The 30-day countdown rolls on, as we are just three days away from the Huskies opener against Eastern Washington at Husky Stadium. If you’re like me, your thirst for college football has become simply unquenchable. From watching Youtube highlights of Huskies games of recent past (I make a point to re-watch the 2016 Stanford game, Oregon game, and every Apple Cup from 2014 on every summer) to re-runs of random Pac-12 games, to finally completely losing it and watching reruns of the Vanderbilt spring game. This yearning for college football partially ended last Saturday with a wild game between Miami and Florida and a humiliating loss for the conference at Hawaii (thanks, Arizona!), but we all know we won’t be truly satisfied until kickoff at 12:00PM this Saturday. Let me take a brief recess from gnawing on all of the furniture in my apartment in frenzied anticipation of the upcoming season and torment you with a few worst-case scenarios.
Let’s face it, no one wants to talk about which aspect of the team underperforming is most likely, but these are the questions that keep us up at night. The best way to handle your fears is to face them head-on. Or, maybe it’s a way to descend into utter madness as your angst about the potential deficiencies of this Huskies team consumes your every waking moment. Okay, maybe a little projection there. Should I reflect on that? Let’s move on!
All right, let’s get the lay of the land of how this article is going to work. I am going to detail the worst-case scenarios for the passing game, running game, pass defense, run defense, and special teams, and then decide which of these gloomy predictions is the most likely to come to pass this season. This article will assume that all players who are currently thought healthy (as of this article defensive tackle John Clark and freshman linebacker Joshua Calvert have been the two players to suffer season ending injuries) will remain that way for the duration of the season. Obviously that’s not a reasonable assumption to make, but it’s equally unreasonable for me to guess that a certain player will get injured throughout the season, as injuries are a random occurrence. Basically, I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole because otherwise this will devolve into every position group touting out all walk-ons because injuries have ravaged each and every scholarship player and that’s just silly. Let’s get to it!
Questions surrounding how the Huskies’ passing game will look this season have been at the forefront of Husky fans’ minds from the moment that game clock hit 00:00 in Pasadena until now. As fans are well aware, Jacob Eason is the guy and Jake Haener has decided to move on from the program. The Huskies are going to need increased production through the air if they are going to take a step forward as a program, most notably by coming out victorious in a marquee bowl game, or by winning a semifinal playoff game and advancing to the National Championship game.
Another crucial element in this equation is the wide receivers. The Huskies have been looking to replicate the magic of the John Ross and Dante Pettis duo in the 2016 season. That did not happen in 2018. The Huskies are still looking for a receiver to step up and assert themselves as a dominant number one option. Senior Aaron Fuller looked as though he was going to be that guy last year before seemingly vanishing in the latter half of the year. Fuller, fellow seniors Andre Baccellia and Chico McClatcher, and junior Ty Jones all return this year. Each player has shown flashes of being the number one option during his time on Montlake, but each has also shown his limitations. There seem to be a few interesting young options on the roster, such as four-star true freshman Puka Nacua and redshirt freshman Austin Osborne. And of course we can’t forget junior tight end / physical freak Hunter Bryant.
However, since this is the worst-case scenario situation, I’ll paint the following picture: Eason, for all of his physical gifts, fails to grasp the Huskies’ sophisticated offense, and is therefore limited in his ability to check plays at the line of scrimmage, hamstringing the Huskies’ ability to adapt to what defenses are throwing at them. Further, the wide receivers make little progress this season, and we see a re-run of the middling, clunky passing game Huskies fans were subjected to last season. The aforementioned returners all fail to emerge as legitimate threats through the air, and the young guys get virtually no live snaps to potentially break into the rotation. By the end of the season it becomes painfully obvious that a young receiver’s presence on the field is a telegraph that the Huskies are going to either run the ball, or use as a blocker on a screen pass, much like last year when Alex Cook (now converted to safety) and Terrell Bynum would be inserted into the game.
The Huskies throw for less than 20 touchdowns for the third consecutive season, struggle in the red zone again, and the call from the fan base to revamp the passing game becomes nearly deafening. Worse still, Huskies fans come to the startling realization that this is a limitation of Husky football that Chris Petersen simply will not figure out how to fix. (Before you all revolt and demand that my lucrative UWDP contract of $0.00 be terminated, remember, this is the worst-case scenario article.)
Just as at quarterback, the Huskies are replacing four-year starter and legend Myles Gaskin at running back. While the debate as to who will replace Gaskin has been non-existent—it’s clear that junior running back Salvon Ahmed will be the starter—questions have lingered as to whether Ahmed can be the every-down, bell-cow-type back that is crucial for the Husky offense to have success. Ahmed is known for his electric home run style, particularly when he is used in a fly sweep action, but fans are anxious to see whether he will be able to grind out runs of 4, 5, and 6 yards over the course of a game.
