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2023 Team Talent Preview: Washington

A look at your Huskies through a little bit more of a zoomed out lens

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Valero Alamo Bowl Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the 10th part in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. If you’ve been paying attention to these rankings you will have realized that the teams that finished 1 through 4 are also the foursome that will all be in the Big Ten come the 2024 season. Wild.

The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats, 9. California Golden Bears, 8. Oregon State Beavers, 7. Colorado Buffaloes, 6. Arizona State Sun Devils, 5. Utah Utes, 4. UCLA Bruins

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 1,121.1 (4th)

Quarterback- 132.7 (1st)

Starter- Michael Penix Jr. (89.3)

Reserves- Dylan Morris (86.8), Austin Mack (51.8)

I don’t think many Husky fans will quibble with coming out #1 on the QB rankings but they might not agree with how that came to be. Michael Penix finishes 6th overall in the conference as the starter despite being viewed as a legitimate Heisman contender. How? Mainly because I count the entirety of a player’s career and his last season at Indiana was bad. I lessen the impact of recruiting ranking the older a player gets but Penix also suffers a little bit in this talent equation by having been a mid-tier 3-star recruit out of high school.

Washington makes up for it though by having Dylan Morris who rates out as the #8 QB in the conference here. I included 48 QBs in this exercise across the Pac-12. Morris is 12th overall in recruiting rank out of high school. He’s 15th in PFF grade and 5 of the players ahead of him have played fewer than 60 career snaps so that is too small a sample size to make a judgment. And finally, Morris is 9th in that group in total FBS snaps. Put together recruiting talent, on-field performance, and experience and Morris is pretty clearly a top-ten Pac-12 QB this year despite many fans’ misgivings.

Coach DeBoer of course is hoping that Morris never needs to get into a game outside of garbage time to try to prove this correct. But if any team in the Pac-12 is set up to survive a game or two without their starting QB then it’s Washington. UCLA with #10 and #13 and USC with #1 and #15 are the only other schools with multiple players in the top-15 of QBs.

Running Back- 120.7 (6th)

Starter- Dillon Johnson (86.2)

Reserves- Daniyel Ngata (68.7), Cam Davis (63.9), Richard Newton (58.1), Tybo Rogers (40.9), Will Nixon (40.1)

By bringing in Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson and Arizona State transfer Daniyel Ngata in the portal it gave the Huskies tremendous depth at the running back position. There are still some question marks about the top end potential though. Cam Davis took on the #1 role during spring practices and has shown plenty of flashes but hasn’t yet shown he can shoulder the load as the main guy after finishing 3rd in the conference in rushing TDs last year. Hopefully this will be the year.

Injuries kept both of the transfers Johnson and Ngata from seeing much of the field in the spring but neither of them are completely sure things either. Johnson started 14 games in Starksville and showed off tremendous versatility with his skills as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Ngata was a premium recruit who hadn’t yet broken through to win the job at ASU through 3 seasons.

That trio combined with Richard Newton though provides 4 guys with 350+ career snaps and above average PFF grades. It would surprise me a little if any Husky player at this position made an all-conference team but the floor is extremely high and they have the depth to withstand an injury or two.

Wide Receiver- 350.9 (2nd)

Starters- Jalen McMillan (93.7), Rome Odunze (91.5), Ja’Lynn Polk (72.2)

Reserves- Germie Bernard (71.0), Giles Jackson (64.6), Taeshaun Lyons (51.1), Rashid Williams (49.0), Denzel Boston (42.8)

I’m sure Husky fans will be stunned to see the #2 rankings for the WR group unless I already grouped UW in with the Big Ten and so Ohio State is included (I didn’t). There’s no question about the top-end talent. Jalen McMillan finished 1st in these ratings among WRs and Rome Odunze was 3rd. The two have played almost identical snap counts for their career (1220 to 1267) and had almost identical PFF grades (73.4 to 73.2). The only differentiator in these ratings is that McMillan was a higher rated 4-star coming out of high school.

Odunze will likely end up drafted higher and has gotten more of the accolades but that’s fairly inconsequential. The odds are high that Washington will have the best receiver duo in the conference this year and will be in contention for best in the entire country.

