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Building a Better 2015: Chris Petersen's Building Blocks

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On paper, the 2015 Washington Football program looks overmatched compared to the best of the Pac 12. But, not all hope is lost.

Could this man be UW's breakout player in 2015?
Could this man be UW's breakout player in 2015?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last week, I (the nefarious Gekko) committed the football fan equivalence of treason when I projected the Huskies to finish last in the Pac 12 North in 2015.  That particular piece generated the kind of hate mail that would make Justin Bieber blush.

Hey, at least all you Dawg fans proved that there is still pride in the pack.

What did not come across as clear as I had intended was that the projection that I pieced together was based solely on the "on paper" analysis.  That is, the projection was based primarily on returning pieces and the accomplishment of those pieces on the field coming into the the 2015 season (which, last I checked,  is still a good eight months away).

As many of you pointed out in somewhat colorful and creative language, there are a lot of variables that go beyond the "on paper" metrics that are clear unknowns with the Huskies going into 2015.  Some of them are of the intangible variety.  For example, what is the incremental value that comes from having players enter their second offseason in the Chris Petersen program?  How does a second year of the same playbook translate into shorter learning curves and more efficient practice habits?  What physical skills will players develop after a second year under the new strength and nutrition program?  Who will break through after soaking up a year of instruction and coaching under the new position coaches?

All good questions.  Certainly, with the introduction of a whole new coaching staff, you would expect there to be on-the-field gains born simply from the benefits that come from familiarity and repetition.

Beyond those, however, the Huskies do have strengths to build upon.  While it is certainly true, and I wrote as much, that the Huskies are plagued with questions in quite literally every single position grouping heading into this offseason, it cannot be argued that the Huskies lack in baseline talent or even in depth across most of those positions.

Quite to the contrary, Washington has been steadily building up their talent stock over the course of the past six seasons.  After that first wave of  young players were all forced to play as true freshman in Steve Sarkisian's first two recruiting classes, UW has actually had as much success in redshirting key talent as you can expect in the 85 scholarship era.  Chris Petersen's arrival initiated a certain amount of accelerated attrition of some of that talent which, of course, is the primary reason that UW is now trending back towards being a "young team".

The baseline talent levels are in place, but it is young.  Luckily, Chris Petersen's staff has demonstrated a certain ability to coach up young players to perform at a competitive level, even if they lack the physical strength or endurance to sustain advantages over the course of an entire collegiate game.  All you have to do is look at the productivity of players like Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, Coleman Shelton, Joe Mathis and Dante Pettis to get a sense of what this staff can coax out of young players simply by following their philosophy of coaching the detailed fundamentals.

While we know it will happen across different areas on the roster every year, it is tremendously difficult to project the "jumps" that we see many players take on a year by year basis.  Sometimes those dramatic "hockey stick" increases in performance come from gains in physical skills.  Sometimes they can be rooted in the banking of repititions.  Occasionally, it is simply that congruence of confidence and knowledge that translates into a "clicking on of the light bulb" on the field.

I'm guessing that there are at least three position groupings that will experience unit-wide "jumps" as a result of the performance gains by one or more players in it.  As such, I would expect that these groups will become the strengths that Chris Petersen and staff will be able to build around and "hang their hats upon" in 2015.

Linebacking Corps

Not surprisingly, the two Huskies with the most experience in terms of both snaps and games started both reside in the one position grouping that I think projects as a "plus" contributor even when just going off of the "on paper" analysis.  Travis Feeney is the one name that most Husky fans will most associate with the term "play-making" when they look ahead to 2015 and with good reason.  Feeney is a very athletic player who has a knack for stretching plays out laterally and for demonstrating sudden closing speed on QBs.  Taking his physical stature aside, the one big knock on Travis has been his trustworthiness when it comes to knowing and doing his job.  He's always been an excitable guy who freelances on occasion.  As he enters his senior year, it would be a huge leap of faith to expect that attribute to improve.

The one Husky I'm expecting the most out of in 2015 is OLB Cory Littleton.  A true physical creature with long arms and strength that belies his weight class, Littleton has been productive whenever he's been on the field throughout his career.  The problem is that he's always had to split time with the talented players ahead of him.  In 2015, we'll get to see if Littleton can really carry the production load and put those physical skills to work.  I think he can and that he will.

Beyond those two, the talent of the rest of the corps is bright and comprised of players who have been in the program for two or three years apiece.  Guys like Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, Sean Constatine, Scott Lawyer and Connor O'Brien have all had multiple offseasons on Montlake and plenty of game reps over the past few years.  In fact, you could make the case that both Lawyer and Bierria showed things on the field in 2014 that those ahead of them weren't quite as proficient in.  If they simply follow the trajectory that they've been on, this unit has enough depth to allow for the redshirting of CP's 2015 recruiting class and to anchor the entire Husky D.

