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Duck Dive: Washington Football Preview

Going deep with the Huskies’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations are high for Coach Petersen’s Huskies in his sixth year in Seattle, despite returning nearly the fewest starters in the country. The scheme, coaching staff, and recruits are in place for another run at the Pac-12, though it remains to be seen if they really can reload.

The conference looks to run through Montlake this year, with home games against their five toughest opponents in Cal, USC, Oregon, Utah, and Wazzu. The non-conference schedule resumes the usual pattern since 2014, with three games against teams comparable to miniature desserts of some sort, setting up what will probably be another good looking season if they can answer some key personnel questions.

Thanks to Gabey Lucas of UW Dawg Pound, who is marginally tolerable for a Husky fan, for her insights into the team. We saved the best podcast of this series for the last - a lot of laughs and a terrific level of detail, plus fan favorite sound engineer and world’s greatest Ducks fan Aaron Schroeder joins us for his eerie prognostication.

Offense - #34 in S&P+

It’s year two under OC Hamdan, who blends a number of fundamentals from various college playbooks into an efficiency-based system. This wasn’t the strength of the team last year, but it was solid enough and it certainly returns more production than the defense. The most intriguing prospect is a new quarterback for only the second time in Coach Petersen’s tenure.

Passing Game

I didn’t find the news that presumed starter #10 QB Eason is in an active competition with #9 QB Haener to be particularly surprising. He hasn’t played a game for two calendar years, and there was bound to be some rust. I recently went back and watched his film at Georgia in 2016 as a freshman, and his throwing motion looked great back then; if he can get that back he’ll be fine. He looks somewhat less confident in his mechanics in 2019, but all I have to work with is a very small and weird sample in the Spring game, so that may be nothing.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

I think the bigger question is to what extent he’ll be a change from the graduated #3 QB Browning, whose weak arm limited the offense and not just in the obvious ways - as I noted in last year’s film study, the entire structure of the offense had to be adapted to it. If Eason still has his arm, then it’s definitely possible the offense opens up quite a bit and the mere threat of stretching the field affects how defenses approach this team.

But the reason Browning holds a bunch of school records is because he excelled at everything else a QB is asked to do -- read his progressions, analyze the defensive alignment, identify the breaking open receiver -- and Eason struggled with those things in 2016. I’m willing to write them off as freshman mistakes that would naturally be smoothed out if he were on a normal development track, but that hasn’t been the case and it remains to be seen how much his two years off have affected the mental side of his game. I also think Browning’s most infuriating quality was his maddening ability to scramble out of what should have been a 3rd-down sack and turn it into a 1st-down run, and that’s something I seriously doubt Eason has developed the legs to do.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Washington at Oregon

I’ve got no questions about the wideouts, though - they return all five of their top receivers and are loaded with seniors: #2 WR Fuller, #5 WR Baccellia, #20 WR Jones, #21 WR Pounds, and #6 WR McClatcher. I liked this group a lot; none of them have stats that pop out but from watching film I believe that’s more an artifact of Browning’s arm than deficiencies on the receivers’ part - if anything, having to deal with Browning’s somewhat wobbly passes gave them several opportunities to show off impressive ball-catching skills.

The tight ends lose #88 TE Sample but return #87 TE Otton, who played just as well despite being a freshman. Gabey tells us the new second blocker/dumpoff man in this mold is #86 TE Kizer, who I’ve only seen a bit of in the Spring game. They also get back #1 TE H. Bryant, who missed much of the first half of 2018 with an injury and so I didn’t see him much in film study. He’s deployed differently than traditional TEs on the line and reminds me somewhat of De’Anthony Thomas’ hybrid “taser” position (T-Z-R, get it?), and that provides some interesting variety to the passing attack, though from what I saw in the Spring game he has some work to do on his blocking technique.

Rushing Game

This offensive line looks to be one of the best in the Pac-12 , though that’s not saying much since I don’t think highly of many o-lines in this league. They’re returning four of the five starters who played most of the 2018 season, just missing the great #58 RT McGary. They’re also getting back from injury #72 LT Adams, who should reclaim his spot on the left and hopefully be free of any effects from the injuries that have sadly limited his career. #70 LT Hilbers should slide over to the right side, with returners #76 LG Wattenberg, #56 C Harris, and #51 RG Kirkland staying put.

