Heading into the 2015 season expectations were modest at best for the Huskies. The team was coming off a moderately underwhelming 8-6 campaign in Chris Petersen's first season at the helm at Washington, and there were significant roster losses. The defense saw three players drafted in the 1st round of the NFL draft and another in the 2nd round, and would be replacing their entire front four and two of three starting linebackers. The offense would be losing five offensive linemen, all with extensive starting experience, and a gifted (if hobbled) wide receiver. In June it was announced that starting QB Cyler Miles would be retiring due to a chronic hip injury, and then in August an already depleted OL lost their best (and most experienced) player when Dexter Charles also had to take a medical retirement.
Vegas oddsmakers were bearish on the Huskies, setting an over/under line of 4 to 4.5 wins for the season. Most analysts were a bit more optimistic, with six wins generally being the benchmark. Over at ESPN, Kevin Gemmell set the bar between 5-7 and 7-5. Athlon's said that "Six or seven wins would be considered progress" back in May, before the news about Miles broke. Paul Myerberg of USA Today was one of the more optimistic of the national analysts, seeing a best case scenario of 9-3 (and a worst-case of 4-8) and picking them #72 overall and 4th in the Pac-12 North. Jon Wilner was a skeptic, picking the Huskies to finish 5th in the North. Overall, the Pac-12 beat writers picked Washington to finish 4th in the division.
As it turned out, Vegas was too pessimistic and the writers were right in setting a benchmark of six wins for the regular season as the Huskies rallied to win their last two games of the season to get to 6-6 and secure a sixth consecutive bowl game, and a win there over Southern Miss gave the Huskies a 7-6 mark for the season.
So, expectations met for the coaching staff? Yes - but with caveats. In some ways they did better than expected. Outside of a small group of fans, most figured the defense would take a step back this season minus Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters, Hau'oli Kikaha and John Timu (all off to the NFL). Instead the defense improved, relying on terrific athleticism, depth, and sound play to emerge as the top defense in the conference and one of the top ten units in the country. And when you consider the youth movement that occurred on offense, with true freshman starters for the first time ever at QB and LT (and later at RB) and first- or second-year players accounting for 19 starts on the OL, the progression on that side of the ball from Boise State to Southern Miss was encouraging.
In other ways, they did worse - if someone had told you before the season that the defense would improve, you probably would have figured the Huskies would match or exceed their 2014 results. And there were still games (and moments) of supreme frustration with opportunities missed. Losses against Boise State, Cal, Oregon, and ASU all featured mistakes and questionable tactics that turned potential wins into frustrating losses.
If you take a step back, though, those kinds of mistakes and inconsistencies are what you'd expect from a team with as much youth as the Huskies featured. For the season, only 36% of the starts came from upperclassmen in their 4th or 5th years; this is not a huge surprise given that 4th and 5th year players accounted for only 25 scholarships on the roster.
Pete Kwiatkowski and the defensive staff earned raves from fans this season, and for good reason - when you field the conference's top defense (and one of the best in the country), you deserve praise. We saw a group that played fundamentally sound, was athletic, didn't give up many big plays, and was particularly tough in the red zone. The young group in the secondary - thrown into the fire last year - continued to grow and improve. A talented group of linebackers thrived with extended playing time as Azeem Victor blossomed with his chance to start and both Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton had big senior seasons. A brand new defensive line showed impressive depth and considerable potential. Kwiatkowski adapted to the graduation of Kikaha by making the BUCK position more of a traditional OLB role, essentially a mirror of the SAM in order to take advantage of the skillset and athleticism of Feeney. He also found an effective counter to the abundance of spread offensive looks he faced with what amounted to a 2-4-5 nickel look with two defensive tackles flanked by Littleton and Feeney and backed by Victor and Keishawn Bierria, and bringing in Kevin King as an extra DB.
Everyone's favorite whipping boy, Jonathan Smith, had a tougher road. Faced with fielding a new starting QB for the 2nd straight year, an almost entirely new starting OL, and a WR group missing Kasen Williams and John Ross, he had his work cut out for him. The coaching staff decided to go young, opting to throw Jake Browning and Trey Adams into the fire rather than redshirting them. Myles Gaskin soon earned his way into the starting lineup as well. Browning and the offense took their lumps early. But as the season progressed - and Gaskin emerged - the offense showed improvement. While opponents like Arizona and Oregon State struggled on defense this season, few teams stomped them as badly as the Huskies did. It wasn't all roses, of course - while Browning showed considerable potential, he struggled all season with the deep vertical passing game, and his receiving group often hurt him more than they helped. There were times that the running game was not utilized as much as it probably should have been, and experiments with Jeff Lindquist as a wildcat-style QB rarely succeeded. But the offense had shown enough by the end of the season to think that it could emerge in 2016 as a strength rather than a liability.
Petersen himself seemed more at ease and comfortable this season. He mentioned on more than one occasion that he felt like his message and his way of doing things was sinking in with the team, and that the coaching staff and players were much more in sync this year. Game management issues were not eliminated - there was much criticism of a late touchdown drive vs. Oregon that burned a ton of time off the clock and left little chance of completing the comeback - but it was encouraging that the Huskies had a chance to win in almost every game (Stanford being the lone exception). Petersen got his first "marquee" win here with the upset at USC (a loss that seemed to trigger Steve Sarkisian's meltdown and subsequent firing) and improved his record to 2-0 in the Apple Cup with a blowout win over a ranked Cougar team that finished 9-4.
Perhaps more impressive was seeing his willingness to address issues in his coaching staff once the season was complete. Many wondered if he put too much of a premium on loyalty over performance, but with his firing of longtime assistant Brent Pease he showed that there would be accountability on his coaching staff. The wide receiver group was widely viewed as a weak link during the season with numerous drops, sub-par blocking and not enough development, and Petersen didn't hesitate to make a move.
Petersen's main focus right now of course is putting the finishing touches on the 2016 recruiting class. It will be a smaller class than normal given the small 2015 graduating class, but at least in terms of average star rating it already looks to be the best yet under his watch and one of the best of the Internet era. If they can close on some of their top remaining targets, that number stands to improve.
Longer term, it will be interesting to see how the new blood in the coaching staff changes things. Bush Hamdan takes over as WR coach for Pease and his troops will be watched closely to see if progress can be made in blocking and avoiding drops. With popular DL coach and ST Coordinator Jeff Choate off to Montana State as Head Coach, Husky alum Ikaika Malloe steps into some big shoes. As someone outside the Petersen coaching tree, he brings some new blood and, along with Hamdan, gives the staff a younger face. It will bear watching to see if they can make a positive mark in recruiting.
Given the returning talent on this roster and how they played this year, expect Washington to be a trendy pick as a "breakout" team in 2016. Entering his 3rd season at the helm, there will be some pressure on Petersen to show that he can break the Huskies out of their current mediocrity and challenge for the North Division title, and of course breaking the losing streak to the Ducks remains a high priorty. Petersen and his staff have done a very good job of building on the steps that Sarkisian took in getting the program out of the gutter while also reshaping the program in his OKG mold, and the way the roster sets up it's reasonable to think that 2016 should be a step forward and that 9+ wins are the benchmark.