Though starters get the lion’s share of love and attention from adoring fans, the players comprising a team’s two-deep on both offense and defense play pivotal roles in the program’s success. This is especially true in the era of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses: In 2015, an average game included 143.1 offensive plays; compare this to as recent as 2008, when games averaged 135.3 plays. Today, we examine which of Washington’s depth players is most valuable.
After earning a redshirt in 2014, Vea proved to be a valuable member of Washington’s defensive line depth last year by providing valuable breathing room for starting nose tackle (now defensive end) Elijah Qualls. In particular, he was an important contributor in the team’s run defense that yielded 125.3 yards per game, which ranked second in the Pac-12. Vea stands 6-5, and after playing last year at 340 lbs., he measured in this fall at 332 lbs. New defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe gave Vea heady praise earlier this month when he compared the defensive lineman to former No. 1 overall draft pick Steve Emtman on Sports Radio 950 KJR.
Vea contributed 17 tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss last season, as well as one sack and one forced fumble. With Qualls’ move to defensive end, Vea and Greg Gaines are likely to inherit most of his snaps, and it’s not unthinkable that he could finish the season as an all-conference honorable mention.
Washington’s offensive line has long been a source of frustration for fans of the team, as no Husky has appeared on the all-conference team since Kyle Benn was honored in 2001. Redshirt junior Andrew Kirkland will likely not break that streak, but he could help considerably in making sure one of his teammates does. Kirkland is expected to be the primary backup for two positions along the offensive line, spelling Trey Adams at left tackle and Kaleb McGary at right tackle. Even if he doesn’t assume a starting role, he will likely see meaningful minutes in every game this season, and will be an important cog in offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith’s quest to put more points on the board.
In 2015, Kirkland started five games at right tackle and a sixth at left tackle, and played in 12 of the season’s 13 contests. Unless injury plays a smaller (or larger) than expected role in Washington’s 2016 season, that number will likely remain a similar one.
The 6-1, 176 lb. Miller has been touted since his first fall camp as Washington’s next big cornerback prospect, following in the line of Desmond Trufant, Marcus Peters and Sidney Jones. Despite the presence of players like Jones, Darren Gardenhire and Kevin King ahead of him on the cornerback depth chart last year, Miller’s strong play on special teams allowed him to play as a true freshman. In his 2016 season preview magazine, Phil Steele ranked Washington’s secondary as the third-best in the nation behind Alabama and LSU, and having depth players with talent such as Miller’s is an important reason why UW’s depth in the defensive backfield is viewed as the strongest in the country, if not the entire country.
Miller’s 2015 season doesn’t jump off the stat sheet — five tackles and one interception, the pick coming against woeful Oregon State — but it does speak to his status as an emerging player who has the potential to eventually become a high-round draft pick.
Verdict: Andrew Kirkland
Key to Washington’s continued development on offense is reliable play at the offensive line that will provide adequate protection to sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, and control lines of scrimmage for the benefit of running back Myles Gaskin. As the primary backup for two of the line’s five positions, Andrew Kirkland’s steady presence and play will be key to the offense’s progression. Very few teams boast the same starters along the offensive line from a season’s beginning to its end; last year, for example, center Siosifa Tufunga was the team’s only offensive player to start every game at the same position. If Washington’s offensive line takes the next step this season toward becoming an elite offense, Kirkland’s availability as a depth player will be a huge reason why.