Washington slips to #2 at the position group overall because there’s a slight drop from that duo to #3 and then again from #5 to #6. Ja’Lynn Polk had a very good season as the #3 receiver for Washington last year but is the third best third option in the Pac-12 in these talent rankings. Germie Bernard finishes right behind him after a good true freshman season for Michigan State. Giles Jackson has seen a lot of his impact come from special teams and so he’s played fewer offensive snaps than you’d like for a 5th year senior.

That group of 5 is special and barring injuries expect Washington to not spread out the snaps much wider than that. I included 6 spots though in the calculation and there’s a bit of a drop between the incoming true freshmen plus Denzel Boston and the group above them even if he grows to be a very good player.

Tight End- 89.9 (8th)

Starter- Josh Cuevas (60.9)

Reserves- Devin Culp (59.4), Ryan Otton (41.8), Jack Westover (36.1)

If you take recruiting ranking completely out of the calculations then Devin Culp and Jack Westover have had extremely similar careers. Culp has played a little bit more and Westover has performed slightly better on the field but overall they’re fairly interchangeable which is why they’ll likely play nearly identical snap counts when healthy.

It’s interesting that Cal Poly transfer Josh Cuevas edges out Culp to finish with the higher talent grade here despite going unranked out of high school. But in 3 fewer years of college Cuevas has played about 70% as many snaps already and has a much higher PFF grade. The levels of competition are different with Cuevas starting out in FCS but it was substantial enough to make up the gap in recruiting ranking.

Offensive Line- 426.9 (5th)

Starters- RT Roger Rosengarten (93.5), LT Troy Fautanu (87.6), C Matteo Mele (52.4), Elishah Jackett (47.1), Landen Hatchett (46.9)

Reserves- LG Nate Kalepo (44.6), RG Julius Buelow (41.5), Geirean Hatchett (39.1), Kahlee Tafai (37.1), Soane Faasolo (36.4), Jalen Klemm (31.7), Parker Brailsford (31.5)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

Washington certainly thinks it returns the best set of offensive tackles in the conference and my system backs up that assertion. Rosengarten comes in 2nd overall among Pac-12 OL and Fautanu is 6th. Despite that, Rosengarten continues to go overlooked. He was only honorable mention on the preseason Pac-12 team from the media and not present on any of the 4 Phil Steele all-conference teams. OL recognition though is notoriously seniority-based and hopefully Roger will make them take notice despite being a redshirt sophomore. Fautanu is preseason 1st-team from the media (only 3rd by Steele) and will no doubt be one of the better LTs in the Pac-12.

Of course the flip side of the great bookend duo is that Washington graduates their 3 interior offensive linemen. They’re expected to fill those holes with the only other linemen on the roster with any career starts: Mele, Kalepo, and Buelow. Both Kalepo and Buelow have below average career PFF grades but Buelow got most of his playing time in 2021 playing in the JonDon offense. Everyone else from that group looked instantly rejuvenated last year playing in a real system and hopefully that will be true for him as well. Mele has the most snaps but only 1 career start as he has filled in at several different positions on the line over the last 5 years.

If I do this exercise next year I may make some tweaks for the offensive line. It’s rare for players at that spot to see the field before their 3rd year of college. I might make some tweaks to lessen the “punishment” of incoming redshirt sophomores still having not seen the field while lowering the rating of true freshmen since they probably won’t actually play this year. Maybe Jackett and Hatchett crack the 2-deep buy it shouldn’t be expected.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,015.6 (6th)

Defensive Line- 210.7 (3rd)

Starters- Tuli Letuligasenoa (89.4), Faatui Tuitele (62.9)

Reserves- Voi Tunuufi (61.0), Jacob Bandes (55.7), Ulumoo Ale (45.5), Anthony James (44.6)

Washington has been blessed over the last decade or so at the center of their DL with players such as Danny Shelton, Vita Vea, and Greg Gaines. Tuli Letuligasenoa hasn’t quite lived up to that pedigree but he’s still very good and grades out as the #1 DT in the conference here. Tuli is 4th in recruiting ranking, 5th in career defensive snaps, and 4th in average PFF grade. That’s pretty hard to dispute and it would be fantastic for the Husky defense if he can be fully healthy the entire year rather than getting nicked up here and there again.

