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Duck Dive: Washington Football 2020 Preview

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

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

Special thanks to Gabey Lucas of Dawg Pound for dealing with a couple of Duck fans throwing shade while breaking down the Washington roster on the Quack 12 Podcast. Check out the episode HERE!


Washington’s national recruiting ranking jumped into the teens over the last three cycles, consistently getting blue-chip talent rounded out with a lot of high 3-stars. The three cycles prior to that were in the 20s, in which they got some blue-chips, but with quite a bit of low-to-mid 3-stars as well. Those older blue-chips have now mostly left the team but the lower-rated upperclassmen remain, leaving them in an interesting situation: the older established players are notably less talented than the young inexperienced blue-chips on the roster. In 2019, what would be the last year of former coach Chris Petersen’s run, the Huskies almost always chose experience over raw talent, and in my opinion his disappointing swan song was the result.

At several positions in 2020, the staff will face a similar choice. We don’t know if new head coach Lake will be more aggressive in fielding his young talent over his underperforming vets, but I suspect that with as many other things staying the same in terms of staff and system, he’ll probably get similar results if he doesn’t.

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

Offense

There appear to be four choices for the new starting quarterback: redshirt sophomore #11 QB Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman #16 QB Morris, true freshman #10 QB Garbers, and grad student Kevin Thomson. The first three are all four-stars and the last is a transfer from FCS Sacramento St. Sirmon is the only one to have taken snaps in a Husky uniform, though he has only attempted three passes.

Gabey confirmed the common theory that the race is fundamentally between Sirmon and Morris, and that my take from watching both of their high school highlight reels is broadly shared in the UW fanbase: Sirmon is 6’5” and looks like he’s got incredible arm talent, while Morris looks like a smart game-manager QB who barely clears the Browning bar on size or arm strength (he’s really pushing even 10-yard throws). Apparently quite a few people make the same inference that I do: the fact that Sirmon hasn’t locked up the job against this competition plus two other guys who left through the transfer portal, while UW has taken in two transfer QBs during his time in Seattle, indicates that he’s got some serious drawbacks that don’t show up in the highlight reel.

I believe that, like Oregon’s Anthony Brown, Stanford’s Isaiah Sanders, and Wazzu’s Jake Constantine, Thomson is most likely an insurance policy - an experienced known-quantity QB who’d take over if nobody else is ready or only one is but he gets hurt, but not expected to be plan A. I also think that UW, like most programs, would want to avoid starting a true freshman if they can avoid it. So I think we’d learn quite a bit about UW’s QB room if either Thomson or Garbers win the job.

The Huskies lose their starting running back, Salvon Ahmed, but return competent if unspectacular backups #6 RB Newton, #25 RB McGrew, and #24 RB Pleasant. Newton has pretty good size and is occasionally effective in the wildcat, and McGrew is a smaller, shiftier back. Gabey thinks that the senior Pleasant will have the third spot in the rotation taken away by 4-star redshirt freshman #22 RB C. Davis.

NCAA Football: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This unit was fairly efficient on my tally sheet in the eight games that I charted, getting adequate yardage given the down & distance on about 58% of designed runs - that’s pretty good for the Pac-12, if not an elite number. We’ll have to see about Davis, but otherwise I think there’s no game-changing talent here and UW hasn’t had an incredible yards-after-contact player to cover up the offensive line’s run-blocking issues since Miles Gaskin left. UW finished with 147.8 rushing yards per game and 4.17 yards per rush attempt, good for #84 and #78 in the country, respectively. What brought down those stats despite being fairly efficient was not having much of an explosive rushing offense: only 3.85 rushes per game that went over 10 yards, and only 0.92 per game over 20 … that’s ranked #106 and #107 in the FBS.

Wide receiver play was the biggest source of consternation for the Huskies last year … and the biggest embarrassment in my summer preview. UW returned their top five receivers from a fairly productive 2018 team and I thought they’d continue apace. But both their outside guys, #20 WR Jones and #21 WR Pounds, were sidelined for basically the entire season with injuries, and the coaching staff made the peculiar choice to move their shorter inside receivers to the outside. Gabey says the fact that they were seniors in a supposedly complicated offense made them more appealing to the staff than the taller and more talented freshmen on the squad. But those seniors turned out to be unsuited to the job and perhaps pretty mediocre receivers in the first place, and UW’s passing efficiency was awful in 2019: under 40% success rate on my tally sheet, a fall from #21 to #54 in yards per passing attempt nationally, and 474 fewer combined receiving yards on the season for those three senior wideouts from 2018 to 2019.

Jones took a redshirt in 2019 so he’ll return, but the rest of that receiving corps is gone in 2020. What remains is intriguing if inexperienced. #4 WR Bynum caught 31 passes last year as a redshirt sophomore, but on my tally sheet virtually all his targets were short stuff (crossers, little dumpoffs to the flat, the quick inside of a double-slant, etc.) and I really don’t know how he’d fare in the open field trying to beat a good DB one on one.

