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12 for ‘16: Dawgs pass the eyeball test

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Huskies football players looked like football players in 2016.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The old saying attributed to Justice Potter Stewart goes something like this:

I shall not today attempt to further describe (pornographic material), but I know it when I see it.

The same may as well have been said about Huskies football and, more specifically, Huskies football players in 2016.

How apropos that on the very day that the exploits of the UW’s offseason conditioning gets immortalized in the form of its annual Husky Combine day that we come to our 12 for ‘16 article focused on the one factor that probably most explains UW’s surge to the top of the PAC: its general state of physical conditioning.

Ok, maybe the timing isn’t so random. But the story remains the same.

In 2016, UW football looked like a football team that belonged on the field with every opponent they played. Whether we are talking about speedy, zippy teams like the Oregon Ducks or big, grinder teams like Stanford, it was impossible to find a team in the PAC that Washington didn’t physically match up against on a pound-for-pound, position-by-position basis. Even when compared against Alabama - a team who even has kickers the size of grizzlies - the Huskies looked like they belonged. Quite simply, the Huskies passed the eyeball test.

This isn’t hyperbole. I was on the field of the Peach Bowl (yes, ironic given that the flagship school of the state that is challenging the travel ban continues to ban bloggers on the field at Husky Stadium) and was able to quite literally size up the competition from the ground level. I can attest that it was difficult to find very many positions where the front line players in purple looked physically mismatched against their opponents in red. One of my colleagues reporting for an Alabama publication pointed out to me that, man for man, the Huskies looked more physically developed than LSU based on his subjective assessment.

Really? LSU? You must be joking, right?

He may well have been exaggerating. ‘Bama fans are known for taking digs at their Louisiana rivals whenever such opportunities present themselves. Still, that UW might be looked at in roughly the same light as a program like LSU when it comes to the eyeball test is a stunning development. It wasn’t long ago that UW was forced to go with undersized and underdeveloped players in key positions across the roster due a lack of depth among athletes physically ready to compete. Even among the guys who were modestly to very successful - I’m thinking of players like DE Daniel Te’o Nesheim, OL Cody Habben, DE and RB Chris Polk - it often seemed the rule not the exception that players were thrown into the fire before their time.

Husky fans still have a sore spot when it comes to the fact that many players, particular players on the offensive line (Colin Porter anyone?), seemed to have their playing careers handicapped or, worse, ended due to a lack of physical unpreparedness.

Injuries do happen, but those days seem long over. In 2016, UW featured a young but physical offensive line bookended by a couple of sasquatches in sophomores Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary. The defensive line featured not one, not two but three starters in the plus 300 lb range, all of whom can run. Before injuries sidelinened them, LBs Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor presented opposing offenses the challenge of dealing with a couple of +250 lb monsters who can accelerate on a dime and hit like sledgehammers. In Kevin King and Sidney Jones, the Dawgs had a pair of really big and really athletic corners capable of handling most of the receivers they lined opposite of.

And it wasn’t just the starters. Lavon Coleman, as a reserve, quickly became known as one of the most physical running backs in the nation as he finished 9th in the nation in yards per rush (7.47) among backs who had at least 100 carries. JoJo McIntosh and Ezekiel Turner, a pair of rotational safeties, each boasted frames of 6’2” and 210lbs ... all of which was felt by the ball carrier when they were taken to the ground by one of those big boys. Will Dissly, a 270 lb TE, Jaylen Johnson, a 265 lb defensive end, and Nick Harris, a 300lb true freshman offensive guard, are all further examples of the kind of physical depth that UW had available during the season.

While it is clear that Chris Petersen and his staff have been recruiting to certain body types and physical skills, one cannot understate the importance of the development program that strength coach Tim Socha has implemented.

In 2014, UW held its first Husky Combine event under Tim Socha. Operating outside the glare of cameras and the reach of reporters’ notebooks, Socha put the results of his first class of nutrition and development to the test. He challenged his players to a test of physical fitness modeled after the NFL Draft Combine with a variety of lifting and conditioning drills. Players were monitored, measured and ranked based on performance.

Three years later, that mini-tradition is the new litmus test for evaluating the state of readiness of Husky football. Players like King, Danny Shelton, Dwayne Washington, Budda Baker and Cory Littleton were tearing up the record books at the combine before they started tearing up stat sheets on Saturday. It’s become a bit of a sneak peak of which players are emerging in weight room and as potential factors in the season ahead.

Today is the fourth annual Husky Combine.

The next generation of UW athletes will be showing off their capabilities this afternoon as they, collectively, push UW’s football program further into that state of physical readiness that will in large part define whatever success awaits them in the season ahead.

It’s all about the eyeball test.