried about—there's no doubt in my mind that Dawg fans should be more worried about the offense than the defense and special teams units. For the most part, those latter two groups are proven commodities: The Husky defense returns seven starters (possibly eight, including Feeney) from the 2013 season, and it seems like there will be little difficulty in Cameron Van Winkle, Tristan Vizcaino and Korey Durkee making up for Travis Coons' three-position production in the kicking game. Conversely, the Dawgs have to replace three of their all-time greats at quarterback, running back and tight end, not to mention a No. 1 receiver who is still rehabbing a devastating leg injury from the previous season. Washington has admittedly done the necessary work on the recruiting trail to replace these players, but until we see them perform on the field, this will be a topic that we'll wonder about.
There's one other note about the depth chart that I want to pick your brain over: What did you think about true freshman Greg Gaines being listed as Danny Shelton's primary backup? Should we see this as a sign of his undeniable talent, or should we instead be worried that a player who has been in the program for little more than a month has overtaken a redshirt freshman and major recruiting win in the form of Elijah Qualls?
Alex: In previous seasons—especially at the end of Tyrone Willingham's tenure as head coach—the presence of a true freshman in the depth chart's two-deeps was a sign of desperation. Jermaine Kearse started as a true freshman in the 2008 opening game against Oregon in Eugene. Kearse—a highly rated recruit at the time and current member of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks—probably should have redshirted. Willingham was desperate, though, and in the absence of better options, Kearse was thrust into a starting role before he was ready.
This season is different. Thanks to the previous coaching staff's recruiting efforts, Petersen and his staff have options and depth at every position. While Kearse's insertion into the starting line-up said more about the coaches' desperation and less about a player's ability, the opposite is true for this year's team. Any freshman in the current two-deeps has played their way into them.
For a freshman to sniff the field on the defensive or offensive line, their body must fit the position from the moment they step on campus. Most freshman lineman lack the requisite size to compete over the course of a game, let alone a season. Greg Gaines is an exception. At over 300 pounds, Gaines has the girth to handle the limited yet important responsibilities of a nose tackle. If Gaines can maintain the line of scrimmage and keep offensive lineman from engaging the Husky linebackers—in limited action, spelling Shelton throughout the game—the Huskies should be happy with his performance.
It's difficult to discern what Gaines' position on the depth chart means for Elijah Qualls. It could mean that he has stagnated or even regressed in his development due to a lack of commitment. It could also mean that he's banged up and hasn't received enough repetitions to warrant significant playing time. We'll see as the season progresses.
Ryan: Amen to that. There's no question that the depth of a football team is just as important as its starting 22, especially in a league as deep and talented as the Pac-12.
Under Steve Sarkisian, Washington did a great job of recruiting and developing first-line players, especially at the offensive skill positions. For whatever reason, though, the depth never seemed to develop past the first string. It's why Colin Porter's medical retirement in 2012 hit the Huskies so hard, and why the Husky offensive line basically fell apart last year against Arizona State when Dexter Charles sat out the game with an injury.
A coach of Petersen's caliber knows the value of establishing depth, and there's every reason to believe that his staff will make it one of their top priorities to do so.
Alright, prediction time. How do you see Saturday's game shaking out?
Alex: The outcome of a first game—especially one played on the road—is difficult to predict. Playing on the road to start the season is always a challenge, but playing at Hawaii presents even more challenges than normal. Players will be dealing with a time change and trying to stay focused in a tropical locale, besides trying to win a game.
Petersen and his coaches—who made this trip several times while coaching at Boise State—will have the players ready for the experience. I expect the Huskies to run the ball and rely on the short passing game to ease Jeff Lindquist into the game. I expect the Huskies to create several turnovers on defense. I expect the Huskies to execute on special teams and end with a touchdown to help Lindquist and the offense. I expect the Huskies to win big and create a buzz for the season ahead. I'll call it Washington Huskies 38, Hawaii Warriors 13.
Ryan: You're absolutely right in saying that going on the road is always a difficult way to start a season, and that's especially true when you're in a locale as picturesque as the Hawaiian Islands. No doubt, the coaching staff's experience of traveling there in years past will come in handy, as they make sure their players are focused less on mai tais and leis and more on zone coverages and blocking assignments.
From a sheer talent perspective, Hawaii doesn't appear to be in the same league as Washington. According to their Scout.com rankings, Washington's classes in 2011 to 2014 ranked 22, 23, 14, and 35, whereas Hawaii ranked 82, 107, 80, and 96 during the same period. That discrepancy carried over to the stats sheet, as well, as the Warriors gave up 495 yards and 39 points per game last year—most of that coming against Mountain West competition.
All of this is to say that, whatever holes Washington might have, the holes that Hawaii has are much, much bigger. I expect Washington to amass a four-touchdown lead by the end of the third quarter, and a garbage time score or two by the Warriors will make the scoreboard look a bit closer than it was. More to the point, I will be shocked if the outcome of this game is ever in doubt. Washington 45, Hawaii 17.