26 days to go! Sigh. To help pass the time, we’ll continue to drop you a new Husky football topic everyday until the start of the season. Today’s topic is a fun one, as we get to decide which position group is the strongest on Washington’s roster. I’ll present some arguments for a handful of positions, then make my top pick. After that, you can make yours. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong and you’re right in the comments. Okay, let’s get to it!
Starting off with the offensive line, this is an especially intriguing yet complicated group to analyze. In terms of pure talent, Washington has eight former blue-chip offensive line recruits on the roster, in addition to some former 3-star recruits who have far outplayed their ranking. The tricky part here is that Washington only returns two starters in 2020, meaning there’s suddenly ample room for some younger players with fewer snaps under their belt to get some extended playing time.
Jaxson Kirkland (25 games played) and Luke Wattenberg (38 games played) are the two returning starters, but both of them are in-line to start at new positions this season. Kirkland will move from left guard to left tackle, while Wattenberg will move from right guard to center. Sophomore Ulumoo (M.J.) Ale will likely step into the left guard role, and junior Henry Bainivalu is expected to be the starting right guard. Junior Victor Curne will most likely round out the line at left tackle. The three new starters have a combined 41 games played between them, so all have been battle tested and proved themselves in-game. Sophomore Matteo Mele is the likely backup at center (he started one game there last season). The remaining three names we’re likely to see in the rotation are the redshirt freshmen Nate Kalepo (guard), Troy Fautanu (tackle), and Julius Buelow (guard). Junior Corey Luciano (tackle) could also be thrown into the mix, but I’m still mad at him for his false start against Cal (the lightening delay game). However, that’s a personal problem. Overall, this group is pretty stacked in terms of size and raw talent.
The wide receivers are arguably the most talent laden position group on the roster from top to bottom. The frustrating part for many Husky fans is that up to this point, much of that talent remains unproven on the field. Aside from veteran receiver Ty Jones (28 games played) who redshirted last season due to injury, Terrell Bynum is the only other returning receiver with more than seven career catches. In 2019, freshman phenom Puka Nacua had Husky fans excited for a big year after a fast start to the season. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in practice the week before the Utah game. Prior to his injury, Nacua had been electric. Those three should be the expected starters heading into this season.
Behind the starters is a wide receiver room loaded with talent that has yet to break through, or be given the chance to break through. Names such as Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, are just some of the guys Husky fans should get excited about, if not this season than in years to come. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the WR room, other than including seven former blue-chip recruits, is that they collectively average about 6’2” in height. This is a huge turn around from the many sub-6’ receivers that Washington has featured in recent years. Other potential contributors this season include the lone senior, Jordan Chin, and redshirt freshman Taj Davis. Chin caught two touchdown passes last season, despite only having three catches.
Even without stand-out senior Levi Onwuzurike (NFL), Washington’s defensive line should be considered a strength heading into the season. Thanks in large part to the recruiting and player development of co-DC and DL coach Ikaika Malloe, Washington has the size and skill up front to matchup with nearly any other team in the conference. Senior Josiah Bronson will pair up with fellow veterans Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani to headline and lead this group. Despite losing Sama Paama in the offseason (retired from football), there’s still very talented quality depth, featuring former blue-chip recruits and now redshirt freshmen Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes. For what it’s worth, every player listed in this group is at least 6’2” and 300+ lbs. You bring the Caesar salad. We already have the beef.
Given that Washington has traditionally rotated about six defensive linemen in any one game, it’s probable that we’ll see one of the two remaining scholarship defensive linemen this season, either redshirt freshman Noa Ngalu or sophomore Draco Bynum. At 6’1”, 290 lbs. and 6’4”, 270 lbs., both players carry slightly less than ideal weight to play as a true nose tackle, but they could conceivably be used as a 3-tech. My guess is that Ngalu gets the nod as the 6th man in the rotation, unless the former 4-star Bynum has taken a big step in his development during the offseason.
Between reliable senior Sean McGrew, the bulldozing sophomore Richard Newton, and the exciting potential of redshirt freshman Cameron Davis, Washington running backs could prove to have a very productive season in 2020. While McGrew has the most playing experience and will likely get his share of touches this season, it’s somewhat safe to assume that Richard Newton will see the lion’s share of carries, at least initially. In 2019, the junior scored 10 touchdowns in 10 games while running for nearly 500 yards, despite splitting touches with the departed Salvon Ahmed, McGrew, and Kamari Pleasant. The x-factor here will be if the talented redshirt freshman Davis can carve out a role for himself as the second or third back on the team. He could certainly prove to eventually be the best of them all, thanks to having Newton’s size (6’ and 200+ lbs.) and similar if not superior speed and agility compared to McGrew. I haven’t even mentioned true freshmen Sam Adams II and Jay’veon Sunday, both of whom could be big contributors down the line. Overall, this could prove to be a very talented and effective group of running backs for the Huskies.
Elijah Molden (nickel), Keith Taylor, and Trent McDuffie. When one position group features PFF’s third and fifth best returning players (Molden & McDuffie) in the entire league, and the third member is the 6’3” senior Taylor, it’s hard not to consider it a top unit. With the departure of Onwuzurike to the NFL, Molden is the clear leader not only of the secondary, but of the entire Husky defense. This will be the final season for both Molden and Taylor, who will have a good to very good shot at playing at the next level. Meanwhile, McDuffie had a phenomenal true freshmen season and graded out as the 12th best defensive back in college football. With former blue-chip recruits like Kyler Gordon and Kamren Fabiculanan, in addition to the 6’2” Dominique Hampton waiting in the wings as quality depth, this is an elite group that can be compared to the best of the best in college football.
What is UW’s Strongest Position Group?
This poll is closed
Cornerbacks: I’m not going to be breaking any headlines with this choice. Under Jimmy Lake’s tutelage the Washington secondary, and especially its cornerbacks, have been the strength of UW’s defense. That continues to be the case heading into the 2020 season, as elite recruiting and player development has given Washington an embarrassment of CB riches. Headlined by Molden and McDuffie, look for this unit to dominate opposing wideouts this fall.
Outside Linebackers: Despite the loss of Joe Tryon to the NFL, this is a group that could still do some big things in the 2020 season. Between the steady veteran presence of Ryan Bowman, and the emerging talent of guys like Laiatu Latu, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, and Bralen Trice, it’s not outrageous to think that at least one of them could have a 10+ sack season (albeit that will be even more difficult thanks to the shortened season). Throw 5-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls into the mix and the position group appears to have some legit depth for the first time in what feels like years.
Safeties: The combo of sophomores Asa Turner and Cameron Williams, who started a combined 12 games last season as true freshmen, is pretty enticing. Both presumably used the offseason to get bigger, stronger, and faster, after showing overall positive results in year-one. Paired with the depth provided by senior Brandon McKinney, as well as Alex Cook and Julius Irvin, this position group’s future looks bright.