After Ahmed, there is a bevy of interesting options, as juniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant can look forward to increased touches this season. Running back coach Keith Bhonapha has shown that he likes to spread the handoffs around his position group. Redshirt freshman Richard Newton and true freshman Cameron Davis round out this group and there’s a chance they both may see a few touches as well, though I would think the coaches would like to try to redshirt Davis if they can.
The fear here that Ahmed cannot be relied upon as an every-down back comes to fruition, and as a result, the Husky running game is severely limited. To make matters worse, none of the other running backs gain traction and the rushing offense takes a major step back from where it has been the last four seasons. Husky fans come to the slow, horrifying realization that the running game in 2019 resembles that of the 2014 season, when the Huskies rotated three running backs (as well as linebacker Shaq Thompson) and didn’t get close to producing a thousand-yard rusher.
The Huskies are replacing a handful of very talented players in the secondary as defensive backs Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller, as well as safeties Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh, have taken their talents to the NFL. The good news is the Huskies have a nice mix of returning players, headlined by senior Myles Bryant, who has now moved from his nickel spot to safety. It’s no secret that defensive back recruiting has been on fire for the Huskies the last few years, and the Huskies will seemingly reload yet again with redshirt sophomores Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden eager to step in and become the next great defensive backs in the UW secondary. And don’t forget the freshmen, as true frosh Cameron Williams looks poised to start at safety opposite Bryant and fellow true freshman Trent McDuffie and Asa Turner also cracked the Huskies’ first depth chart of the season Monday.
Did you forget that this is the worst-case scenario article? So did I, as I’m very fired up about this group, so let me get back into character here. Ahem. Okay. The fear with this group is that they finally succumb to losing veterans to the NFL and take a step back as a unit. The young guys struggle to adapt to the college game; Bryant’s move to safety becomes a lose-lose situation for the Huskies, as teams exploit his lack of size at the position and the defense fails to replace his production at the nickel spot. Further, the Huskies fail to generate a sufficient pass rush from the edge again this season, as Joe Tryon, Ariel Ngata, Ryan Bowman, Myles Rice, and Laiatu Latu all fail to break out. Worse yet, the Huskies actually end up with even fewer sacks than they had last year when they finished with just 24, as they can’t replace the pass rushing production of Greg Gaines and Taylor Rapp.
The Huskies are going to need to replace Greg Gaines, who departs Montlake after a very productive career. He excelled as a run stopper for the Huskies and it will be imperative that the Huskies replace his production. The fear here is that those behind him, headlined by junior Levi Onwuzurike and senior Benning Potoa’e (who has moved inside after spending his first three seasons on the edge), fail to be the stalwarts inside that Huskies fans have come to expect from their defensive tackles. Let’s not forget that the Huskies are trying to replace Ben Burr-Kirven at middle linebacker, where he led the country in tackles last year.
Brandon Wellington looks poised to step into Burr-Kirven’s cleats, but the depth at the interior linebacker position is a concern. Similarly, the Huskies’ bevy of young talent behind the upperclassmen proves to be just that, too young to make a meaningful impact this year. Washington fans feel bittersweet about the progress that young players such as Jacob Bandes, Tuli Letuligasenoa, Faatui Tuitele, and Taki Taimani have made by the end of the season, but lament that this progression didn’t materialize sooner. Combined with the lack of pass rush laid out above, the defensive line fails to disrupt either aspect of opponents’ offensive attacks and the scoring defense plummets for the first time in four years.
Look, I could lay out an elaborate scenario that details the worst-case scenario that lays out what could go wrong with this group. Unfortunately for Huskies fans, last year’s performance on special teams already suffices. The Huskies plummeted to an abysmal 117 in S&P+ rankings on special teams last season. All facets of the special teams were basically on a scale of poor to awful. While Peyton Henry went a respectable 16 for 22 last season, he was clearly not trusted to kick field goals beyond about 37 yards, and missed a game-winning field goal against Oregon. So, yeah. Looking for an example of a worst-case scenario on special teams this year? If you watched last season, you’ve seen one.
Which of the above worst case scenarios is most likely to occur?
This poll is closed
Verdict: Passing Offense
Look, I do expect this aspect of the Husky offense to take a significant step forward this season. Eason’s arm talent is obvious and may well be something we have never seen before at Washington, and I have faith that two years in this system has been enough time for him to immerse himself in the offense. However, if I have to choose what aspect of the Huskies I am most concerned about, it’s the passing game, which is why I went with this one. I am concerned that there is a reasonable chance that a true number one receiving option never emerges from this group, which really hampers the passing game as a result. Maybe we don’t need a true number one. Maybe the steady combination of Baccellia, Fuller, McClatcher, and Jones will be enough to power the passing attack to a higher level. But we have evidence that this wasn’t enough to lift the Huskies’ passing game last year. Maybe Jake Browning was the problem and Eason is the solution to our woes, but I’m not convinced it’s that simple, nor that Browning was the main culprit. Time will tell, I suppose.
Let me know in the comments which worst-case scenario you think is the most likely. Once you’ve done that, go watch some hype videos to get yourself out of the funk this mental exercise has put you in, because the season is almost here! GO DAWGS!