Attention Husky football fans: this is the most important camp preview you will read. As far as DawgPound articles go, it won’t be the most well written (I’m not Chris Landon), it won’t be the quirkiest and most fun to read (I’m no Gabey Lucas) and it won’t take you on a high school joy ride with moments rivaling ‘Talladega Nights’ (I was never a rockstar teen like Ryan Priest). Still, this is a must-read because the running game is the single most important element of football. Yes, the game has become pass-happy. Yes, turnovers can decide outcomes. But if a team can line up, show run, give the ball to their running back and successfully move the chains, the offense will stay on the field. A good running attack makes things easier on the passing game and allows rest for your own defense. In short: Run the ball + stop the opponent from running the ball = win.
Defense versus the run is equally as important, but not nearly as important for the 2016 Huskies as the offense’s ability to establish a running game. Last season, UW was 9th in the Pac-12 conference in rushing offense with 163 yards per game and a 4.5 YPC average. Those numbers aren’t awful, but the 95 YPG and measly 3.02 yards per carry in the five games against defenses ranked in the S&P top 50 is pure crap and must improve if this team is to contend.
Every year around this time my dad will ask me "So, how do we look?" He’s a UW alum and season ticket holder since 1953; a huge fan obviously. That being said, he is 84 years old and has a hard time remembering that my name is John without thinking about it for a second, therefore he needs yearly (ok, daily) refreshers on the Huskies’ outlook. I will tell him about the QB situation, UW’s outstanding RB du jour, and the accenting defensive prowess. He’ll digest that info, nod as he processes it, then after a pause will inquire: "How is the offensive line?"
"Well, they return a lot of guys." I offer up.
"Okay," another pause. "Are they any good?"
The longest pause of all belongs to me; "No, Dad. They are not. They could be good."
Therein lies the #1 point of concern for the Huskies in 2016. Prognosticators who have them winning the North or being a Top-10 team look at the roster and think that, since they are returning almost everyone from the two-deep on the offensive line, they must be good. No, not necessarily. They could be good. The running back is good. The defense is good. But the offensive line —looking at it with my purple shades in my pocket and the grape Kool-aid still in the fridge—is nothing better than mediocre. They were really young last season, and it was encouraging that they were able to have great success against lesser defenses (205 yards per game, 5.07 YPC against FBS teams outside the S&P top 50), so yeah, I’m ready to put on the shades and pour myself a tall glass of Kool-aid. But as opposed to a defense that returns experienced players from a statistically excellent group, the offensive line simply returns experienced players; some of the most promising ones with less than a full year of that. We can’t call them good until we see them play well against top defenses. If the Dawgs do put together a great offensive line, watch out.
The O-line is not singularly responsible for providing the blocking in the running game. Wide receivers and tight ends must interfere with the edge-setters at the line of scrimmage and provide the downfield blocks that turn 7-yard gains into huge, electrifying runs. Wide receiver blocking was not great for the Huskies last season. When a team uses three tight ends, as often as UW did —usually with at least one split as a WR— it says something about the physicality of the receivers. UW just hasn’t had a big-bodied blocking WR since Kasen Williams and Kevin Smith. Josh Perkins is the right size and was the player Chris Petersen tried to use in that capacity, but he couldn’t block corners. Darrell Daniels is a better blocker than Perkins, but too big to get a piece of DBs. Connor Griffin has shown himself to be an excellent blocker, has lightened himself 10 pounds, and hopefully for the Dawgs will be the answer here.
There is every reason to believe that Daniels, Drew Sample, Will Dissly, and even Jeff Lindquist can be a really strong crew of blocking tight ends. Whoever takes Perkins’s snaps will likely be an upgrade in the blocking dept. I’m hoping Michael Neal is a good, athletic blocker, but that’s a big unknown. Still, lots of good run blockers in this unit. Overall, the TEs should be good. That’s ½ point higher than could be good if you are following along with my arbitrary ranking system.
Now we get to the is: Myles Gaskin is good. He’s really good. But when we talk about the rest of the running back unit, we’re back to that damn could.
Firstly, let’s talk Gaskin. The little dude kinda has it all; his combination of vision and patience means that no yards are left on the field. If there is a play to be made, Gaskin will find the room to make it. His speed is not world class, but he ran away from a lot of corners and safeties last year. He is not Royce Freeman when it comes to power, but how many tackles did he break? I think I lost count during the USC game. He sets up his blocks, takes the play where it is designed to go until he just can’t anymore, and at that point he will look for somewhere else to run, and set up the blocks necessary for his new route to find yardage. Sometimes I think his brain is like a GPS, "recalculating route" and…let’s see..."avoid tacklers."
Gaskin’s supporting cast does not suck. Lavon Coleman, like the Husky offensive line, could be really good. Whether or not he supplies firepower as a change-of-pace runner making tough runs between the tackles will be absolutely critical to the success of the UW rushing attack. During his freshman season I thought I saw a little Bishop Sankey wiggle in him when he would emerge through the line breaking arm tackles. Last season he couldn’t get much going at all against good run defenses, but he is the kind of downhill runner that relies on the offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage to find success. If the Huskies fare well at the point of attack, Coleman will move the sticks.
With the possible exception of John Ross, true freshman running back Sean McGrew is the ‘new’ player I am most intrigued to see incorporated into the offense. People may be sleeping on him just a bit, thinking that he is too similar to Gaskin and that UW just doesn’t really have room for a pair of smallish backs to see regular time. Hell, the Huskies have also have Jomon Dotson and Chico McClatcher. Where does McGrew find his snaps? That really is a good argument; it makes perfect sense. But Petersen a) has no problem playing true freshmen and b) will play the best guys. If McGrew is the second best running back, he will get the second most carries. The same goes for Kamari Pleasant, the Huskies' other true freshman running back who possesses the size and power to provide a change of pace. Surely a couple of these guys will get lost in the shuffle, but a productive rushing attack must have several good runners. Case in point: Last season UW had the conference's 4th leading ball carrier, but was near the bottom of the Pac-12 in team rushing.
Now, let’s discuss the L-Cat. Hmmm, no let’s not discuss the L-Cat. Let’s never ever discuss the L-Cat again as long as each of us remains on this earth.
Let’s talk about the only thing from the L-Cat that worked in 2016: The fly sweep. Man, I love that play. I loved that play back when Oregon State used it with James Rodgers. I always thought it was virtually impossible to defend, especially with an over-pursuing defense. Come to think of it, the predictability of the L-Cat was what made the fly sweep work. Shit, I’m talking about the L-cat. Let’s never speak of it again starting…….NOW.
McClatcher, Ross, and possibly McGrew are the players I expect to see going in motion before the snap and taking the handoff on the fly sweep. If new receivers coach Bush Hamdan has his guys doing their job better this season in the blocking department, this play will be one of the most effective in the Husky arsenal.