I would, however, be worried about depth here because they’re losing the sixth man #75 C Sosebee in addition to McGary, and there’s very little experience or seniority on this line behind the five starters. They return journeyman #59 OL Roberts, but I haven’t been wild about his play. Beyond him, nobody’s played before and it’s all underclassmen. Gabey singled out sophomore #66 OL Bainivalu and redshirt freshman #79 OG Curne as potentially jumping Roberts as backups, including the possibility that one of them comes in at left guard and Wattenberg plays tackle as he’s done in the past. I’d be concerned about that scenario, as Gabey and I agreed that Wattenberg is probably the weak link among the starters.

Washington v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The running back room looks pretty good to me; there’s some high quality backs here in #26 RB Ahmed, #25 RB McGrew, and #24 RB Pleasant who all got substantial playing time last year. I would expect them to share the load between them more, certainly more than last year which saw #9 RB Gaskin tally 260 carries, the most of anyone in the league except (the probably over-employed) Eno Benjamin at Arizona St. I doubt this unit will be a liability and there’s plenty of depth.

However, even with all the accolades Gaskin earned and deserved, I think it’s still underappreciated how much he did for this offense, particularly his ability to fight for extra yardage when the o-line wasn’t opening the biggest holes. There were some flashes of that from Ahmed, but he’s a different kind of runner, more explosive and perhaps not the workhorse Gaskin was. As Gabey put it later, “Gaskin would make something out of nothing. Ahmed won’t make something out of nothing, but he’ll make everything out of something.”

Defense - #4 in S&P+

I don’t expect much in the way of schematic changes for DCs Lake and Kwiatkowski, who’ve built a remarkable and fairly unique defensive system that looks to survive a staggering amount of personnel loss. I think it’s best described as a 2-4-5, where the primary variation isn’t the nickel (although we might see some dime in 2019) but rather swapping a 0-tech for a 2i and some interesting rotation of the outside backers in passing situations. Probably the most unusual aspect in 2018 was how little line penetration this squad relied upon (the third fewest tackles-for-loss in the league, ahead of only UCLA and Oregon St, despite playing two extra games), instead preferring to keep the offense in front of them and force long drives.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Washington at Oregon

This unit is returning their nickel and the third-leading tackler in #5 DB M. Bryant, but losing the other four of their five starters, #1 CB Murphy, #23 CB Miller, #7 S Rapp, and #14 S McIntosh. On any other team, especially one that was both a defense-led one and a DB-led defense, I would say that’s devastating. But I believe Gabey is probably right that we probably won’t see much dropoff at all from the new group, and maybe even some improvement in pass coverage.

DB coach Harris will have, by my count, nine 4-stars at the position to work with. Three of them, #3 DB Molden, #11 S McKinney, and #27 CB Taylor, got substantial playing time in 2018, and #18 DB Gilchrist had a number of exciting plays in the Spring game. And the rest of the unit who could break in comprises of five more 4-stars and several more highly recruited 3-stars (including at least one who was a former Oregon commit). So between the depth, experience, and raw talent, I think this will continue to be a pretty outstanding coverage squad, and as Gabey mentioned, the staff in Seattle really focus on proper hitting and tackling techniques so I expect them to be useful in run support as well.

The one thing that I think may be missing, however, is Rapp’s preternatural ability to snuff out explosive rushing plays before they could get started. They only gave up, I believe, three rushing plays of more than 25 yards by a back all season (the longest was by North Dakota, strangely enough), largely because Rapp was so incredible at finding and making that tackle from seemingly nowhere. Gabey agreed that this was an underrated but critical aspect of the Huskies’ defense, and didn’t seem to think we can expect anyone to replace that ability easily.

Defensive Front

I don’t, however, think those arguments apply to the front, where the replacements for virtually everyone who’s departed may have a lot of stars next to their names but the overall depth is less and the experience is almost non-existent.

The fulcrum of the front were the inside linebackers, a group which loses #25 ILB Burr-Kirven, #17 ILB Bartlett, #15 ILB Beavers, and #53 ILB Wambaugh, and with them 88% of that tackling production. I had some complaints about these guys in outside run recognition which Gabey had too, but I thought that in terms of inside rush tackling they were excellent and will be tough to replace.