The other 11 wideouts on the roster — #15 WR Nacua, #8 WR Spiker, #18 WR Osborne, and #82 WR Chin, plus seven more who’ve never seen the field — have a grand total of 15 catches in their careers put together. The first three of those are 4-stars, as are two true freshman in the 2020 class, and the talent they’ve flashed on the field seems real, but it’s anybody’s guess how they’ll actually perform under the lights. We don’t really know the significance of them being mostly kept off the field instead of taking over for shorter and underperforming seniors … was that truly staff incompetence from a head coach who’s 147-38 in his career, or were they just not ready to play?

The other part of the receiving question is how the tight ends figure into it, and that’s gone through some changes over the last few years. In 2018, UW had two very good traditional tight ends — in-line blockers who would also frequently release downfield to catch passes — in Drew Sample and #87 TE Otton, plus a quick Y-receiver who was really a tight end in name only in Hunter Bryant. UW’s offense called for a lot of two-TE sets, which in 2018 they filled to good effect with Sample and Otton, allowing Bryant to simply act as a pretty good slot man, but they lost Sample to the NFL at the end of that year.

In 2019, I believe that UW quickly found that they couldn’t replace Sample with #86 TE Kizer as a traditional tight end because of his athletic limitations; instead they asked Bryant to bulk up and act as a blocker too, so as to keep those 12-personnel sets alongside Otton. I think that backfired: Bryant never became a competent blocker, and the weight gain made his release off the line clumsy. In 2020, Bryant’s early and unsuccessful attempt to get drafted leaves UW in the lurch - they return Otton and Kizer, but with no one that I can see to replace either Sample’s versatility or Bryant’s downfield threat. In my opinion, Otton is one of if not the best TE in the Pac-12, but I’ve seen nothing out the rest of the unit - it’s a couple of walk-ons, a few 3-stars, and a 4-star true freshman #81 TE Redman whom Gabey is excited to see.

There’s an interesting discussion on the podcast as to how new OC Donovan’s offense might have to change to adapt to such a green collection of pass-catchers. But ultimately it’s all speculation - Donovan’s career as a playcaller is too short, too far in the past, and with too different a roster to say anything definitive. We’re just going to have to wait to see which players of this almost totally new group emerge and what the new scheme is going to be.

The offensive line loses three starters from last year, both tackles and the center, but brings back the two starting guards, #76 LG Wattenberg and #51 RG Kirkland. Most teams with this much young talent on the bench would simply leave those two in position and slot in the most game-ready of the six 4-stars they’ve recruited over the past two cycles. I’d probably go with redshirt freshmen #77 OL Buelow and #71 OL Kalepo at tackles and true freshman #50 OL Murao at center.

But I doubt the Huskies will do that, because I don’t think highly of OL coach Huff as a developer and I think UW tends to wet the bed when it comes to trusting unproven talent. So I expect that they’ll actually follow through with the weird plan they’ve been floating in the media of moving Kirkland, a natural guard, to left tackle, and Wattenberg, clearly the weakest link on the line for the last two and a half seasons, to center. Then I think they’ll fill in the rest of the spots with three of the following four:

  • #66 OL Bainivalu, a 4-star backup most notable for getting constantly beat in their embarrassing loss to Colorado
  • #78 OL Mele, a high 3-star who got some backup time at center last year
  • #79 OL Curne, a mid 3-star who, despite obviously being a guard, played RT in the bowl game
  • #68 OL Ale, another mid 3-star who, despite obviously being a tackle, is apparently leading for LG

In my opinion, an underperforming offensive line is the primary reason UW had such a tepid offense in 2019, suffered constant negative plays (#43 in FBS in sacks per snap and #45 in TFLs per snap), and was miserable on 3rd downs (35.7% conversion rate, #102 in the country and last in the league). The returning linemen and backups all have north of a 12.5% error rate on my tally sheet:

So I wouldn’t think Huff’s coached-up 3-stars will eclipse the raw talent they’re bringing in. Gabey said she’s seen the same problems I have, and passed along a theory she’s heard: supposedly Petersen was making Huff employ an unorthodox blocking scheme (I see a lot of short-setting and turning on kick slides from the tackles, which leads to them getting beat around the edge by even halfway competent speed rushers), so with Lake in place they’ll revert to a more natural approach that will unlock his linemen’s potential. Reader, I leave it to your judgment to guess my opinion of that theory.

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

Defense

Overall the Huskies’ defense is loaded with talent, arguably the most in the conference if you consider all ~40 scholarship defenders on each team’s roster. But the distribution of that talent in Seattle is quite uneven: on any given snap in their base 2-4-5 defense, they’ll have at least ten combined 4-star DBs and DLs sitting on the bench, meanwhile their likely starting LBs will be a high 3-star, two mid 3-stars, and a former walk-on:

Washington finished #25 in defensive SP+ last year, pretty good but still a substantial slide from their #4 ranking at the end of 2018. Some falloff was expected considering they had lost nine starters, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it was really only one unit where they failed to reload with equal caliber talent: the inside linebackers. Unfortunately for the Huskies, the structure of their defense — conservative play in the defensive front to keep the play in front of them, very deep safeties to stop explosive plays — means those ILBs get everything funneled to them, magnifying the liability of having maybe the least effective pair of them in the conference.

