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The Puka Nacua Ink Blot Test

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What did you see in the Nacua transfer?

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

“Disaster”

“The ship is sinking”

“Something is broken”

All words that were uttered by at least some Husky fans upon hearing the news that WR Puka Nacua had entered the transfer portal on Sunday afternoon. Another defection related to the passing game was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many out there or maybe that happened one to two hits ago?

It’s not an unreasonable stance to take. If you stand on the roof of the Husky Stadium overhang looking down at the field there’s reason to believe a pattern has emerged. It started with the hire of OC John Donovan which came thoroughly out of nowhere and for good reason. There was nothing in Donovan’s resume that gave supreme confidence about his ability to lead an upper echelon team in college football to have a prolific offense nor that he would be able to be a stud recruiter.

Next came a 2020 season in which Washington ran the ball nearly 2/3rds of the snaps in the season opener against Oregon State. Jimmy Lake came out to his next weekly press conference wearing a “Run the Damn Ball” hat seemingly confirming that the Huskies’ identity would be that of a 3 yards and a cloud of dust team. Washington’s offense faltered while falling behind early to both Utah and Stanford and only recovered when forced to resort to the pass due to game script.

In the midst of that stretch came the news that 5-star local WR Emeka Egubka had committed to Ohio State and that what he’d seen from Washington’s offense clearly did nothing to persuade him to stick around.

Next came the departures which only really affected the passing game. Former 4-star quarterbacks Jacob Sirmon and Ethan Garbers each transferred out of the program. Next came the wide receivers as veterans Jordan Chin and Ty Jones each departed as well. Jones led the WRs in snaps in 2020 and left to go to Fresno State to join Jake Haener who had been denied his opportunities at Washington while Bush Hamdan was still the offensive coordinator. There have also been rumors abounding that Austin Osborne and Marquis Spiker are also heavily considering adding to the exodus.

Then on top of all of that came the departure of Puka Nacua. Potentially the best receiver in the Pac-12. How in the world can you look at all of that evidence and not come to the conclusion that there is a deep rot within the Husky football program? It may be contained to the offensive passing game for the moment but the overall negative state of recruiting and the promotion of Bob Gregory to DC surely shows that it’s spreading, right?

That’s certainly one way to interpret the series of ink stains that have fallen on the field.

But it’s also not the only way.

Yes, the Huskies ran the ball a ton against Oregon State. It was also with a first time starter quarterback playing in a driving rainstorm with a veteran offensive line. What if Washington had slung it all over the yard in that game and lost because Morris had the ball slip for a pick six? Would the same fans have not used that as proof positive of Donovan’s failings?

Sure, Lake wore a Run the Damn Ball hat after that. But the Huskies came out the next game and threw the ball on 1st down for gains of 6, 11, and 29 yards in the first 2 drives against Arizona (plus had a 65-yard passing touchdown). Washington scored 37 points in 3 quarters in that game.

The Huskies finished the 2020 season 12th in offensive FEI. They only had 38 offensive drives and scored 14 TDs and 6 FGs (plus had 3 other makeable FG misses). Yes, the team got stalled out in the red zone a little too often but they still averaged 30+ points per game. On a team that had no non-conference games to ease their first time starting quarterback into the swing of things.

Losing Egubka stung. No doubt about that. But it’s a reality of the current recruiting world that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia can swoop down and have a better than not chance of landing any recruit in the country regardless of location if they put their energy into it. How many local schools would be able to beat out Ohio State for a receiver prospect right now? If the Huskies had a Mike Leach disciple as an OC running the air raid and eschewing the running game would UW really have beaten out Ohio State?

Jordan Chin transferred to Sacramento State. He had 5 career receptions. He already has his degree. I’ll always remember and cherish his TD catch against Oregon but realistically if he had gotten serious playing time this upcoming season it would’ve been evidence for most of the coaching staff continuing to play veterans over more talented young guys. Chin would’ve provided depth but how many fans would’ve been thrilled about him seeing the field if it came at the expense of Odunze or McMillan?

Ty Jones transferred to Fresno State. This one definitely hurt more than Chin. He finished #1 among receivers in snaps this season but that happened mostly because Bynum got hurt and Nacua got COVID-19. There were 7 Huskies that ran at least 20 routes in the abbreviated 4-game season and Jones was 5th in yards per route and tied for 4th in targets per route. He is a very good run blocker and had a penchant for making highlight reel catches but also struggled to consistently create separation. Jones also already has his degree and playing in a more pass happy offense might have kept him here another year but it’s not as if he transferred to immediately become a starter at Alabama.

