Camp has started and the Dawgs are only a few short weeks away from beginning game planning for Boise State. It's like being a kid at the beginning of Christmas break. With just 25 days to go, the anticipation is almost unbearable.
The national storyline attached to this version of the Washington Huskies involves how Chris Petersen recovers from the loss of four studs off of last year's team to the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Marcus Peters were all major contributors to UW's defense a year ago and all came into last season as sure-bet NFL prospects. Each of those guys showed up on NFL draft boards each of the past two seasons and all ended up getting drafted at or ahead of the projections of the experts.
When NFL scouts look at this team, there are no such obvious prospects. In fact, a cursory look at some current prospect rankings reveals few mentions of current Huskies besides the occasional mention of WR Jaydon Mickens. In fact, most top 100 lists, including this one from DrafTek, list no Husky prospects.
Much of this is explainable by the youth of the program. The Huskies have just 29 seniors and juniors on the roster which means that there is a small pool of draftable prospects to begin with. That said, is it believable that a Chris Petersen coached power 5 team that just put four players into the first two rounds of the NFL Draft a season ago has no good NFL prospects?
No, of course not.
There are diamonds in the rough all over this roster. Many of whom are destined to play at the next level after some experience and some development. For the purposes of this exercise, let's limit the scope of this discussion to ONLY those players that have already seen the field in an actual PAC 12 game. The goal is to identify the player with the highest ceiling when it comes to playing at the next level.
Option 1: S Budda Baker
Just a true sophomore Budda Baker still has a lot of film left to produce before he starts to show up on the NFL radar in any substantial way. But don't think for a second that NFL scouts aren't already getting their laptops warmed up. Baker has already demonstrated many of the characteristics that NFL scouts look for in free safeties.
The first thing they see is Baker's straight line athleticism and ability to close on a receiver. He has great ball skills - as shown on the spectacular interception he made in last year's Cactus Bowl - and he appears to demonstrate the kind of "gym rat" intangibles that NFL scouts love. After a few more years of development under Chris Petersen and DB Coach Jimmy Lake, it is conceivable that Baker may be one of the top two or three safeties in the draft.
Reasons for: Tremendous explosiveness for his position; Demonstrated toughness by playing most snaps of any Husky in his true freshman year; Possesses all of the leadership traits and intangibles NFL scouts love
Reasons against: Still too small for his position; Hasn't developed into a reliable tackler
Option 2: DL JoJo Mathis
Its hard to believe that Joe Mathis is already a junior. It seems like it was just yesterday that Mathis was committing to UW as one of Tosh Lupoi's prized recruits and it seems like just a few hours ago that he was struggling with his decision to either stay or leave after the hiring of Chris Petersen.
But here we are with JoJo emerging as not only one of the key players on the 2015 Husky defense but an outright leader for the squad.
On the field, NFL scouts will be watching Mathis closely this year. As a rotational player a year ago, Mathis absolutely flashed every time he was in the game. He is a natural pass rusher who shows very good burst off the line and very violent hands. He's a strong player who can get leverage on offensive linemen and can get ball carriers to the ground ... at least against the competition he has seen to date.
The Huskies will likely have JoJo in more of a BUCK role this year with an eye of introducing him to the NFL as an OLB in a 3-4 scheme. To become a better prospect, Mathis will have to demonstrate an ability to sustain his motor with starter's snaps, he'll have to show an ability to play in space as a linebacker and he'll have to show some capability to mirror a route runner in coverage.
Reasons for: Shows good leverage, burst and pad level in the pass rush; Strong player and sure tackler; Nasty streak personified
Reasons against: Might be a tweener - too small to be a DE and too slow to be an OLB; Hasn't demonstrated ability to sustain his intensity over four quarters of starter's snaps
Option 3: DL Will Dissly
Arizona's Scooby Wright proved a year ago that sometimes a 2-star recruiting prospect can capture the imaginatino of CFB fans and the attention of NFL scouts. UW has it's own version of "2-star Scoobs" in DL Will Dissly. Dissly was a lightly recruited athlete from Montana where he won the player of the year honors in the state during his senior season. When he arrived at Montlake, most fans felt like that Petersen had landed a true diamond in the rough, but few expected to see him to not take a redshirt as a freshman.
Not only did Dissly play as a true frosh, but he shined in his limited number of snaps. While we saw him mostly play in the 3T role along the Huskies line, Dissly has the size (6'4" 277) to play on the interior of the line, the strength to hold up the edge as a strong side defensive end and the speed to roll out and play BUCK in Pete Kwiatkowski's defensive scheme. In short, he may be the most versatile athlete on the Huskies defense.
NFL scouts are already starting to pay attention to Dissly based on his physical dimensions and the limited film he's produced. Dissly still has a lot of development ahead of him before he becomes a real prospect. In particular, scouts will be looking to see what position he ultimately gravitates to, what kind of pass rush moves he develops and whether or not his strength holds up after four quarters of getting leaned on by 300 lb offensive tackles.
Reasons for: Physical dimensions; Great work ethic; Position versatility and ability to contribute in many roles
Reasons against: Still raw in several basic areas such as pass rush and tackling; Hasn't demonstrated endurance
Option 4: WR John Ross
John Ross will not play in 2015 due to a knee injury suffered in the winter. The loss of Ross is a huge blow to the Huskies prospects for the season as well as to his draft-ability as an NFL prospect. Because when Ross is healthy, he is hands down one of the fastest players in all of college football. The graphic below shows Ross's suddenness as exemplified by his 100 yard KO return in the Fight Hunger Bowl. That's some amazing speed.
Assuming that Ross comes back effectively from his injury, he will clearly be a player on NFL draft boards. He has gamebreaker skills with both his elusiveness and his straight line speed. In addition, Ross shows better-than-expected hands as a receiver and could turn into an interesting RB/WR hybrid at the next level.
Like many other UW players, Ross is hardly a sure thing when it comes to the NFL. For one thing, he still has to demonstrate and ability to run routes more precisely as a receiver. He hasn't yet excelled in that area nor has he shown an ability to consistently get off the line of scrimmage against even average sized corners in the PAC 12. While he is great in generating YAC in space, his lack of size and strength also limits his abilities in breaking tackles and blocking. It may well be that he projects as a better CB (especially given his long arms) than a WR at the next level.
John Ross is clearly an NFL player, but whether he is strictly a special-teamer, or a player who contributes two ways remains to be seen.
Reasons for: World class explosiveness; Might be the best special teams prospect in the 2016 or 2017 draft; Can play multiple positions at the next level
Reasons against: Not a polished route runner or blocker; May not be as good a receiver as a defensive back; Uncertainty around the injury situation
With apologies to Ross, I think Baker projects as the best NFL prospect on the Huskies roster based both on film produced to date and a reasonable set of expectations on his growth trajectory. I think that NFL scouts will see Baker as exactly the kind of prospect to invest a high draft pick in given what he brings to the table with his athleticism and leadership and in spite of size. While he doesn't exactly match Seahawks S Earl Thomas in playing style, the fact that Thomas as excelled at his size clearly creates opportunities for guys like Baker to prove that they can compensate for that deficiency by developing elite capabilities in other areas.
By the end of this year, I expect Baker to be squarely on NFL scout radars. I could see Baker developing into a top-of-draft type of safety once his time at UW has come to a conclusion.
Others considered: WR Jaydon Mickens, TE Darrel Daniels, OG Dexter Charles, LB Travis Feeney, LB Cory Littleton, CB Sidney Jones, P Koree Durkee, WR Dante Pettis, DL Elijah Qualls