It was an eventful day for next season’s outlook as the 3 players still waiting to make an NFL draft decision all chose to return for one more go-around on Montlake. TE Cade Otton capped off the day which started with OL Jaxson Kirkland and EDGE Zion Tupuola-Fetui making similar announcements.
I’m declaring...— Cade Otton (@CadeOtton) December 29, 2020
That the Dawgs are coming for it ALL in 2021, and I can’t wait to be apart of it.
GO DAWGS pic.twitter.com/gfWZ3L7UeS
All 3 were 1st Team All-Conference selections last week. The only other 1st team player for the Huskies was CB Elijah Molden who was a senior and who has already declared for the NFL Draft.
With this trio all returning to the team in 2021 it appears the Huskies are poised to make a serious run for at least the Pac-12 title. There are still several seniors whose status is unknown for next year because of current eligibility rules and there are still likely some players that will enter the transfer portal.
But as it stands right now the Huskies are projected to return every meaningful piece on offense while losing only corners Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden on defense. The latter two players are a serious blow as Molden was one of the best defensive players in the country and likely would’ve been an All-American if he’d played as many games as those in the SEC. But Kyler Gordon is set to return to take one of the spots in the secondary and there is plenty of talent remaining with Dominique Hampton, Julius Irvin, and other younger players waiting in the wings. Washington will also get back OLB Laiatu Latu who seemed poised for a breakout season before missing all 4 games in 2020 with an unspecified injury.
The last announcement of the night by Otton was also the biggest surprise. Cade was the team leader in basically every receiving category and played every snap outside of garbage time for Washington. There is young talent at tight end but it would have been an unproven group without Otton’s return. Otton was 7th on Mel Kiper’s list of TEs while Dane Brugler didn’t have him in his top-ten. I would have been willing to wager that Otton would’ve been at worst a 4th rounder but maybe he didn’t receive stellar feedback which made this decision easier.
Kirkland was named 1st team all-conference in his first season at left tackle but it wouldn’t have been a snub had he been merely 2nd team. Still, he was one of the 4-5 best tackles in the conference this season and his return means Washington brings back their entire starting offensive line. And that’s a line that gave up 0 true sacks (Morris ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage once) in 4 games and had a legitimate argument for best in the conference. Now, they’ll get an extra full offseason to build cohesion.
Last but not least is ZTF who was probably the least likely to head to the NFL. He has still only played the majority of snaps in 4 games in his career but was absolutely spectacular in 3 of them. He’s probably not going to average nearly 2 sacks per game throughout the rest of his Husky career like he did this year but the OLB foursome of Bowman, ZTF, Latu, and Smalls should be a terrifying proposition for opposing O-lines next season.
This marks the 2nd offseason in a row that Washington has had some surprise returners after Joe Tryon and Levi Onwuzurike came back a year ago. Both ended up opting out because of the pandemic but in a normal season would have come back.
We’ll see what Vegas says once things shake out but it’s tough to say that Washington won’t be right up there among the conference favorites next season. Jimmy Lake has a few games under his belt now but expectations will hit in full force in 2021. The Huskies will have a road game at Michigan to make a statement in the non-conference and there’s seemingly no one else in the Pac-12 who will be head and shoulders above them.
There’s been a lot of negatives associated with Husky sports in the last month but today marked some tremendous good news and it will be an agonizingly wonderful 9 months building up anticipation waiting for the start of the next season.
EDIT: Senior RB Sean McGrew also announced via his Instagram last night that he will also be returning to the Huskies for one final season. He finished 2nd on the team in snaps at the position but led the team in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. It was a 4-man committee at times in 2020 but McGrew was the most consistent option and also adds value in the return game. It wouldn’t be a shock to see at least one of those 4 RBs move on at some point this offseason looking for a less crowded backfield but it won’t be McGrew.