This appears to be a live battle in Fall camp, but I think that the starting replacements will be #13 ILB Wellington and #30 ILB Manu, although I had a hard time getting eyes on Wellington because he’s had an ACL issue and they were both fairly lightly used in 2018 because Burr-Kirven in particular played nearly every snap. I also think #14 LB Calvert and #43 LB Sirmon will be the backups, but I didn’t see them at all last year as they’re both freshmen, and I wasn’t bowled over with their Spring game performance. Gabey also told us to watch out for a couple more freshmen in camp, #15 ILB Heimuli who’s a 4-star, and #48 LB Ulofoshio who was apparently a special-teams stud despite being a walk-on. There was an interesting discussion of some of the issues in linebacker recruitment on the podcast.

At outside backer there are minimal losses from the roster itself, just the infrequently used #16 OLB A. Williams to transfer, but the excellent #8 DE Potoa’e will finally be getting his position changed to a defensive end (which is more or less where he was playing in 2018; the Huskies have a peculiar system of labeling their perimeter guys).

That leaves #55 OLB R. Bowman, #9 OLB Tryon, and #52 OLB Ngata, in descending order of their 2018 tackling production, though I suspect that Bowman will drop into a rotation with Ngata and with Tryon being the full-time starter. But again, I think depth is a concern because everybody behind them are untested freshmen. Gabey tells us the most likely to burn his redshirt is #56 LB Latu; I’m not sure about that given Coach Petersen’s history. In terms of experience, of the four position groups within the front I think the OLBs are in the second-best shape, but in the structure of this defense it’s also probably the least likely to leverage that into extra production as they function largely in containment.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Washington at Oregon

On the line it’s a similar story: the perimeter looks more solid than the interior, where the only two returning starters remain, Potoa’e and #95 DE Onwuzurike. I’ve got no questions here, I like both of those guys a lot. It’s hard to say what the depth issues will be though; it’s probably enough since these guys show a lot of stamina and play in a 2-4 front, two guys plus possibly redshirt freshman #59 DE D. Bynum spelling them is likely to be adequate, but they also might wind up bearing more of the load than usual due to the rest of the personnel losses.

At defensive tackle though, there’s potentially a lot of trouble. They lose virtually 100% of their scholarship production in #99 DT Gaines, #92 DT Johnson, #97 DT Scrempos, and #98 DT Nasili-Liu. There is a lengthy (and pretty funny) discussion on the podcast of the irreplaceable nature of Gaines’ play in particular down & distance situations, and I think they’re going to miss him a lot.

Complicating matters is that Scrempos and Nasili-Liu got a lot of snaps in the Spring game but have subsequently left the program, reducing the already minimal amount of film I have on the rest of the tackles. They return #90 DL Bronson and #57 DL Clark, who got some play last year but walked onto the team and neither Gabey nor I think they’ll get much 2019 playing time.

After some recruiting problems at this position in the three classes prior, the Huskies added five 4-star freshmen in the last two cycles: #94 DT Taimani, #91 DT Letuligasenoa, #96 DT Bandes, #99 DT Tuitele, and #50 DT Paama. The first two are the redshirts; they played in the Spring game and I can see the potential certainly, but they looked like freshmen to me and when going against the veteran o-linemen didn’t present the problems that Gaines and Johnson did last year.

Gabey sounds high on Bandes, particularly his handwork (a vital and underrated skill for the position, true … she wrote an excellent primer on the unit back in April if the reader is eager for more details), but he’s been injured and not on campus for Spring ball, and I think it’s unlikely Petersen burns his redshirt. Similar story for Paama, who is the most physically imposing of the five but arrived to campus late, didn’t play in Spring, and I believe will redshirt. Tuitele suffered an unfortunate pectoral tear and I’m not sure he’ll play either.

So it will almost certainly be just two freshmen rotating at tackle, Taimani and Letuligasenoa, and I don’t think either of them will yet fill the shoes they’ve been left. As Gabey put it, “They’re in their Spring of their freshman year in college, and Greg Gaines didn’t look like Greg Gaines in the Spring of his freshman year.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Washington at Oregon

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