Throughout this week we’ll be looking back at the 2018 season with a review of each phase of the game. We begin with everyone’s favorite punching bag: the passing game.
What We Expected
The Washington passing game entered the season with a mix of old parts and new, which led to fans feeling pretty sure about where the floor was but uncertain about the ceiling. Gone were Dante Pettis and Will Dissly to the NFL while Hunter Bryant was expected to miss most or all of the season with a knee injury. That meant receivers like Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones, and Andre Baccellia would be asked to greatly improve on their combined 49 catches for 549 yards and 1 touchdown.
The wildcards were receivers Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds who were both coming back from leg injuries. In our pre-season poll of “who will lead the Huskies in receiving yards?” the winner was Chico McClatcher followed by Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones.
The offensive line was expected to be a plus (depending on whether you use the week before Auburn or day before Auburn as the kickoff point) with only one brand new starter, which would give the QB plenty of time. Oh, yeah. That QB? Four-year starter Jake Browning, who took a step back the year before from a record-setting 2016 campaign but, it seemed, would certainly play at least as well as his 8.1 YPA, 19/5 TD/INT totals of 2017.
What We Saw
The Husky passing game actually got off to a pretty darn good start. In the team’s first seven games the QBs threw for 1,875 yards with 11 TDs and 6 INTs. That’s a completion percentage of 67% with 9.38 yards per attempt including some games against tough defenses away from home such as Auburn and Utah. That YPA number is actually a full half yard higher than in the record-breaking 2016 season.
Aaron Fuller in particular looked like he was going to become Dante Pettis 2.0 by averaging almost 100 yards per game over the first 5 games. The interception numbers were too high and Jake still made some maddening decisions under pressure, but overall it was close to the best-case scenario given the uncertainty over the weapons.
Then things completely fell apart over the second half as UW QBs combined to throw for 1,462 yards with 7 TDs and 5 INTs over the final seven games (63.4% and 7.13 YPA). The road game at California in particular seemingly broke the passing offense, which led to Browning being benched and Jake Haener coming in—only to throw a game losing pick six. The two-game stretch versus Oregon State and at Washington State saw extremely high efficiency in limited attempts, but in those other five games the team completed 60.6% of passes and just 6.09 YPA.
Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds both ended up unavailable during that second half for personal reasons and injury respectively, which didn’t help. Hunter Bryant did return from his knee injury and played as well as expected, just with limited opportunities.
What We Learned
It can be difficult to say exactly what is to be learned when watching a struggling offense. Some parts of it are easy. If the offensive line is a sieve or receivers drop every other pass, then apportioning blame is straightforward. But how much of a given play is on the playcalling and how much is on the execution (this is all you’re getting, anti-Hamdan crowd)? How much is on receivers not getting open and how much is on the QB not throwing it on time or with anticipation?
There are a few conclusions that seem evident. No wide receiver who played this year showed anything to suggest that he can be a legitimate #1 guy in an elite passing game. Aaron Fuller struggled to consistently get open or make catches against physicality, Andre Baccellia broke tackles like he was playing one-hand touch rules, and Ty Jones had issues with drops and getting separation.
From an efficiency standpoint Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds were the team’s best two receivers in their limited opportunities, but there’s no guarantee that either will be with the team moving forward.
We also (in my mind) settled some of the arguments about Jake Browning. 2016 wasn’t quite a fever dream, but that level of success was a combination of having two elite weapons in John Ross and Dante Pettis, and playing against a weak schedule. Browning averaged at least 8.0 YPA in every season of his UW career, which is above average, but he relied on the circumstances around him to unleash a devastating passing attack. Those pieces weren’t there this season.
What Should We Expect to See in 2019?
Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Drew Sample, and Kaleb McGary are gone, but of the players who played in the Rose Bowl those are the only ones who won’t be around. Granted, those are four critical players, but there are realistic reasons to think the passing offense will improve in 2019 (and Gaskin and Sample were much more important to the running game).
The obvious change will come at QB where Georgia transfer and former 5-star prospect Jacob Eason is the frontrunner to win the job. He started as a true freshman in the SEC and his TD/INT numbers were comparable to Browning’s true freshman season, although Eason’s efficiency numbers were a definite step behind. The hope is that, with a full year to learn the Washington system, Eason can at least replicate some of the mental game that Jake Browning provided. There’s no question that Eason, with his cannon for an arm, has far superior physical tools than Browning.
Washington returns six of their seven leaders in receiving yards from this year and if Quinten Pounds/Chico McClatcher both come back healthy then that number is eight of nine. If the Huskies can get incremental improvement out of most of them, plus a full year of a healthy Hunter Bryant, the receiving corps should already take a big leap forward. And that’s before accounting for the possible emergence of freshmen Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne, and Trey Lowe, who all redshirted but were highly regarded prospects coming into college. Also, Myles Gaskin wasn’t used much as a pass catcher this year, but having Salvon Ahmed as the primary running back and Sean McGrew in Ahmed’s place outside gives them the chance for a more dynamic screen game.
Finally, I haven’t talked as much about the offensive line but it should be a strength for Washington in 2019. The expectation is that Jared Hilbers will replace McGary at right tackle and Trey Adams will man the LT spot again. That would mean every Husky O-lineman started at least two games this season and all of them would have 10+ career starts. Eason or the QB who beats him out won’t have forever to throw, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think this OL could perform better than they did this season despite the loss of a first-team all-conference RT.
Add it all up and I expect improvement from the Husky passing game in 2019. If I have one fear it’s that we as fans don’t fully appreciate all of the things that Jake Browning did pre-snap to put UW in a position to succeed and that Eason’s improved arm talent won’t fully make up for it. But it’s hard to look at the QB, OL, or pass catchers and say with certainty that they’ll take a clear step back. Given how poorly each of those groups performed over the final seven games, it seems safe to project a step forward next year.