Finally, we get to the Nacua transfer. The moment it happened it’s understandable why people freaked out. Nacua was one of the clear young breakout stars on the team. His 65-yard catch and run TD was the most explosive play the Huskies had all season. It was absolutely clear that he should’ve been one of the starting outside receivers on the team next year. However the last 24 hours have shown this decision wasn’t about UW or their offense. Both Puka and his brother Samson transferred to their hometown school to be closer to their family. Nacua spoke glowingly about UW on KJR yesterday and seemed genuinely disappointed that he ultimately had to choose family over Washington.

It’s hard to look at Nacua’s decision as anything other than poor luck on Washington’s part that circumstances in the Nacua family necessitated him going back home. Maybe if Nacua never breaks his foot in 2019 and wasn’t part of the team’s COVID outbreak in 2020 then things would’ve been different. If the Huskies had been able to play and beat Oregon and USC with Nacua having an extra 5 big games on his resume then maybe it would’ve been more alluring for him to come back. But realistically if he and his brother felt this strongly that they needed to be close to their mother that they were willing to turn down starting receiver jobs in the Pac-12 to go to BYU without a secure QB situation then would having a more explosive passing game have done anything to change his mind? Unlikely.

As for the rumors of Osborne and Spiker transferring, let’s maybe wait for it to happen before already counting it as a fait accompli and a strike against Lake and Donovan. The pessimistic view also ignores that the Huskies added what looks to be a really good young WR transfer from Texas Tech in Ja’Lynn Polk who has actually played almost double the number of offensive snaps as Puka to this point. Washington also got back Taj Davis to the receiver who opted out of the 2020 season over COVID concerns.

It’s clearly a drop losing Nacua off the 2021 version of the Huskies but this is still a team with Morris (or Huard) running the show, returning all its offensive linemen and running backs, plus its best pass catcher who may be the best tight end in the country. In addition to the still solid receiving corps of Bynum, Odunze, McMillan, and Polk (plus we’ll see about Spiker). And they’ll finally get a full offseason with spring and fall practices with their new offensive coordinator for the first time to really add to the complexity of the system. Maybe recruiting dips and that’s felt in a few years but if Washington plays in 2021 like their roster suggests they should and visits open back up it should answer a lot of questions to help the 2022 class rebound before signing day...

I don’t feel that either viewpoint is necessarily wrong at the moment.

The current version of the Washington Huskies is the amalgamation of a whole lot of unanswered questions. And asking folks to wait and see before forming an opinion isn’t something most people are willing and/or able to do. Nor is it necessarily required. If we weren’t allowed to make predictions about what will happen in sporting events then this site probably wouldn’t exist.

Would I have preferred a coordinator combination other than Donovan/Gregory? Absolutely. Do I know for a fact that both are going to need to be fired because of poor performance in the next few years? No. Could the offense continue to average 30+ points per game under Donovan while the defense stays a top-ten unit under Lake/Gregory to result in a Rose Bowl appearance in 2021? Absolutely. Is it the surefire most likely option to occur? No.

The only way that I think you are in clear denial is if you think that the program as a whole is trending up. The team is not a “Buy” stock. That became guaranteed by the departure of Pete Kwiatkowski. He was the one member of the coaching staff that had a guaranteed track record of being superb in the job he was in. Now there are question marks of varying degrees. Scott Huff? Feel pretty good but would like to see the unit have a full season as a clear top-5 offensive line in America given their talent as well as have Huff close out the talented in-state 2022 group in recruiting to knock that up to a lock status. Terrence Brown and Will Harris? Need to see major improvement in DB recruiting and Molden/Taylor replaced close to seamlessly to get off the bubble trending towards disappointment.

I don’t think it’s fair yet to paint any of them as an out and out disaster but when you have that many question marks with that few sure things then the floor definitely gets lowered and it’s easier to concentrate on that then the ceiling.

As much as the attrition in the receiver room is undesirable I do think that looking at each decision on a case-by-case basis rather than on sheer volume makes me less concerned. Family issues/homesickness, already having their degree, and getting passed on the depth chart explain every WR move except potentially Jones. Adams has yet to have a class where he didn’t bring in at least one 4-star receiver and that won’t be the case until 2023 at the soonest. Nacua, Odunze, and McMillan are the studs he brought in himself and none have shown any indication they’re busts even if Nacua is no longer at Washington.

Is it unreasonable though to consider the team a “Hold” though rather than a “Sell”? As things stand right now the Huskies should absolutely contend for a Pac-12 title this fall. If they don’t then obviously we’ll reassess but in the short-term things still look bright. Beyond that the Huskies have 5-star QB Sam Huard on the roster and if he doesn’t win the starting job then it means that Dylan Morris has ascended to stardom himself. The O-line is brimming with talent even once the current starting 5 move on and it’s not as if Lake hasn’t learned anything from Kwiatkowski about UW’s defensive schemes. With an above average OL, an above average QB, and an above average defense it seems difficult to imagine a drop off much worse than well...above average.

And regardless of how the ink blot looks right now, every day we’ll continue to turn the page and see if tomorrow’s comes more into focus.