Hey, look at that ... Auburn is just how many days away?
Game week squarely upon us. The Coach’s press conference is complete. The Depth Charts are released. The opponent preview pieces and blog Q&A’s have begun. Fans have already started their travel plans or have scheduled their viewing parties*.
*PS - Rob Foxcurran and I are hosting the newly minted Minneapolis viewing party at the Bulldog in Minneapolis for any Minnesotans who want to join with some fellow UW fans for the big game!
This season is getting real.
As is the norm for this time of year, fans are generally falling into one of two camps. The first camp is the “Everything is Awesome” crew. You know these people. These are the ones who argued at this time last year that the UW receiving corps was going to be better in 2017 without John Ross than they were in 2016 with him and who generally always want ‘Bama. Most of my fellow Dawg Pounders would tend to fall into this category.
Then there is the other camp. The Chicken Littlers. The fans who can’t help but to envision every worst case scenario happening all at once and torpedoing what should otherwise be a fine season. These people are not “nega Dawgs” as much as they are the paranoid in purple. To them, every weakness is a fatal flaw that is sure to be exploited if the coaches “don’t do something about it”. For example, most of these folks are still trying to come to grips with how in the world UW managed to finish second in the conference in sacks last year without having any one player post more than 5.5 of them.
Over the next two days, we will feed into the paranoias and optimisms from each group. My assignment today is to discuss with you the worst case scenarios.
No football team is perfect. Each have their unsettled positions, areas of weakness or holes left open due to unforeseen circumstances. In fact, I’d go one step further and say that no unit on any team is perfect. There is always something for a fan base to fret about no matter which side of the ball is on the field at any time.
The Huskies are just three days away from squaring off against an SEC powerhouse that happens to be ranked in the top ten in the country. The last two top ten teams that UW faced each exploited UW’s greatest weaknesses en route to easy victories over the Dawgs. When you think about this Auburn game and where the Huskies have vulnerabilities, what has you the most worried?
Let’s explore the options organized by unit.
Top Offensive Worry: pass blocking
This might be more of a worry specific to the Auburn game than it is for the entire season. Still, Husky fans are well within their rights to be a little worried about how well the offensive line will pass block in front of QB Jake Browning.
Pass blocking was one of those issues that reared its ugly head a year ago without necessarily showing up clearly in the stats. Washington only surrendered 20 sacks in 2017 (fourth best in the PAC) but it did give up countless numbers of QB hurries, pocket flushes and throw aways. One could argue - and I would - that it was poor pass blocking more so than Jake Browning’s shoulder issues or receiver depth challenges that had the most impact on the decline in explosive pass plays last season.
The Huskies have a very solid offensive line this season as measured in both physical size and in experience. Nevertheless, it is understandable if you are worried about Nick Harris and whether or not he’s improved in the pass blocking area. Or about Trey Adams’s health. Or about the fact that we are starting a redshirt freshman in Jaxson Kirkland at guard.
Auburn presents the challenge of one of the best defensive lines in the nation. Their starting NT, Derrick Brown, is a 325 pound lineman eating machine. They boast two defensive ends each over 280 lbs. And they have a whole stable of pass rushing BUCKs who contributed to Auburn’s #1 rating in Passing Defense S&P one year ago. One of those guys actually has the name ... not a nickname mind you ... of “Big Cat” (Big Cat Bryant).
Top Defensive Worry: interior defensive line
This one is too easy to not call out: how in the world is UW going to replace Vita Vea?
Coach Petersen addressed this in his weekly Coach’s Show with Tony Castricone by noting that it really isn’t possible to replace a guy like Vea. He referred to him as a “once in a generation player”.
Uh-oh. To the Chicken Littlers, “once in a generation” is a code phrase for “we’re effed”.
Maybe ... or maybe not.
UW has done a great job developing defensive line and pass rush talent in the Pete Kwiatkowski era. Whether we are talking about high talent guys who went on to fulfill their potential (Danny Shelton, Vea, Hau’oli Kikaha, Elijah Qualls) or breakout guys who blossomed (Andrew Hudson, Cory Littleton). But the truth is that the inside of the defensive line is a challenging area to man when you don’t have an endless stream of five star talent to draw upon (ahem, Alabama).
The Huskies are expected to minimize their exposure in this area by sticking with a two down lineman scheme for their base. This will allow them to create a liberal rotation of good players such as Greg Gaines, Levi Onwuzurike, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman. That’s a good rotation even if breakout candidates like Jason Scrempos and Josiah Bronson don’t really materialize.
That said, only one of those guys - Gaines - is over 300 lbs. And for as good as he is, we can’t ignore the fact that he has contended most of the last 12 months with various dings and scrapes. Without the big body in the middle to occupy interior offensive linemen, the success that UW’s linebackers have enjoyed in pursuing ball carriers and controlling big plays will be significantly curtailed.
So, yeah, the interior line is a concern.
Top Special Teams Worry: placekicking
Well, UW is starting a walk-on freshman placekicker on a team that has two other scholarship kickers. That’s pretty much all I need to say about that.
This was a hard assignment for me because, to be honest, I’m not really worried about any of these things. This isn’t to say that I think all of our units are in tip-top shape or that I have an endless supply of unicorns and rainbows in my basement. I just happen to think that UW is as deep and as balanced this year as they have been in any season under Petersen. That we might have question marks such as wide receiver youth, offensive line development, pass rush options or linebacking depth is more than counterbalanced by all the rest of the answers that we have across the roster. Consider for a moment that there isn’t a single true freshman listed in the two-deeps in the most recent depth chart.
Still, I can’t help but to worry that placekicking could become a factor at some point this season including in the game against Auburn. Think about what might have been last season if we convert an extra kick or two among our many misses. Placekicking wasn’t the reason we lost at ASU a year ago, but it was one of the reasons we did not win. That was a big deal in a season where we just missed the cut.
Peyton Henry has his work cut out for him. It’s hard to be a freshman kicker period. To have the added pressure of opening up the season as a starter and knowing that you are going into a game against that is sure to be a defensive slugfest is intimidating enough. Knowing in the back of your mind that a college football playoff berth could be at stake just raises the pressure that much more.
That said, I’m an optimist. Where some people see reason to panic, I see the potential for an awesome story. Let’s hope Peyton is up to the challenge.
What is your biggest worry about the 2018 Washington Huskies
This poll is closed
Interior Defensive Line Depth
Something else altogether