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Lofty Expectations Hang Over the Washington Huskies as Spring Practices Commence

Chris Petersen and his Husky football program are widely expected to become contenders for the PAC-12 title in 2016

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For Chris Petersen, the notoriously understated head football coach of the Washington Huskies, if it isn't one thing, it is another.

The first two seasons of Petersen's tenure have been peppered with questions about his recruiting prowess, his coaching staff decisions, his roster management strategy and, of course, his inability to generate instant success with the players that he inherited from the Steve Sarkisian regime. Petersen has answered all of those questions with a high degree of patience and low degree of detail. His mastery of the standard cliche (e.g. "the kids played hard," "we try to get better every day," "he is such a great kid") and his ability to redirect a question into an answer that he wants to give is at such a high level that aides to presidential candidates are using his cutups to train their candidates.

Change is in the air this spring, however.

As the Huskies prepare to take the field on Monday in their first of 15 spring practices, the questions surrounding this team will shift away from the "rebuild" and towards the new standard of competitiveness that many pundits, both close and far away from the program, expect this version of the Washington Huskies to achieve.

There is no questioning the source of these expectations. Petersen and his Huskies opened eyes all over the country a year ago when their young roster produced the #12 S&P ranked team in the nation. S&P evaluates play-by-play data of every team in the nation and organizes it into a composite ranking of overall efficiency metrics that are applied evenly to all teams. The young UW defense, which was the best statistical unit in the PAC-12, drove much of that rating but was helped by an offense that continuously climbed the scale as the season wore on. In fact, that offense ended the season ranked #34 by S&P, ahead of programs such as Boise State, Auburn, and yes, Washington State.

While many fans like to debate the merits of advanced statistical analysis, one cannot debate the fact that these metrics are widely assessed by the sports-consuming public. This statistical evidence combined with observations about the substantial amount of returning experience and the track record of success that Chris Petersen has achieved has driven expectations sky high.

All eyes will, undoubtedly, be glued to sophomore QB Jake Browning from the outset. A strong conclusion to a true freshman season that saw him hitting 74% of his passes at 9.5 yards/attempt over the final three contests have Husky fans drooling about his potential. If the Huskies are to take the next step, their unquestioned leader will need to build upon that performance by adding a deep ball into his game and elevating the play of an otherwise undistinguished receiving corps. How Browning has reshaped his body and how he has developed his arm strength will be questions on everybody's mind come Monday.

Another key story line that Husky fans will be focused on will be how the Huskies' offensive line is coming together. This is a unit that has struggled to establish consistence and cohesion for the better part of the last two decades. In fact, the Huskies haven't had a first-team All-PAC-12 lineman since Kyle Benn in 2001. That trend might soon reverse itself if the young offensive linemen, in particular sophomore tackles Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, manage to take the next steps against their limitless potential. Could this be the first year in what seems like ages that the Huskies don't have to contend with surprise retirements (all apologies to Dane Crane) or debilitating injuries as key factors in the deployment of the offensive line? Line coach Chris Strausser certainly hopes so.

This preview wouldn't be complete without a look on the defensive side of the ball. The Huskies are only having to replace three starters off their top-ranked unit a year ago and, fortunately, are in a position to do so with a pool of players with playing experience. The only real question surrounding this unit is whether or not they can maintain the kind of momentum that they achieved during the regular season of last year. We may not be able to discern that in the sterile environment of spring practices, but seeing who gets reps in those open positions and how some of the percolating talent (all eyes fixed on players like Joe Mathis, Greg Gaines, Will Dissly, and JoJo McIntosh) begins to separate will be areas of focus for fans.

There are many other questions that will get analyzed and debated:

  • Does John Ross look ready to take on the role of "most explosive player" in the PAC?
  • How will the RB depth behind star Myles Gaskin shake out?
  • Who will play BUCK?
  • How will the Lindquist and Dissly experiments at TE work out?
  • Are there any receivers ready to take on the title of "playmaker"?
  • Which redshirt and early enrollee true freshmen are ready to contribute?

There is no shortage of intrigue surrounding this iteration of Washington football as spring camp opens. I suppose that this is a common phenomenon that occurs around this time every year. What is different for Chris Petersen and his staff is the biased lens that bystanders will be using as they evaluate the data points that get posted over the course of the next month.

The context has changed. The PAC-12 title and a national ranking are on the table. We'll want answers to our questions with those standards in mind. Of course, this is Chris Petersen we are talking about. With a smirk on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, he'll continue to tell us about how hard his kids are working every day.

Finishing Points

The Huskies' practice schedule for the spring is as follows:

Spring Practice Dates, with player/coach interview schedule:

1. Mon., March 28 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - offensive players & Coach Petersen

2. Wed., March 30 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - defensive players

3. Fri., April 1 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - all assistant coaches

4. Sat., April 2 - practice closed

5. Mon., April 4 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - defensive players

6. Wed., April 6 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - offensive players

7. Fri., April 8 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - all assistant coaches & Coach Petersen

8. Sat., April 9 - practice closed

9. Mon., April 11 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - offensive players

10. Wed., April 13 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - defensive players

11. Fri., April 15 - 8:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - all assistant coaches & Coach Petersen

12. Sat., April 16 - practice closed

13. Mon., April 18 - 8:15 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - defensive players & Coach Petersen

14. Wed., April 20 - 8:15 a.m.-10:45 a.m. - offensive players

15. Sat., April 23 - SPRING PREVIEW, 12:30-2:30 p.m. - all available players & coaches, Pac-12 Network

The UWDP staff does not have press credentials and will not be following the practices in person. As always, we lean on the excellent beat reporting by the local media to keep tabs on the news coming out of practices. We will post updates based on their reporting after every practice in addition to our normal blogging.

Going forward, Ryan Priest will be manning the role of Football Editor. Part of his responsibility in this regard is to put together a program that meets the needs of our demanding and discerning blog membership.  We welcome your feedback and ideas on how to make our football coverage top notch.