In an alternate timeline today would mark the beginning of spring football practices. The beginning of the Jimmy Lake era as the Huskies embark on a seemingly unsettled journey with a new head coach, offensive coordinator, and starting quarterback. Of course those uncertainties remain but they’re overshadowed by such questions as “will we even have a college football season this year?”
It’s hard to focus on the little things when you have that kind of existential dread casting a shadow over everything but we’re going to try. So is Jimmy Lake apparently.
Lake says he's not thinking about a postponed or canceled season yet. "At this point, I think we are going to have a season, and it’s going to be a memorable one, because everybody’s going to be ready for some football."— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) March 31, 2020
This might not be the blow your doors off pull out all the stops spring preview that was in the works prior to COVID-19 but we’ll address the major story lines that would have been and still will be whenever we get back to seeing players on the field again.
Changing of the Guard at QB
For the better part of two decades the Huskies have had a pretty clear answer at the quarterback position. Marques Tuiasosopo, Cody Pickett, Isaiah Stanback, Jake Locker, Keith Price, Jake Browning, and Jacob Eason have all had moments of brilliance with only a few breaks in the chain. Jimmy Lake knew that wasn’t the case this year though as Washington made a strong push to bring in Stanford’s K.J Costello as a grad transfer.
It’s not a shock that Lake went after Costello since the Huskies have exactly 0 starts in their quarterback room. Jacob Sirmon leads the clubhouse with a combined 2 pass attempts for -5 yards in his only college game action. The last time Washington went into a season with this little experience on the roster? 2004 after the graduation of Cody Pickett. Casey Paus took over that season after racking up just 23 pass attempts in a few backup stints the prior year. UW’s quarterbacks then combined to throw just 8 TDs against 24 INTs while completing 40.1% of their passes for a 1-10 team. Not great.
Now there’s no chance that the talent the Huskies have on hand can’t beat numbers like that but could this QB room resemble the one Chris Petersen walked into in his first season? Washington had 0 upperclassmen with Cyler Myles, Jeff Lindquist, Troy Williams, and KJ Carta Samuels as the options. None of those players would ultimately finish their careers playing quarterback at Washington though all were highly regarded prospects. Cyler’s stats look better than I remembered looking back (66.6% completion, 7.3 yards per attempt, 17 TDs to 4 INTs) but a receiving group that included Jaydon Mickens, Kasen Williams, John Ross, and Joshua Perkins helped cover up for his flaws.
Back in the present, the favorite by default is the aforementioned Jacob Sirmon who served as the backup last season after Jake Haener decided to transfer one week before the opener. That meant Sirmon got 0 time during spring or fall camp last year to get time with the number 2 offense and consequently has had about as few practice reps as possible for someone in his position.
Sirmon nearly transferred during the spring of his freshman year and only didn’t because fellow class of 2018 QB Colson Yankoff decided to leave simultaneously. The book on Sirmon is that he’s largely a Jacob Eason-lite. They are almost the same size and Sirmon gets the job done with plus level arm talent but has been known to struggle with accuracy at times. He completed fewer than 60% of his passes in high school although with only 7 interceptions in his final two seasons. Whether Sirmon takes control of the starting job will depend on his ability to improve on the technical aspects of the position while learning John Donovan’s new offense.
Whereas Sirmon has been compared to Jacob Eason, the natural comparison for redshirt freshman Dylan Morris has always been Jake Browning. At 6’0 and 193 pounds there’s no question that Morris is a little undersized for the QB spot but by all accounts he has the intangibles necessary to succeed at the position. Morris was rated the #171 prospect overall in his class by the 247 sports composite but put up better numbers as a junior than as a senior.
The darkhorse in the QB battle has been true freshman Ethan Garbers who at the time that he committed to Washington was viewed a bit as a bridge quarterback. His 3-star status last Februrary made it seem unlikely he would be able to compete in a QB room containing Haener, 4-stars Sirmon, Yankoff, and Morris plus Jacob Eason with 5-star prodigy Sam Huard committed in the class behind him. Well Haener, Eason, and Yankoff are gone now and Garbers responded by putting up one of the most prolific statistical seasons in high school football history with more than 5,000 passing yards, 71 TDs against just 6 INTs, and added 573 yards and 12 TDs on the ground.
