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Coach’s Corner: Montana Week

Our Huskies kick off our road back to Pasadena with the Grizzlies in town

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Montana at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Happy kick-off week Husky fans!

Heading into football season again, I’m diving back into Coach’s Corner to give a look at things that I saw in the previous week and things I’ll have an eye out for in the upcoming game. Since this is Week 1 for our Huskies, it’ll mostly be about our game this week against the Montana Grizzlies, but not to worry, we have a lot to unpack here.

New & Returning Starters

Aside from our excitement for live husky football to return, new faces in the starting line up will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind this week. Despite the vast majority of 2020 starters returning, we do have a number of fresh faces breaking into the starting line up and position rotations on both sides of the ball.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 16 Washington Practice Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This week, I’ll be keeping an eye on Julius Buelow, the Newton/Davis RB duo, and Kamren Fabiculanan. All offseason, people have been hyping the size, talent, and experience of our offensive line as a defining strength of our 2021 team, and while I believed that they would be A strength of our team, I was uncertain how dominant we could expect them to be right out of the gates. There was an opportunity for us to run back our starting line up, but the ascension of Buelow to the starting LG spot suggests that he’ll be an upgrade up front over Ale. I’ve watched Buelow’s career unfold since his HS freshman season in Hawaii, and I’ve flip-flopped a number of times as to where I envision his talents being best utilized. He brings tremendous length and size to the iOL, but he hasn’t always been the most fleet of foot or the most powerful in the run game. If he’s been putting in the work behind closed doors with Socha and Huff, he could be a stabilizing presence at LG that we need to operate our run game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 USC at Washington Photo by Michael Workman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Speaking of the run game, the starting duo of Richard Newton or Cameron Davis should get everyone fired up about our offense’s ceiling. In my opinion, Newton and Davis are our two most talented rushers, and if Donovan’s comments about limiting the RB-by-committee this year are any indication, these two could power our offense to a 2,000 yard rushing season (maybe 2,500?). 167 yards/game is 2,000 yards over a 12 game season, and it seems to be a pretty good benchmark for top 25 scoring offenses with only 3 of those teams not meeting that mark. Our RB room has enough playmakers for us to be that type of dynamic rushing offense, and how quickly these two can assert themselves atop the depth chart could determine our team’s offensive trajectory.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

On the defensive side of the ball, Kamren Fabiculanan probably drew the biggest surprise of this initial depth chart. KamFab has been a sneakily under-the-radar defensive talent who has fought his way into the starting lineup over more experienced and more highly touted players. Interestingly enough, both he and Bookie Radley-Hiles, the two primary candidates for the nickel job, both earned starting nods this weekend. The coaching staff doesn’t delineate position beyond “DB”, so I’ll be interested to see how we play the trio of KamFab, Irvin, and Bookie. We know the staff likes to cross-train the DBs between safety and CB/nickel, and we’ve seen DBs like Myles Bryant, Budda Baker, and Taylor Rapp rotate between traditional safety alignments, the slot, and in the box, so we might not see anything ground breaking. However, being able to play with 4/5 DBs with above average coverage skills (like underneath and man-to-man coverage skills) could prove to be a nice match up advantage down the road.

Tune-Up for Michigan

Washington v Michigan

From a coaching staff’s perspective, getting a taste of live action against Montana before playing a tough opponent like Michigan will be a welcomed scenario. The staff will get to shake off the game planning and play calling rust, and they will also get to see if the team chemistry and new line ups gel as expected before really needing to be put to the test. I know that the staff will want to keep things vanilla, so I’m not going to look for an extremely opponent-specific game plan and play package. However, I will be keeping an eye on how the staff calls a coherent game plan.

I’ve done film breakdowns of last year’s games, and our Arizona game last year is a good example of what I’m looking for. In that game, our staff recognized early what the defense’s game plan was and what they were willing to concede in response. We attacked those weaknesses in our preferred manner, and we hammered it until we the defense adjusted. In Arizona’s case:

The safety rolled up to get numbers against the run. They also went to a tite front to clog the interior gaps and spill runs outside. They had their CBs play off zone and play catch coverage techniques most of the game to keep eyes in the backfield so that they could rally and tackle the underneath routes that their soft coverage was conceding or the aforementioned runs that were spilled outside.

...Their whole game plan seemed to be designed to limit the deep passes, rally and tackle the underneath passes to limit YAC, and eliminate the inside run game.

In response, we went with a potent combination of perimeter sweeps that got our auxiliary blockers onto overmatched DBs and Otton carving up the soft zones over the middle. We attacked the soft points and was still able to play complementary football that featured our best players. We could probably win on talent alone, but I still want to see the staff try to figure out the Griz’s schematic puzzle. A tune up game that the staff doesn’t use to get their own mental reps would be an opportunity lost.

Montana Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Montana at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the team will be looking at our game against the Griz as an opportunity to knock off rust and get dialed in for the rest of the season, and most fans will be heading to Husky Stadium with an eye already looking towards week 2, Montana shouldn’t be taken lightly. As the preseason FCS #9 team in the country, we should expect the Griz and we could be in for a fight if we take them for granted and a few other variables go their way. We wouldn’t want to fall victim to an early season FCS disappointment a la 2013 Oregon State or 2016 Washington State.

That being said, Montana has been sapped of some of its firepower with the graduation of QB Dalton Sneed, the transfer of FCS All-American and team receiving leader Samori Toure to Nebraska, and the spring injury to starting running back Marcus Knight. Toure’s running mate at WR, Samuel Akem, is back for his RS senior year and should be the go-to target for new QB, Cam Humphrey. Upfront, the offensive line could be a early season test for our reshuffled defensive fronts with a hefty lineup even by FBS standards. Every starter for the Griz is over 300 (both guards are over 330 lbs), and all are at least in their 3rd year with the program.

On defense, speed is more of the name of the game in their 3-3-5 defense that is reminiscent of the old Rich Rod era Arizona defenses. Our OL should bully their DL that averages out at ~253 lbs. However, aggressive gap shooting from the second level was a challenge at times for our linemen last year, and improvement in that aspect of our offense is critical. In the defensive backfield, Montana doesn’t seem to have a focal point like our own nickel position did, but there is some size to match up with our taller WRs. Either way, I expect us to stay vanilla with a few shot plays and try to carve up their zone defense underneath.

Coach’s Bold Prediction of the Week: Camden Sirmon plays more snaps than Sam Huard in a move purely to preserve his redshirt eligibility