The Huskies actually also have the #2 and #3 rated DTs out of high school in the conference in Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes. The only one higher than the UW trio is USC’s Bear Alexander who just transferred in from Georgia. The production hasn’t been there though from Tuitele or Bandes. Although Tuitele had surgery in the offseason which hopefully healed something that may have been nagging him throughout the season.

Everyone on the line besides Tuli has at best a career 63.6 PFF grade and that’s from Ulumoo Ale who got some of those numbers playing on the other side of the ball. Washington would really be helped by a true difference maker emerging and Ale seems the most likely candidate now that he has continued to slim down while still being enormous.

Admittedly, I wrote this before it was announced that Tunuufi was officially moving to EDGE and I’m leaving it with him here since that would disrupt some of the formulas. It does change the analysis a little though here and in the next section.

Edge Rushers- 184.1 (8th)

Starters- Bralen Trice (84.7), Zion Tupuola-Fetui (63.1)

Reserves- Jacob Lane (38.5), Lance Holtzclaw (34.0), Maurice Heims (32.5), Sekai Afoa-Asoau (22.1), Zach Durfee (8.3)

Considering that Washington has a likely All-American and a former All-American among this group it’s a little surprising to see them 8th overall. I think it ultimately makes sense though. Bralen Trice is the #6 rated edge player in the Pac-12 here despite making 1st team last year. He didn’t see much of the field his first three years in college and his high 3-star recruiting status holds him back just a little.

Opposite Trice is ZTF who remains a bit of an enigma. He had one of the most dominant 3-game stretches in program history back in 2020 but then suffered a major injury and hasn’t looked like that same player. If he gets back to his 2020 form then his score is way too low but that’s far from a guarantee as much as I’d love to see it. The media believes in it though after naming him 2nd team all-conference in their preseason picks.

The depth behind that duo is just about completely gone with 57 career FBS defensive snaps. Maurice Heims showed some flashes last year. SAA also played a bit. Perhaps the likeliest candidate to break out if Sioux Falls transfer Zach Durfee. His low score here is because PFF doesn’t have data for D3 players so I don’t have his snap count or a PFF grade and since he was unrated coming out of high school...he gets basically the same grade as a walk-on who hasn’t played.

Linebackers- 169.3 (6th)

Starters- Ralen Goforth (59.2), Carson Bruener (57.3)

Reserves- Alphonzo Tuputala (53.9), Edefuan Ulofoshio (51.6), Deven Bryant (39.2), Jordan Whitney (37.3)

Washington has 4 players that finished with a score in the 50’s here but they took very different routes to get there. USC transfer Ralen Goforth has the most experience and was the highest rated coming out of high school but PFF has always viewed him as a well below average player when he’s on the field. Ulofoshio is actually a year older than Goforth but was a 2-star walk-on entering college. He has by far the highest PFF grade of the group but has missed time due to injuries and will need to prove he can remain healthy and playing at a high level for the entire year.

Bruener and Tuputala as the middle of the grouping have been very similar. They were almost identically rated in-state recruits out of high school (0.854 vs. 0.852) with basically he same PFF grade (61.5 to 61.4). The only difference is that Tuputala has played more snaps but with his extra year of experience you’d expect him to have played even more so Bruener slots in ahead of him. Tuputala suffering an Achilles injury earlier in his career is of course part of the reason he has taken this long to emerge. It’s worth noting that Phil Steele has Tuputala alongside Jackson Sirmon for his preseason 1st team all-conference picks.

Behind that foursome are a pair of true freshman 3-stars and I’m sure the coaching staff would be just fine to divide all the snaps among the upper classmen.

Cornerbacks- 256.8 (8th)

Starters- Jabbar Muhammad (77.6), Mishael Powell (55.4), Caleb Presley (51.8)

Reserves- Curley Reed (50.5), Elijah Jackson (50.0), Leroy Bryant (43.5), Jaivion Green (42.0), Davon Banks (40.9), Thaddeus Dixon (38.3)

This was the weak link on last year’s team and it should be better this year but won’t magically be one of the best in the conference. Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad wasn’t an elite recruit but has been very good across 1,200+ snaps in the Big 12 and is more of a sure thing than Jordan Perryman was last year. Meesh Powell transitions from outside corner to the Husky spot but has 11 career starts at an above average level as a former unrated walk-on.

