The PAC 12 season is officially over. The Huskies have qualified for the post season ... the Fiesta Bowl and a matchup with the Penn State Nittany Lions, no less. While there are still many storylines left to explore about the UW post-season, it is safe to say we’ve reached the end of the line of the 2017 football campaign.
Now that I type it, it seems so...final. It feels like it just started a few weeks ago. Where did the time go? I blinked and—SNAP—I missed it.
Of course, I didn’t really miss it. In fact, I watched far more PAC 12 football than the normal fan. So much, in fact, that my kids have started referring to me as Mr. Pac Man.
I did, however, miss out on a few things specific to the Washington Huskies. If you recall our litany of preseason preview pieces, you will note that hope sprung eternal that several young players on the roster would break out in 2017. We also predicted big steps forward from some guys and major comebacks for others. I watched with baited breath all season for some of those preseason prognostications to come life.
Some did. I think we can say that guys like Salvon Ahmed, Andre Baccellia, Luke Wattenberg, Ben Burr-Kirven, the young DBs, Joel Whitford, Ryan Bowman, Tevis Bartlett, and Hunter Bryant all established significant roles. You can further argue that some other players took the proverbial “next step.” Here I’m thinking about guys like D.J. Beavers, Kamari Pleasant, Brandon Wellington, Jacob Kizer, and Levi Onwuzurike.
But that wasn’t the entirety of the story. It is also true that others who we expected (or hoped) to show up really didn’t. Those people are the subject of this post as we try to decipher what, exactly, we missed in the 2017 regular season.
I caveat all of this with the acknowledgement that we are not privy to injury news and have no idea whether or not some or all of these players were limited in some capacity at all during the season. I should also note here that this isn’t some kind of a hit job on unsuspecting players. It is simply a review of which of our better laid plans didn’t really come to pass.
With that disclaimer clearly made, let’s look at our list of missing persons for 2017.
7. Michael Neal, TE
When he originally signed, the redshirt sophomore tight end was supposed to be the heir apparent to the graduated Darrell Daniels as the pass-catching tight end in the Husky offense. But that vision has failed to materialize.
One explanation was the emergence of true freshman Hunter Bryant. It didn’t take Husky fans too long to understand what it was that the coaching staff saw in Bryant to understand why he was taking snaps from day one.
But Bryant was injured in the eighth game of the season. Instead of the offensive staff turning to Neal as the next “big receiver” in line, they compensated by rolling out more big packages featuring more traditional tight ends Will Dissly and Drew Sample. Even Jacob Kizer, a blocking-style TEs - got some run.
2017 concluded just as 2016 did with Michael Neal not seeing any game action.
6. Big Claps
Okay. Not exactly a player. But MIA all season was the “clap count” signal that Jake Browning used all throughout his 2016 record-breaking run.
What’s up with that?
The clap-count had been installed by the Husky staff from day one of their tenure. Christian Caple even wrote an article on it. The rationale provided by the coaches was that the clap was louder than a shouted cadence and that it afforded the opportunity for all of the offensive players to have their eyes up instead of looking at the QB or the ball.
Is it a coincidence that Browning’s numbers took a dip in the first year that the clap count seems to have gone away? Curious case of correlation vs causality, I’d say.
I’d like to know what exactly the backstory here is. Maybe Husky Stadium got too quiet to require it? Perhaps the coaches are convinced that Browning has moved from “anticipation” to direct telepathy with his fellow offensive players? Maybe Jake himself just got tired of looking like a wounded turkey trying to escape Husky Stadium on every offensive play?
Whatever it is, could we bring back the clap, please? There is still time. (now that I just typed that, I’m not sure it came out quite right)
5. Ricky McCoy, DT
Big Rick is quickly approaching the point in his career where he is going to have to become a contributor. As such, I was expecting more regular rotational duty for the 6’2” 300-lb. defensive lineman than what we saw this year.
McCoy played in three games (Montana, Fresno State, and WSU) recording just one tackle all season.
Lineman aren’t the same as skill players. It often takes more time to grow into their bodies and then to learn how to excel at their positions. McCoy is further handicapped by the fact that he actually played another position in high school. He was a tight end, if you can believe it.
There is still time for McCoy to turn the corner. He is just a sophomore, after all.
But the reality is that UW is going to get really thin really quick on the defensive line after this season. Vita Vea is certainly off to the the NFL while his fellow linemate, Greg “friggin’” Gaines might follow.
