Last season, there was as strong a consensus among the fans as you could find as to where UW's bread would be buttered. The Defensive Line anchored by Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha was viewed by just about everybody as the defining strength of UW's football team even well before the season actually started. Of course, there were some arguments for the depth of the RB corps and the experience of the O-Line (yikes), but there really wasn't that much debate.
Fast forward one year and the exercise isn't so simple.
UW enters 2015 sporting one of the youngest teams in the nation and is rebuilding in seemingly every area. When you look across the various position groupings, it is difficult to find even one that has both a strong experience base AND upside for the season - these being the variables one would look for in projecting a "best unit".
As such, this makes for a pretty good exercise in a 30 Day Countdown piece. So let's dive in. What do you project to be UW's best position unit going into 2015?
Option #1: Special Teams (Kicking + Returning)
We don't give a lot of air time to special teams around here which, given the emphasis that Chris Petersen places on that phase, is probably an injustice.
The Huskies actually project pretty well in the kicking game going into 2015. Many people don't realize it, but PK Cameron Van Winkle led the PAC 12 in FG % at 83% a year ago all while tying for third in total FGs made. He is a very accurate kicker, even if his leg strength limits him on distance and on kickoffs. For that, young Tristan Vizcaino is a promising talent.
Senior P Korey Durkee wasn't quite as accomplished finishing fifth in the PAC in average yds per punt. However, Durkee is one of the more versatile punters in the league being competent in both the rugby and traditional styles and having a nice touch in punt placement ... that is when he doesn't absolutely shank it.
The return game also projects as a strength, even with the loss of KR extraordinaire John Ross, who led the PAC in KO Return yards per game (73) and TDs (2) a year ago. PR Dante Pettis led the PAC in returns per game and finished third in average yards per return (10.5) last season. He'll get a shot at the job again just as guys like Budda Baker, Austin Joyner, Chico McClatcher and Jomon Dotson get their chances as kick returners. Coached personally by Chris Petersen, this promises to be an exciting aspect of the Huskies team this season.
Reasons they will be: Never hurts to be coached directly by Chris Petersen; Plenty of talent and experience to draw upon; Nobody pooch punts like UW
Reasons they will not be: Injury to John Ross leaves a big question mark in the KR game; Punting game may continue to be erratic; Touchbacks on kickoffs continue to be a bugaboo
Option #2: Defensive Secondary
The secondary is often cited by enthusiastic fans as a "strength" heading into 2015. It is easy to understand why. The star power of the UW defense is clearly loaded in the backend with pre-season All-American candidate sophomore Budda Baker and future shutdown CB Sydney Jones. Besides those guys, the ultra-athletic Kevin King, hard-hitting JC transfer Ezekiel Turner and young emerging playmakers like Darren Gardenhire, JoJo McIntosh and Naijiel Hale comprise a unit that is deep and talented. Given that they are coached by one of UW's most popular coaches in Jimmy Lake, it isn't hard to understand why there is so much enthusiasm here.
Still, UW's secondary is still young. It helps that they took their lumps - many of them as true freshman - a year ago. However, there are still learning curves to be traveled. The young Dawg DBs will be going through those this year without the aid of last year's front seven to act as a safety net.
From a talent perspective, this may well be the top unit on the team. The experience factor is still a question.
Reasons they will be: Talented and deep roster; Most players have already tasted PAC 12 competition; Outstanding position coach
Reasons they will not be: Unit is still young and underdeveloped; Less protection from the front seven to lean on than the year before
Option #3: Tight Ends
The Huskies will boast in 2015 the Tight End corps that fans have been clamoring for over the past decade. There is a legit PAC 12 talent at every class level in this year's unit. The best part is that each guy brings his own unique set of skills and capabilities to the table.
Senior Josh Perkins and junior Darrell Daniels are your hybrid guys who should become big factors in the passing game. Perk is already an established red zone threat while Daniels has flashed his potential, particularly with his long TD catch and run vs OSU last season. Sophomore David Ajamu is a versatile in-line blocker who showed off his receiving skills all throughout spring camp while big redshirt freshman Drew Sample projects as a strong blocker in his own right. Michael Neal is probably heading for a redshirt, but brings to the table the same kind of hybrid skills that Perkins does.
Collectively, the Huskies boast one of the better TE units in the PAC. Outside of Stanford - who is absolutely loaded - I'm not sure that another such unit has the kind of depth and versatility that the Huskies have, at least on paper. The only thing missing is for these guys to prove it on the field.
Reasons they will be: Loaded with talent; optimal balance of capabilities and skills
Reasons they will not be: Unproven on the field; Questions about QB play and role of TE in a Jonathan Smith offense
Option #4: Running Backs
I'm guessing that not many of you were considering this group when you started in on this article on the team. The RBs in 2015 project to be one of the more interesting units. But for an unfortunate rash of injuries and the unexpected struggles of the offensive line, this may have turned into the best unit on the team a year ago.
That didn't happen. As it was, there were still some bright spots. Dwayne Washington absolutely cemented his status as a game-breaker with several long TD runs to end the season. Lavon Coleman gained some valuable experience and made a few plays in his own right. Deontae Cooper finally got re-established as a rotational player and perhaps our best all-around back as a 5th year senior recovering from three ACL injuries. In 2015, all of those guys come back - one year stronger and one year more experienced. Their ranks get supplemented by the lightning-quick Jomon Dotson and the high-upside true freshman Myles Gaskin. You also have to consider the potential for guys like Budda Baker, Austin Joyner and Chico McClatcher to all get some carries this season.
With a little help from the passing game and their blockers, UW's RB unit might well emerge to be a defining strength for the team.
Reasons they will be: Depth, versatility and high upside; A playbook focused on the run
Reasons they will not be: Not proven as a unit; Playing behind an questionable line; Passing game may not provide many favors
I'm going to go out on a limb here and project the Running Backs as the one position unit that will shine the brightest over the course of 2015. There are a lot of things that contribute to the rationale for this choice. We've already demonstrated the big play potential of D. Washington and I just can't help but to think that we will soon see the popping of the talent that is Lavon Coleman - a player that two different coaching staffs have gushed about over the past two seasons. The introduction of the speedy Jomon Dotson, the reliability of the inspirational Deontae Cooper and the break through potential of Myles Gaskin all contribute to a unit that is deep, diverse and talented.
In addition to the attributes of the players themselves, I like the extenuating circumstances. I'm on record as being one of the sad few who actually think that the O-Line will be better than advertised given the physical maturity and experience of the returning players. I also like the fact that the coaching staff is committed to a run-heavy attack. These factors all add up to a Running Back corps that really has a chance to blow up in the season ahead.