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Day 11: what might still go wrong for UW

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Washington hasn’t played a game yet. That means something could still go very wrong.

NCAA Football: Washington Spring Game Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, Elijah ... how many days until Husky football?

Washington v Arizona
Elijah Qualls is still number 1 in our hearts.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If are one of those kinds of fans who hasn’t washed your “good luck” jersey since 1991, be warned.

If you are one of those kinds of fans who has a lucky trinket, a specific face makeup ritual or a “rally beer”, you might want to turn away now.

If you are one of those kinds of fans who has to sit in the same chair during every game because the one time you didn’t was that time that UCLA upset the Huskies and cost them the national title across two different seasons, then all I have to say is ...

“I finally know who you are. All of it is your fault. The resignation of the Dawgfather, 0-12, Ty Willingham ... all of it. Thanks a lot. Go root for Oregon.”

Phew.

I’ve been meaning to get that off my chest for a couple of decades now.

Traditions are great. They are a major part of the fabric that binds us all together in college football fandom. But when tradition leaks over into odd rituals and acts of superstition, the seeds of paranoia can germinate.

Dawg fans, don’t let this happen to you.

In today’s poll, we are going to debate the one thing that this year’s Husky football team can least tolerate if it is to repeat its feat as the champions of the North. The goal of this discussion is not to cast a pall over the season ahead nor is it to drive the most paranoid of you to self-medication. It is simply meant to identify the pinch points that have to be massaged if the Huskies are to succeed on their mission.

So, let’s talk about the breaks that we are most depending on going our way in 2017. In other words, what are you most paranoid about?

Option 1 - QB Health and Development

Take a look at Jake Browning’s game log and it is hard to not notice the significant dip in production that occurred following the injury he sustained to his throwing shoulder in week 10. He had a significant drop in yards per attempt and suffered six of the nine interceptions that he had on the season.

UW has done a nice job of developing talent at the QB position and his hardly short-handed at the position. Still, the offense is going to sink or swim depending on Browning’s availability and corresponding performance. This much we know.

But keeping Browning upright probably isn’t enough. The Huskies want to repeat as champions in a conference that will be tougher in 2017 than it was in 2016. To get there, Browning needs to work on a few aspects of the game that he has yet to master. Obviously, his deep ball must continue to improve - a challenge made more difficult by the recovery from offseason shoulder surgery.

Additionally, Browning will need to become more of a ball distributor than he was a season ago when John Ross and Dante Pettis caught just over 50% of the passes caught by tight ends and receivers. More on this below.

Option 2 - The Rise of the Secondary

It’s no secret that Husky DB coach Jimmy Lake has a rebuild on his hands. After a string of successes that has resulted in Marcus Peters, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker and Kevin King all finding their ways into the league, Lake is caught up in the tall order of rebuilding his defensive secondary for the second time in his brief Husky career. This time around, however, he has some hand-picked talents to work with including incoming Freshman DPOY Taylor Rapp, the talented Jordan Miller, the hammer JoJo McIntosh and the secret weapon that is Byron Murphy ... among others.

NCAA Football: Washington Spring Game
Byron Murphy (#6) is going to be a big part of the Huskies 2017 secondary.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The experience and impact of a defensive secondary often shows up in various advanced stats analyses as more highly correlative to on-the-field success than factors such as the number of starts of offensive linemen and the number of stars on the recruiting rankings of wide receivers. It makes intuitive sense, too. A talented and deep secondary will have the stamina to keep up with even the fastest paced offenses and the versatility to all a DC maximum opportunity to create pressure and turnover opportunities. They can flip the field in an instant and are most likely among defensive players to score their own points.

I don’t want to freak anybody out here, but UW’s 2017 is a complete unknown. It is all fine and good to be optimistic about it - you should be given all of the talent and Lake’s track record - but there is a fine argument to be made that this is the wildest of wild cards this season.

