Throughout this week we’ll be looking back at the 2019 season with a review of each phase of the game. We begin with a unit that gave us more of the same in a different wrapper: the passing game.
What We Expected
Husky fans came into this year with a good deal of hope for the passing game. The tried and true Jake Browning model had finally rotated out and the shiny new racecar Jacob Eason model was in at quarterback. Eason’s arm strength and some comments from the coaching staff seemed to portend an offense that would be able to take and make deep shots at a much higher clip than Washington had seen since 2016 with the Ross and Pettis combo.
The receiver group was also expected to be improved as junior Hunter Bryant entered the season hoping to be healthy for a full season for the first time. Washington also returned essentially its entire receiving corps. While they under-performed in 2019, the expectation under new WR coach Junior Adams was that if we didn’t see improvement from seniors Fuller, Baccellia, and McClatcher then we’d at least get a look at the extremely talented younger core.
Adding to the optimism was an offensive line that returned 4 starters and got a 5th back from injury. This was by far the most veteran unit the Huskies had in a long time and with multiple preseason all-conference type players on the line the hope was that even if Jacob Eason was a statue that he would have plenty of time to throw.
What We Saw
Things certainly started off well. Jacob Eason came out in the opener against Eastern Washington with nearly 350 yards to go along with 4 TDs and 0 INTs including a highlight grab by Aaron Fuller and long bomb to Andre Baccellia. The 50-yarder to Baccellia ended up though as the 2nd longest passing play of the season and Eason completed just 24% of passes that traveled 30 or more yards in the air over the course of the season.
The Huskies endured a few futile efforts including in the 2nd week against Cal which went up against what at the time looked like it might be the best secondary in the conference. The hope that it was a fluke emerged anew after dominant efforts against Hawai’i and BYU in which Eason appeared to look like a surefire top-15 NFL draft pick. From there though the passing game sprinkled in a few good efforts amidst the bad ones but they never quite reached the same heights when going against Pac-12 competition. Eason dominated when given a clean pocket but that happened less than you would expect with the offensive line’s experience. The offense put up 8.5 yards per play on dropbacks with no pressure and a pitiful 1.2 yards per play with a defender threatening Eason.
The receiver combo of Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia (2018 starter Ty Jones bizarrely missed part of the year to injury and part to preserving his redshirt) never showed improvement under Adams and at close to the midway marker it appeared the duo of Terrell Bynum and Puka Nacua had overtaken both and would lead the passing game to prosperity. Unfortunately, Nacua who had a breakout phenom game against Arizona fractured his foot before the Utah game and was lost for the season. Bynum eclipsed Baccellia in the starting lineup at least and had several big moments. From the time of Nacua’s injury on, Bynum was second on the team in yards per target behind just Hunter Bryant (8.4 to 9.1) and had the highest success rate on targets (57.9%).
The Husky tight ends played an increasingly larger role over the second half of the season as Otton in particular but also Bryant were in on nearly every snap. They combined to give Washington 1,169 receiving yards and 5 TDs combined from the position. Although Bryant often split out wide as a larger receiver almost as often as he played in line as a true tight end.
What We Learned
No one can say the 2019 Husky passing game didn’t learn us some things real good. The most obvious lesson is that a cannon for an arm can’t fix everything. Eason had physical tools that Jake Browning could only dream of but without picture perfect protection and with a receiving crew that once against struggled to create separation it largely went all for naught. Here’s the comparison of the final stat line between Jake Browning in 2018 and Jacob Eason in 2019. Can you tell which is which?
3,132 passing yards, 64.2% completion, 7.7 yards per attempt, 23 TDs, 8 INTs, sacked 21
3,192 passing yards, 64.9% completion, 8.2 yards per attempt, 16 TDs, 10 INTs, sacked 23
Like my grandpa always used to say “if you want to have a QB throw for 3,100 yards and complete 64% of his passes then get yourself a Bush Hamdan”.
The TD/INT numbers are probably different enough that most hardcore fans can tell which was which but for all intents and purposes this was the exact same passing game on the aggregate that we saw the year before. A lack of creativity and playmaking resulted in struggles both in 3rd downs and in the red zone. Washington ran enough crossing routes in those situations this season that the cumulative distance likely gets you to Hawai’i from Seattle. And opposing defensive coordinators noticed and schemed accordingly leading to break ups like the INT on the first drive in the Colorado game.
We also learned that after 2 years of fans feeling like the passing game was broken, that leadership agreed. Chris Petersen obviously stepped down following the season and Bush Hamdan was shown the door quickly after. How much of the malaise Petersen apparently had been feeling seeped into the offense’s performance? We’ll never know but if the Huskies suddenly roll out a dominant unit next year it will suggest the answer is “a good deal”.
What Should We Expect to See in 2020?
Let’s be honest. At this point we have no idea what we will see in 2020 except that we know it will be different. The Huskies have still yet to name an offensive coordinator and that will change the exact outlook a great deal. Regardless, it’s unlikely that Washington suddenly becomes a Mike Leach air raid team throwing the ball 60 times per game. While hopefully the system changes for the better there are legitimate reasons to be concerned that it will instantly turn things around given the personnel changes.
In addition to the coaching moves Washington is also losing its leading passer, rusher, two leading receivers, and 3 starting offensive linemen including a pair that made 1st team all-conference. Even the absolute elite of college football struggle to backfill those kind of losses.
There are clearly some reasons to be optimistic though. TE Cade Otton and WR Terrell Bynum were entrenched as starters by the end of the season and each appears capable of putting up at least above average seasons next year. If Puka Nacua returns to health without setbacks he should give the new QB a dominant downfield option that Jacob Eason rarely had. Incoming true freshman Jalen McMillan looks like another player capable of putting up numbers in his first year and Marquis Spiker converted a few big 3rd downs over the second half of the year. After the Huskies started the season with an all sub-6’0 receiving corps they have the chance to put out a rotation filled with guys between 6’1 and 6’4.
That kind of size should make it easier on the new QB whether it is Jacob Sirmon, Dylan Morris, or Ethan Garbers. None of them have any real college experience (Sirmon played a few garbage time snaps this year) and this will be the first time that’s been true of a starting UW quarterback since Jake Browning’s freshman season in 2015. Combine that with the offensive line inserting 3 new starters and there are reasons to think the 2020 Huskies experience some serious growing pains. But with OG Luke Wattenberg the only projected senior starter on the offense it certainly appears that 2021 is more likely to be the year the UW passing game gets back to elite for the first time since 2016.