I suppose I’ve made it clear over the last season how much I would rather saw off my own toes with a serrated Ikea knife than write a half-substantial intro, but for today, we should probably include an introduction. That’s because today we’re looking back at the season to ask ourselves the age-old question, “Well what the f&%^ did we learn, Palmer?”
Here’s some things we learned this fall:
- UCLA’s run defense sucks
- Hurricanes are college football’s natural enemy
- Kim Jong-Un is still crazy
- UCLA’s run defense really sucks
- The SEC isn’t even that good
- Oh wait, the SEC is good
- You’ve got to be kidding me, it’s an all-SEC national championship
- UCLA’s run defense really really sucks
But when it comes to our own beloved Dawgs, here’s what we actually found out:
Brent Pease got fired for a reason and we are finally feeling the effects of said reason.
That reason, of course, is that he couldn’t bring in a game-changing receiver recruit if his life depended on it. Of course, bad recruiting at a position group doesn’t become apparent on the field until 2-4 years down the line and — surprise! — this season was Washington arriving at that point.
While 2017’s receiving corps had plenty of guys that would have been fine third options had there been more talent on the field, there wasn’t more talent on the field, save Dante Pettis. Plus, it’s not like you can ever have too much talent anyway. They were generally lacking in separation, rarely brought in contested throws, weren’t very helpful in scramble drills, etc. There really wasn’t anyone 100% reliable outside of Dante and the tight ends who are still, ya know, tight ends. As much as I love watching seven guys try to bring down Will Dissly, he’s not gonna out-quick twitch a 190-lb cornerback.
Lucky for Dawg fans, Bush Hamdan and Matt Lubick have been recruiting their behinds off at that position the last two classes and, unlike in the trenches, receiver is a position where guys can make an impact sooner. Next year’s redshirt freshmen group of Terrell Bynum and Alex Cook, plus other class of ‘17 guy Ty Jones, who actually saw some of the field this year, will hopefully bring a bit more firepower to the group, and the 2018 class of Austin Osborne, Marquis Spiker, ginormous WR/probable TE Devin Culp, and chico-back Trey Lowe (I officially declare chico-back an official position, officially) has as good a chance to make an early impact as any group of receivers that have been brought in under Coach Pete.
As a case study that can be applied anywhere, however, really what we learned from this year’s receivers was an affirmation of what we learned in 2016 against USC and Alabama: Washington’s coaches are some of the best in the country but to be competing against the best teams, they’ve got to combine this top-tier coaching with top-tier talent being brought in.
(Also the first person to comment “I prefer a two-star with five-star heart over a five-star with a bad attitude” gets slapped for having a dumb strawman argument. Seriously. Ya know what’s better than both two-star talent with a five-star heart and five-star talent with a two-star attitude? A five-star talent with a five-star heart.)
This defense is killer with a couple key weaknesses.
Just writing this makes me miss Vita already. Aw, man...
Nobody needs to hear about how good this defense was the majority of the year. That’s something that was so clear it can’t ethically be included in an article entitled “What We Learned,” but rather would have to be filed under “Unless You’ve Had Your Eyes Clawed Out by a Rabid Pelican, You’ve Seen This.”
However, what we learned about this defense in big games feels kind of like “what we learned about the receivers”-lite. That is, while the receiving corps just didn’t have the talent, period, the defense had the talent and was coached up to the point where they were fantastic 90% of the time but that remaining 10% was felt in key places against bigger opponents.
It’s just a couple things that aren’t even “bad” on the defense, per se, but rather just not quite to the point where they’re reliable — and, as we all know, any unit is only as good as its weakest link. Things that come to mind include the following: long-limbed cornerbacks make a big difference, a good power running game plays into the weaknesses of this personnel and scheme, and the inside linebackers were mostly fine but not who I’d want responsible with the game on the line.
Essentially, it was a great but juuust incomplete group made up of many great but juuust incomplete players; Keishawn Bierria — the heart of the defense, stronger than his size would imply, smart, tackled well, but took inconsistent angles when dropping into coverage and subsequently gave up way too many yards on otherwise inconsequential routes. Myles Bryant — good instincts, good ball skills, good vision, physical, but has the misfortune of being 5’8” going against targets that are well above six feet. Ryan Bowman — out-maneuvers offensive tackles well, anticipates opponents’ movement, but gets overpowered by better offensive lines. And then there’s Vita, who’s just perfect.
This defense was all but perfect many times this year, and so close but not quite there against their strongest opponents.
Jake Browning does most things really well but has limitations that are tricky.
Disclaimer: I hate talking about Jake Browning because it feels like a lot of people talk about quarterback play as though a quarterback is either Peyton Manning or Joey Harrington, like there aren’t any options other than a Hall of Famer or a historic bust.
Also, when it comes to quarterbacks (see also: offensive coordinators) fans have the memory of a goldfish and the patience of a nine year-old on a roadtrip, repeating the age-old question, “Are we there yet?”
"My favorite football team has a very good offensive coordinator," said nobody.— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) January 10, 2018
So, with that in mind, I’m just gonna say that Browning does have, to varying degrees, many of the faults that people — myself included — have been quick to jump on this season. And I am gonna talk about that here.
However. Before the comments section turns into a living demonstration of the famous biblical proverb, “Everybody’s favorite player is the backup quarterback,” let’s remind ourselves of some of the things Browning does better than the vast majority of college QBs:
- He sells the play action better than anyone I’ve watched the last three years
- He’s much more mobile than he gets credit for being
- He’s in the
27th73rd I-meant-73rd-I’m-totally-competent-at-statistics percentile of FBS quarterbacks in yards per attempt, which, while stats are stupid, this is probably the stat that means the most
- He doesn’t turn it over
- He knows when to check plays at scrimmage
- Unlike (I swear to God) 90% of college quarterbacks, he actually has good footwork
- Likewise, when given the opportunity to set his feet, he’s quite accurate
- He frequently makes NFL-style throws (oh, hello there, fat out-routes) that most college players aren’t capable of
And so on.
In other words, when given half-decent playmakers around him, he’s pretty darn alright.
Without any of that, given the aforementioned drought of receivers, his physical limitations means that obviously he’s not gonna look like a world-beater — and people’s surprised consternation at that this year seemed misplaced. We always knew Jake Browning can’t Lamar Jackson-ify his way to victory; why are we all of a sudden disappointed with that fact?
That being said, the argument that his arm strength limits his effectiveness against the top 5% of defensive opponents is completely true if we include the caveat that it mainly applies to throws 10 - 20 yards down the field. The significance of his passes lacking velocity was first apparent against USC in 2016, seconded against Alabama in the Peach Bowl, and confirmed this year against Stanford, Utah, and Penn State.
Browning’s place in this offense is so interesting because his strengths and weaknesses complicate each other. I find myself more often than not playing the Devil’s Advocate where he’s concerned, no matter what someone has to say about him, simply because what he contributes is about as far away from black and white as it gets.
That one weakness that stands out for me keeps coming back to his velocity or lack thereof and difficulty throwing on the run — and the uphill battle that creates when playing against elite defenses and elite athletes.
While he clearly has a natural limit, it will be interesting to see how much weight he can put on in the offseason and if that will improve things a little bit.
Whatever your perfectly constructed, 100% unbiased thoughts are on the matter, just remember the grass is always greener.
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.