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Offseason Lists: Projecting the Huskies Most Critical Players

It's a new season with new stars waiting to emerge on the Huskies gridiron. We project the most critical players for 2015.

How critical is this man to the Huskies in 2015?
How critical is this man to the Huskies in 2015?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn't seem promising when you see it printed on your screen:  The Huskies are replacing more starters than any other team in the Pac 12.

The Ducks are swapping out the greatest player in their program's history with the greatest player in Eastern Washington's history.  The Beavers are swapping out a new staff and their most successful QB of all time.  The Cardinal are swapping out most of their defense.  And, yet, each of those teams will be returning more pieces with game experience to their programs than UW will in 2015.

For UW to avoid the pitfalls that often come with such sudden and massive overhauls of contributing talent, a new crop of high-level contributors and a few new stars all must emerge.  Those breakout players must also be supported by higher outputs coming from those established veterans that do happen to be returning and it all must happen under the general guise of program advancement as shepherded by a gelling and faithful coaching staff.

On paper, the Huskies do not project well relative to the rest of the North division - a topic that we discussed and debated ad nauseum a month ago.  But not all hope is lost.  As I noted in that review, the Huskies will trot out one of the grittiest and toughest teams that they've had around Montlake no matter how young and relatively inexperienced it might be.  If some of that saltiness can be paired with a few break out performances, the Huskies may well be able to beat expectations and at least compete for the middle of the division, if not more.

Today's offseason list is dedicated to the five players that must elevate if the Huskies are to achieve that outcome.

1.  Jake Eldrenkamp, OT

While not even a sure-thing as the penciled in starter at LT, Eldrenkamp is, at least in my mind, the most critical player that UW needs to have step up as we go into 2015.  Assuming that Dexter Charles comes back and that Colemen Shelton continues on the same positive growth trajectory that he showed last year, Eldrenkamp becomes the difference between a young and pourous offensive line with just 1.5 returning starters and a tough, nasty offensive line that sets the edges well and creates a foundation for the QB of the future to emerge.

Redshirt Junior Eldrenkamp is the oldest, most tenured and most physically ready of the candidates to backfill Micah Hatchie at that Left Tackle position.  While he will definitely get competition from guys like Andrew Kirkland, Matt James and, perhaps, Kaleb McGary, it is in the best interests of that unit if their most experienced and tenured player wins that job.  He's got the most banked reps and the most time in the weight room to have prepared for this moment.  The Huskies, and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, desperately need him to seize it.

2.  Elijah Qualls, DT

Elijah Qualls comes into 2015 sure to be one of the most talked about players on the defense.  Not only does he get the dubious distinction of replacing one of the best interior linemen that UW has ever produced in the form of Danny Shelton, but he is also expected to don the title of "team leader" as he attempts to do it.

Qualls is a unique talent not only because of his low-to-the-ground girth but because of his extensive athleticism.  Reporters that cover the team have observed Qualls perform standing backflips while in practice - evidence of the kind of lower body power and coordination that he possesses.  The redshirt Sophomore will have to use that power and athleticism to help replace the pocket-crushing presence of Shelton.

But, important to note, Qualls is a different kind of player than Shelton.  He's not as powerful and will likely be rotated more frequently into a 3-technique position depending on when the coaching staff thinks that they can create mismatches and when they want to rotate in some of their young NT talent with Vita Vea and Greg Gaines.  This will certainly create a different looking line for the Huskies and create opportunities for Qualls to shine.  The Huskies really need him to take advantage of those opportunities in 2015.

3.  Joe Mathis, DE

After a brief respite in the middle of last season when it appeared that Mathis might "wash out" as another player lost in the coaching transition, redshirt Sophomore Mathis found his way back to his team and into the good graces of the UW coaching staff.

It's a good thing he did.

In 2015, Mathis projects as the most lethal pass rusher that the Huskies will put on the field.  He'll backfill Andrew Hudson's position from a season ago and, in that role, he'll be counted on - perhaps unfairly - to become the team's top pass rushing threat.

It's a role that Mathis is well-suited for.  Blessed with a strong physical core, great burst off the line and a tireless motor, Mathis has all of the attributes that scream "sack artist".  His technique is raw, but he is said to have spent considerable time with Hau'oli Kikaha and learning from him his various Judo-inspired hand fighting techniques that were such a big part of Kikaha's success as the nation's sack leader from a year ago.

The Huskies defense really needs their D-line to be able to create pressure without blitzing if it has hopes of slowing down some of the elite offenses in the Pac and making games manageable for their inconsistent offense.  To do that, Mathis must become a top contributor.

4.  Budda Baker, S

It isn't a huge stretch to proclaim true Sophomore Baker as the best player returning to the Huskies Defense in 2015.  Such a proclamation is a tribute to the sheer athleticism and the "gym rat" mentality that Baker possesses as a student-athlete.

But, I think we can all see that Baker really has to step up his game in 2015 if the Huskies D is to achieve at the level it did a year ago.  There are simply no two ways around it.  The Huskies front seven is turning over too many players to expect the same kind of output that we saw a season ago and the rest of the Huskies secondary will be relying on similarly young and still-growing players.  Baker is the best of them all with the athleticism and intellect to prove it.

The Huskies will be looking for Baker to reduce his mental errors, improve his physicality in run support and to produce more turnovers in order to help fill the gaps left behind by guys like John Timu and Shaq Thompson.  In short, he has to become a multi-threat free safety the likes of Earl Thomas and he must serve the role as the general for the back end of the UW defense.

That's a tall order for any player, much less one that is still just a true sophomore.  But Baker has shown himself eminently capable of it and the Huskies simply have to have it.

5. (insert name here), QB

When  I originally drafted this piece, I had Cyler Miles penciled in as the 5th critical player in this offseason list.  I noted in the draft that many of you would rather see Cyler replaced by the likes of KJ Carta-Samuels or true Freshman Jake Browning and that it might very well happen.

We now know it will happen.

If the Huskies are to maximize their prospects in 2015, it simply makes sense that the quarterback position must become more productive.  If you take an objective look at things, Cyler's performance was relatively effective in terms of getting the ball out, getting the ball into the hands of playmakers and converting first downs (Cyler's 42% 3rd down conversion rate - while not stellar - was far better than Keith Price's in 2012).  The problem is that the offense couldn't consistently generate big plays with Cyler behind center and Jonathan Smith up in the booth.

That simply must change.  In any normal year, making that change is a team effort with - ideally - young playmaking receivers and rushers taking steps forward.  However, in 2015, UW will basically have the same offensive weapons it had before minus an experienced o-line.  The net result is more pressure on both the QB and the OC to improve their outputs.  UW will try to tackle that challenge with a new QB no matter who steps into the role.

Getting a championship level performance out of a first-year starting QB is no small feat.  In the last 10 years, only Oregon has been able to win a division with a first-year starter (twice with Jeremiah Masoli - who, ironically, lost to Boise St in the first game of the season - and Darron Thomas).  Before that, you have to go back to 2006 and USC with John David Booty to find a first year starter who led a team to a P12 title.  Still, that is the challenge that now faces this UW team in 2015.