Coming off a miserably disappointing season, the Huskies turned over the coaching staff and brought in transfers who will see instant playing time in almost every position group. With so much upheaval, we know less about what to expect from individual players. In fact, we haven’t even seen this offensive or defensive coaching staff call a game, let alone how this group of players will perform within the system.
The result of so many unanswered questions is that you could make a case for almost any position group to be the weakest, or at least an unknown. Should we look at the group that performed worst in 2021? That would put the spotlight on offensive or defensive lines. Maybe it’s the position with the most talent lost from last season- the secondary. Or how about a group with lots of players who are unproven or brand new to UW, like linebackers or running backs? You could even make a case that the giant question marks at QB could enter that position in the discussion. The only position group I’m confident saying does not belong in the debate is the receivers, and it’s not like they covered themselves in glory in ’21, either.
With all that said, I have narrowed the search to three positions, but feel free to disagree in the comments.
Admittedly, this group got a big boost when Jaxson Kirkland and Henry Bainivalu both decided to return for one more go-round on Montlake. Replacing two starters will certainly be easier than replacing four. On the other hand, the incumbents were a serious disappointment last season, so even the returns will require improved performance to escape criticism. Throughout 2021, we saw very little push on the predictable runs between the tackles. In the passing game, the QBs did not always make quick decisions, but they also seldom got the benefit of ample time to work through progressions.
At every position group but this one, we can blame the coaching and hope for better. In the case of the OL, Scott Huff is back for another year in what has been an uneven Husky coaching career. Every time it has looked like Huff didn’t have the recruiting chops to stay at the top of a Power 5 conference, he would develop a Trey Adams or Nick Harris to All-Conference level. Then, when the on-field performance has lagged, he has come up big on the recruiting trail (namely in the 2020 class with something of an encore this year). Can Huff put it all together this year? Will the rest of the offensive staff help resolve the persistent issues with blitz pick-ups? Will the big and athletic players up front finally start to assert their physical advantages when defenders don’t know exactly what’s coming? The honest answer is that I do not know.
After a decade of elite defensive linemen, it was almost hard to accept that the UW defensive front was sub-par in 2021. The players had enough of a pedigree as recruits and physical measurements to be at least above average. Nonetheless, other than Tuli Letuligasenoa, not a single interior defensive lineman was regularly good across the season. Neither did they eat up enough blockers to free up linebackers to plug holes in the run game, nor did the disrupt single blockers enough to create havoc in the backfield. The linebacking corps took a lot of flak for incessantly surrendering backbreaking drives on the ground. The criticism is fair, but there’s plenty of blame to go on the linemen, as well.
The new coaching staff immediately recognized that there was room for improvement in this unit. Sam Taimani left the program for Oregon (shudder). The rest of the position group is back with some interesting new additions. Ulumoo Ale left his starting position on the offensive line for the defensive side of the ball. At 6’6”, 355 lbs., Ale has the size and strength to be maximally disruptive. Likewise, the Deboer staff brought in twins Armon and Jayvon Parker, both of whom are pushing 300 lbs. straight out of high school with bodybuilder physiques. Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes were premium recruits who haven’t maxed out their potential yet, but will hope to show improvement under Inoke Breckerfield (whose hiring as the position coach was seen as a coup). I haven’t even mentioned Kuao Peihopa, who has been the eye-popping standout for the new staff. Tuli, Ale, Tuitele, Bandes, Peihopa… clearly there is reason to believe in the group. Conversely, every one of them was part of a very disappointing group last year, so where will the dice fall?
As I mentioned in the D-Line section, the linebackers received a lot of the blame for the poor run defense that is properly attributed to both groups. Even so, it’s hard to find many nice things to say about the inside linebackers based on 2021 performance. Edefuan Ulofoshio struggled on and off with injuries and never looked like his marauding, space-closing self. Jackson Sirmon continued to look the part of a more physical, instinctive player than he actually was. Few tears were shed when he left for Cal. Carson Bruner had flashes in early chances to play and was exposed with more mistakes the more he played, as one would expect for an inexperienced player. Like Sirmon, MJ Tafisi has departed without ever realizing his full potential.
With Ulofoshio set to miss significant time, Pitt transfer Cam Bright is the closest thing to a certainty in the unit. Bruener, Alphonzo Tuputala, Daniel Heimuli, Juco transfer Demario King, and transfer Kris Moll will battle for playing time next to Bright. Co-DC William Inge also coaches the linebackers and early reports indicate that the staff will simplify the LB responsibilities. Perhaps a reliance on speed and instincts will allow a few more big plays, but if that predisposition can eliminate the soul-sucking 15-play drives, it will be a worthwhile exchange.
My vote is for the linebacking corps as the weakest position group. It has been a perennial sore spot and the new coaches will have to prove that they have cleaned up the scheme and execution before I turn my attention and ire elsewhere. Perhaps if Ulofoshio were fully healthy heading into the season, the questions for the O-Line would be more of a focus. With poor returning production and significant health issues, the LBs have work to do.
What is UW’s weakest position group entering 2022?
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