Let’s hope that the next 15 practices result in a light turning on for Big Rick.
4. Brayden Lenius, WR
Nine catches for 89 yards.
Those aren’t stats from his last game. Those are the stats from the full season. A season, mind you, where UW literally had no other WR option (not counting Bryant) over 5’11” and in which injuries plagued just about every leading pass catcher not named Dante Pettis.
I think, at this point, we just have to accept Lenius for what he is: a big receiver who is more of a blocker and a relief valve receiver. He has value to the team, but not the kind of playmaking value that we were all hoping we’d see out of him as an outside receiver when he played as a true freshman in 2014.
If Lenius sees the field at all next season it will be because he took some kind of remarkable step forward or because the cadre of young UW receivers currently being groomed - Ty Jones, Terrell Bynum, Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne, and Trey Lowe (among others) - failed to mature.
Let’s all hope for the former.
3. The Pooch Punt
Did you know that Jake Browning is a pretty good punter? Of course you did. You watch Husky football just like I do. In the last three season, Browning has punted the ball 11 times with almost all of them landing inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
But only two of those attempts occurred this season.
In a year that UW has produced fewer points and fewer big plays on offense than the year prior, wouldn’t it stand to reason that we should have seen more pooch punts from Browning?
Maybe. But a closer look at the numbers might provide a bit of an explanation.
First, Browning actually only had three pooch punts a year ago. That he has two this year isn’t really a material difference. It just feels material because UW didn’t have a single pooch punt until the Stanford game a few weeks ago. Until that point, it felt like the pooch was completely out of the offense.
Second, it is actually a valid observation that the Huskies have run roughly 85% the number of plays that they ran during the previous regular season. Interestingly, UW has also ran the exact same number of red zone plays (58) through the Apple Cup as they did in all of 2017 (with two more games). The implication here is that there seemed to be fewer third downs in the “pooch punt zone” than UW had a year ago.
If you are missing the pooch punt, fear not. It isn’t missing. Just in cold storage.
2. The Young Bucks: Myles Rice, Jusstis Warren, Bryce Sterk
Isn’t it funny how reality often doesn’t match perception?
Coming into this year, most Husky fans would have admitted to being worried about the UW pass rush after coming off of what they may have perceived was a weak pass rush in 2016.
In truth, UW finished last season - in 14 games - with 40 sacks. This year, with one game to play on a 13-game schedule, they have 38. They have ranked second in the PAC in sacks for each of the two last seasons.
Pass rush actually hasn’t been a problem for UW. What has been, though, is getting the kind of rabid, hair-on-fire, pure pass rush results that we have come to expect after having seen what previous BUCKS such as Travis Feeney, Hau’oli Kikaha, and Cory Littleton had produced.
2017 was supposed to be the year of the young BUCK. Rice, Rogers, and Sterk were all guys that we were expecting to get some run and make some plays (I probably could have included Amandre Williams here too).
Sterk - the redshirt sophomore who won the “Dirt Dawg” award for his weight room efforts during 2015 - didn’t see any game action at all this year. Rice, a redshirt freshman, played in three games - Montana, Fresno, State and WSU - recording one assisted tackle.
Warren may be the most interesting. Unlike the other two, he played in every game in 2017. However he was more of a utility player and may have made the full-time switch to offense as an H-back/fullback kind of player. He did record a sack to go along with five other tackles, although a couple of those were on special teams.
Some of this might be explained by injury. Some may also be explained by the the rise of walk-on Ryan Bowman (he leads the team in sacks with 5.5). There may even be some truth to the guess that UW played with more nickel formations than they did even a year ago, leaving fewer snaps for the BUCK than what we’ve become accustomed to. I’m just not sure.
1. Azeem Victor, LB
We’ve talked about this one ad nauseum. I don’t see much editorial value in rehashing the fall from grace that seems to have happened with Azeem. Needless to say, there isn’t a single Husky fan out there that a) could envision UW winning 10 games without Azeem leading from the middle of the defense or b) that the senior leader would conclude his UW career in such an undistinguished fashion.
I would just note here that the book is not yet closed on Azeem Victor. He almost certainly has concluded his UW career. But there is still football ahead of this fierce competitor.
We all know that there is great substance to Azeem Victor the person and that injury could certainly be part of the overall story here. He remains a player with special physical skills and innate leadership capabilities. It would not shock in the least to see Azeem show up in a significant way at the next level.