Right now it looks like Elijah Jackson is the favorite to win the job opposite Muhammad even though his score here is slightly below 4-star true freshmen Caleb Presley and Curley Reed. Jackson has played well in just over 100 career snaps. But injuries have limited his availability or he would’ve played more than Davon Banks or Jaivion Green last year who really struggled when pressed into duty.

The sleeper is JUCO transfer Thaddeus Dixon as this talent system doesn’t do a great job of projecting good JUCO players since PFF doesn’t have grades for them. If Washington is once again forced to play true freshmen due to injuries, at least this time they’ll be highly rated ones.

Safeties- 194.7 (4th)

Starters- Asa Turner (83.8), Makell Esteen (58.4)

Reserves- Dominique Hampton (55.7), Vincent Holmes (49.3), Tristan Dunn (38.8), Vincent Nunley (13.8)

Many Husky fans may be a little shocked to see how well Asa Turner fares in this system as the #3 rated safety in the Pac-12. He has played the 2nd most snaps though of any safety in the conference who didn’t transfer in from a lower level school. And while Turner’s PFF grade is lower than that player (Oregon State’s Kitan Oladapo), Turner is a former 4-star while Oladapo was a former walk-on. I expect Turner to at least be an honorable mention all-conference player if he stays healthy.

There are similar scores for Makell Esteen and Dom Hampton for the 2nd safety spot. Hampton started all last year at the Husky position and now can move back to safety with Alex Cook having graduated which should be more of a natural fit for him. Esteen has only played just over 100 snaps mostly in garbage time but somehow still tied with Turner for the team lead of 2 interceptions. He seems a likely candidate to be the 3rd safety at the least.

OVERALL TEAM- 2,136.7 (3rd)

How does it work that Washington can have the 4th ranked offense talent and the 6th ranked defense talent and yet be 3rd overall? Well, USC and Oregon will be the last 2 teams discussed in this series and they are some order of 1/2 on both offense and defense. The 3rd rated offense was Oregon State (9th defense) while the 3rd rated defense was UCLA (8th offense). Washington was in a virtual tie just behind Oregon State on offense and finished with a good enough defense to make up the difference with the Bruins.

The top of the roster is not the problem for Washington. There are 10 Huskies who rank in the top-50 of the conference in these talent rankings which tied with USC for the most of any school. That’s kind of what you expect when you have 5+ players who had a legitimate chance to get drafted that decide to come back to college for one last ride.

There also shouldn’t be one position group that serves as a clear weakness since Washington finished at least 8th in the conference at every single position. Although every team would be in some trouble if they lost every player on the 2-deep for multiple games throughout the season the way that UW did at corner last year.

The schedule looks tougher than it was last year. Boise State (the preseason MWC favorite) is a tougher opening opponent than Kent State. The Michigan State non-con game is in East Lansing instead of in Seattle. The game against Oregon State is in Corvallis. The home game vs. Colorado was replaced with one against Utah and the road game at UCLA was replaced with one at USC. Yes, the Huskies get to play Oregon and WSU at home but those don’t appear to make up for all the other changes.

Could this Husky team win a few close games and make it into the CFP at 12-1? Sure. It’s on the spectrum of possible outcomes without being a complete outlier. It also seems like just finishing 10-2 again this year even with all of the returning talent would be a significant achievement of its own given the road in front of them.


Top-10 Players (with position rank and conference rank)

  1. WR Jalen McMillan, 93.7 (1st, 7th)
  2. OL Roger Rosengarten, 93.5 (2nd, 10th)
  3. WR Rome Odunze, 91.5 (3rd, 13th)
  4. DL Tuli Letuligasenoa, 89.4 (1st, 19th)
  5. QB Michael Penix Jr., 89.3 (6th, 21st)
  6. OL Troy Fautanu, 87.6 (6th, 28th)
  7. QB Dylan Morris, 86.8 (8th, 31st)
  8. RB Dillon Johnson*, 86.2 (5th, 34th)
  9. ED Bralen Trice, 84.7 (6th, 42nd)
  10. S Asa Turner, 83.8 (3rd, 44th)

*Incoming transfer