Option 3 - Young WR Explosion

The development of the WR corps has been, along with the offensive line, the greatest challenge that Chris Petersen has had to deal with since becoming the head coach. Matt Lubick, the former Oregon offensive coordinator, is CCP’s third WR coach in his short tenure. Additionally, he has had a series of stops and starts on the recruiting front along. It’s been a struggle.

The explosion of John Ross last year along with the steady, year over year improvement of Dante Pettis has allowed the Huskies some wiggle room in developing this unit. However, most analysts agree that 2017 is the year that some of the younger talents start becoming major contributors.

The good news is that the slot receiver role looks pretty well locked down. Chico McClatcher is being counted on to be a big play threat. There will be support from Andre Baccellia and Quinten Pounds - both of whom are younger players who should be able to develop as the season goes on.

Beyond Pettis, the outside roles are completely up in the air. Veterans Brayden Lenius and Aaron Fuller have to be predictably productive (though I expect Fuller will also get slot time). At least one true freshman among Alex Cook, Ty Jones and Terrell Bynum will have to contribute. Tight ends David Ajamu and Michael Neal will be expected to balance out some of the pressure.

Let’s not fool ourselves here. Unlike last year when UW could count on John Ross for all of the big plays, the Huskies will have no choice but to count on a “by committee” strategy in 2017. Jake Browning’s ability to spread the ball around will be a key indicator of offensive success unlike a season ago. For that to work, every one of the rotation guys will have to carry their weight. Good routes, no fumbles, limited drops. We need all of that from everybody. If not, we could see a significant reversion in offensive explosiveness - a major factor in UW’s success a year ago.

Option 4 - Offensively Offensive Offensive Linemen

The strong performances by UW’s QB, secondary and rushing attack last year helped to cover up some of the groups on the team that were not quite pulling their weight. The offensive line, which was one of the youngest across the entire PAC (especially when Nick Harris was inserted at OG), was one of those units. This development curve was on full display towards the end of the season against top 10 foes in USC and Alabama.

Washington v Utah
Kaleb McGary and the rest of his offensive line mates are going to shoulder a big load this season.

In 2017, there is no room for error. The offensive line has the potential to be a good if not dominating unit. Much of that hope is tied up in the ongoing development of tackles Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary - both of whom are moving into their junior years of eligibility. The stabilizing presence of the PAC 12’s top center (no pressure, Coleman Shelton), the upside of sophomore guard Nick Harris and the experienced depth coming from veterans like Andrew Kirkland, Jesse Sosebee and Matt James, and the possible emergence of new young stars in Devin Burleson, Henry Roberts and Luke Wattenburg means that UW’s O-Line situation is in its best condition in decades.

But it all has to come together this year. UW probably loses two (if not three) of its anchors on the line after this season. If new coach Scott Huff can’t assemble the pieces correctly and UW gets no incremental improvement in overall line performance, an offensive regression is a near certainty. Such a step back would put UW at a disadvantage against other top PAC teams like USC and Stanford.

The Verdict

Offensively Offensive Offensive Linemen

If there was one thing to be paranoid about this team, it is the offensive line. We’ve invested heavily in getting young players the requisite experience required to excel. That investment has been fully vested and now is the time for the return to be generated.

It is not a sure thing. This offensive line still can, at best, be characterized as a unit with “potential” but who has yet to really excel. This is particularly true in the area of pass protection where an average pass rush like USC was able to be really disruptive and a good one like Alabama was able to flat out dominate. Jake Browning can be absolutely lethal with a pocket to work with while UW’s rushing attack has all the talent required to exploit good run blocking.

If you have a good offensive line superstition, it is time to break it out. We need those big uglies this year.

Poll

What one area should UW fans be most worried about in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    QB health and depth
    (196 votes)
  • 8%
    Emergence of receiving corps depth
    (73 votes)
  • 16%
    Performance of new defensive backs
    (146 votes)
  • 19%
    Development of a dominating offensive line
    (177 votes)
  • 5%
    Something else altogether
    (49 votes)
  • 27%
    Don’t worry. Be happy
    (249 votes)
890 votes total Vote Now