Tight Ends

The lack of production out of UW tight ends in 2014 is one of the mystifying questions that simply has yet to be answered, or even commented on, by the current staff.  Regardless of what you think of Josh Perkins and Darrell Daniels last season, they remain part of a position grouping that is balanced both in terms of player types and experience.  Given UW's depleted wide receiver group and the breaking in of a new offensive line, this unit is going to have to take an exceptional step forward in production if Washington is going to have any hope of scoring at an average Pac 12 clip in 2015.

Key to this breakout will be the emergence of young guys who have been waiting in the wings.  Both David Ajamu and Drew Sample are going to have show that they can get it done on the field first as blockers and then as receivers if this unit is going to be a strength.  Given that the Huskies are going to most certainly have two green offensive tackles on the field at all times, the importance of both of these guys emerging as competent blockers almost goes without saying.  Fortunately, there are a lot of reasons ranging from player makeup to experience in the program upon which to draw a positive conclusion.

Both Daniels and Perkins will be relied upon as receivers in the typical Y position and H-back roles.  It really isn't even debatable to state that both players must ramp up their production as pass catchers and down-field blockers for UW to have success on offense.  This MUST happen and is as vital a point of development as is a step forward in our quarterbacking position.  The good news is that both players have flashed their playmaking already - Perkins as a red zone target and Daniels as an open field threat.  The pieces are all here for Tight End U to re-emerge.

Running Backs

Despite the flashing of Dwayne Washington to close out the season, there was no more disappointing unit anywhere on UW's field in 2014 than the running backs.  Of course, much of this can be traced back to injury.  Jesse Callier was lost early in the season while both Washington and Lavon Coleman both missed significant game action as a result of serious injuries.  Even when they were on the field, a unit comprised of all four-star talents was still unable to hold off a full-time defensive player as the best option for Chris Petersen to put on the field when he needed to run the ball.  Their collective inability to reliably read holes, turn upfield and hold on to the ball was as much a factor in UW's putrid offensive showing as anything else in 2014.

The good news is that the running back unit remains stocked with premium D-1 talent.  Dwayne Washington is a physical beast at 6'2" 230 lbs with breakaway speed as demonstrated against OSU, Arizona and WSU.  He averaged 5.5 yards a carry and finished with 9 TDs on the season.  That's a lot of production to build upon.  If he simply can become more reliable a pass catcher, become more disciplined in pass protection and a bit quicker in getting into his holes with his pads down, he could emerge in 2015 in the same way UCLA's Paul Perkins and Utah's Devonte Booker did last season.

As great as Washington has been, Coleman has the potential to be as good.  While he is a dramatically different runner - more a sledge hammer than a slasher - Coleman came into 2014 as perhaps the most talked about of the Husky running backs.  However, his production was not realized as he struggled with both his pad level and with getting into the right holes.  He is going into his third year as a collegiate player and has been roundly praised in practice by two different coaching staffs.  At some point, things are going to click for him and he's going to become the bruising back Husky fans have been dying to see.

Beyond those two, Deontae Cooper and incoming recruit Myles Gaskin make up an ideal mix of both experience and potential as reserves.  While UW could certainly use a few more bodies, the ones that are ready (or will be ready) to play collectively have the ability to elevate UW's offense provided that they can stay healthy.

BONUS:  Offensive Line

I didn't want to leave this one unaddressed.  The Huskies go into 2015 looking to replace 3.5 starters on the offensive line (RS Fr Coleman Shelton started several games in place of Ben Riva).  Depending on the situation with Dexter Charles that caused him to miss the Cactus Bowl, it could actually be 4.5 starters.  There are no two ways about it:  this is going to be a unit that will take a step back from what UW produced last year.  I know that many of you will argue that what we had last year wasn't so good, so whatever.  That argument assumes that things couldn't get worse.  Well, my friends, they can get worse.  And they will.

Nevertheless, I openly acknowledge that the O-Line is the one position grouping that most exemplifies the old cliche of a function being more than a sum of its parts.  The truth is that we won't have ever seen the new starting line all together at the same time until they step on to the field against Boise State next fall.  At that point, most of the starters will have had three if not four years of experience in the program and two full offseasons with the current coaching staff.  It would not surprise me in the least bit to see better execution of the unit even if the individual physical skills of the players make them more prone to losing 1:1 matchups.  For that reason alone, I'm not willing to abandon the notion that the O-Line may exceed expectations even if the net output is neutral to slightly worse than last year's unit.

I realize that some of you may have other ideas on possible strengths for next year.  Most notably, my omission of the defensive secondary has undoubtedly caught your attention.  I like the experience those guys gained last year - those were some important reps.  However, I can't help but feel like we are still banking a lot on very young players, a few of whom may be more than one more offseason away from developing to their peak physical stature.

One could also argue that there are players on the defensive line ready to pop or that some of our WRs might be ready to jump into prime time.  I suppose all of that is possible.  But what I see in both of those groups are not only a lot of young players but also a dearth in numbers.  We simply cannot endure much in terms of health-related attrition if these units are going to reach even "mediocre" production.  Of course, this is all debatable.

Where are you at on this subject?  Where do you see UW's strengths going into 2015?  Check in on our poll and leave your own thoughts and comments below.