In a world where Garbers was on the field taking reps with the rest of the QBs starting today (he enrolled in online classes starting this week) I might have placed my bets that he could emerge in September as the starter. That seems a tough ask depending upon how the next few months go. Cal’s season showed how important his older brother was to their success and Ethan looks to have all the tools to be even better.
Manning the Middle
You won’t find many folks out there who will disagree with the statement that the most glaring weakness of the 2019 Washington Huskies team was the play at inside linebacker. Week 1 starters Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington have both graduated which opens up an absolute free-for-all for playing time in 2020.
Edefuan Ulofoshio should be penciled in at one spot after a sensational several game stretch at the end of the year which earned him a scholarship. But despite his success as a pass rusher and in the run game there are still concerns about his coverage ability which is a key role for that spot in UW’s defense.
Redshirt sophomores Jackson Sirmon and M.J Tafisi should get first crack to play alongside Eddie as each got a good amount of run last year. Tafisi’s season ended on a scary neck injury against Arizona but at the time he appeared to be ahead of Sirmon on the depth chart. We’ll see if that’s still the case now that he’s back healthy.
Washington signed 4 linebackers in the class of 2019 all of whom redshirted and are now hoping to emerge. Josh Calvert was a standout in practice last offseason and some thought he was going to start ahead of Kyler Manu. Then he tore his ACL in August and that ended that. We likely wouldn’t have seen Calvert at full speed this spring no matter what but if his recovery is on schedule then he should be a force eventually. Daniel “Danny Hammers” Heimuli was the highest rated of the bunch but never got into a game in his first season.
Shuffling the Line?
The 2019 offensive line was expected to be one of the strengths of the team with seniors Trey Adams, Nick Harris, and Jared Hilbers. While the unit was serviceable it was certainly a bit of a disappointment. With 3 starters plus experienced reserve Henry Roberts all out the door it opens plenty of opportunity along the front.
The starting guards return in senior Luke Wattenberg and junior Jaxson Kirkland but will they stay at guard? It wouldn’t necessarily be a shock to see one of them kick out to tackle in order to give the Huskies a little more experience on the edge. No one left on the roster got any game reps at left tackle last season but every other position has backups returning. Henry Bainivalu, Matteo Mele, and Victor Curne all played at least 70 snaps last season and are the most likely candidates to fill in for the three missing spots along the line.
We’ll see when we finally get a look at the first team on the depth chart but I would expect it to contain those 5 players with Bainivalu or Wattenberg flexing out to left tackle and the other manning the left guard spot. Ulumoo (MJ) Ale also got a tiny amount of playing time last year and at a massive 6’6, 352 pounds he could emerge as a physically dominant option. Myles Murao isn’t enrolled for the spring but he appears to be the most game ready OL true freshman the Huskies have had in several years and it would not be a shock at all to see him starting at center the next time the Huskies play a real game with Matteo Mele shifted somewhere else.
Paint By Numbers- Offense Edition
The move was made from Bush Hamdan to John Donovan at offensive coordinator for a number of reasons but perhaps the biggest was that the offense at times appeared bogged down by its own complexity. Washington assembled an impressive array of young offensive talent but players like Terrell Bynum and Puka Nacua struggled to get on the field early before flashing late.
Jimmy Lake says the magic words on UW's new offense: "It’s going to be more easy for a younger player to come in and play right away, the way this system is laid out."— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) March 31, 2020
The spring would have given us a sneak peak at exactly how much is going to change on the offensive end. If young players struggled to pick up Washington’s old offense with spring included then what would a potential offseason without it mean? Luckily, an emphasis is hopefully being made on striking the balance between complexity and ease of learning. Hamdan under Chris Petersen fell on one side of the spectrum and there’s likely to be more of a happy medium under Donovan and Lake.
Given that Donovan hasn’t run an offense with a halfway competent offensive line in essentially forever we still will have to wait to see what exactly he’s going to do from a scheme and play calling standpoint. But it should be evident immediately based on the initial depth charts whether Lake and Donovan are telling the truth or not about how quickly players can learn enough of the offense to see the field.