Those two seniors have now graduated, and it’s hard to see the position getting any worse in 2020. But this position has suffered from remarkably poor recruiting and development for a while now under LB coach Gregory, as the obvious talent hole in the above chart indicates. In my opinion the necessary prowess to succeed at this position and therefore hold together the rest of the defense has been absent ever since the last of former coach Steve Sarkisian’s recruits filtered out of the program midway through Petersen’s tenure.

I expect that a couple of redshirt sophomores who were last year’s backups, former walk-on #48 ILB Ulofoshio and high 3-star #43 ILB Jackson Sirmon (cousin of the QB Jacob, both are relatives of former Oregon player and current Cal DC Peter Sirmon), will win the starting jobs. I could understand UW fans’ frustration that these two weren’t used more last year since I think they’re better than last year’s starters, but I’ve reviewed every snap both have played and in my opinion they’re still not particularly high caliber backers. I see a lot of slow feet and passive play with these guys as well.

I think a few other 3-star sophomores we saw in limited reps last year will be used situationally: #53 ILB Tafisi and #40 ILB Tuputala when they need a big thumper and #10 ILB Ah You when they need some flash (Gabey described the last as combining the best qualities of Justin Timberlake and Arthur Fonzarelli). In the 2019 class UW finally landed a couple 4-star backers, #14 ILB Calvert and #15 ILB Heimuli, and I’ll be interested to see if they get any play. Calvert missed all of last season with a knee injury and Heimuli apparently either wasn’t ready enough to beat out the pretty meager talent ahead of him or the coaching staff just refuses to play young talent over established underperformers.

The returning raw talent at outside linebacker also doesn’t have a lot of flash, but it was certainly more effective than the inside. They bring back one of the best edge rushers in the league in #9 OLB Tryon and the reliable veteran #55 OLB Bowman, as well as backups #56 OLB Latu and #58 OLB Tupuola-Fetui. Latu was one of the only true freshmen I’ve ever seen a Petersen-led team play on the line of scrimmage, and as a 4-star he was the highest rated linebacker to see the field last year, though he wasn’t quite ready for elite o-linemen.

The only loss in the unit was a former 4-star, Ariel Ngata, who transferred out. We didn’t see true freshman high 3-star #45 OLB Trice last year and given the depth I doubt we’ll see him or 2020’s mid 3-star #51 OLB Lolohea next year. So I think the rotation will just be the four returners, with the wild card being whether they’ll play the top recruit from the 2020 class, 5-star #17 OLB Smalls.

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The two starting down linemen in the front last year will return, and they were an interesting juxtaposition: former 4-star #95 DL Onwuzurike (in my opinion, one of the very few truly gifted and effective d-line players in the league) and former walk-on #90 DL Bronson (who’s a solid player but shows a lower ceiling than others in this unit). Bronson was a 2015 2-star recruit to Temple but missed his first two seasons with injury, then transferred to UW as a walk-on but was awarded a scholarship last year, and got a 6th year of eligibility for 2020.

Gabey thinks this is the year he’ll be passed up by one of the six 4-stars from the previous two recruiting cycles (three apiece in 2018 and 2019). Last year a couple of them, redshirt freshmen #91 DL Letuligasenoa and #94 DL Taimani, played extensive backup reps, but I don’t believe I’ve seen any of the other four on the field in the past two years. The two backups are clearly much bigger and well suited to being immovable space-fillers in the middle of the 2-4 that this defensive structure asks for. There’s an opportunity here to advance those two up the depth chart, move Onwuzurike back to an end position where he can really wreak havoc, and bench Bronson and/or Bowman (we discussed this on the podcast; Gabey demurred and took exception to me calling all Washington alumni geniuses who would have thought of this already). That’s yet another question on which we’ll have to wait and see if the new head coach will buck the trend and choose to aggressively play young talent or not.

The secondary, on the other hand, is probably not changing much at all, given an abundance of returning talent and the former DB coach now the head man. The structure of the defensive backfield is somewhat uncommon, a base nickel with frequent dime packages and very deep safety play to prevent explosive passes. They get that assignment done very well - while the middle of the defense due to unsound ILB play gives up 20+ yard passes fairly often (3.15 per game, #57 in FBS), they shut down 30+ yard passes almost completely (0.77 per game, #6).

This unit lost the nickel Myles Bryant to the Patriots, but returns six more 4-stars from the rotation: #19 DB Gordon, #22 CB McDuffie, #3 DB Molden, #27 CB Taylor, #20 DB Turner, and #16 DB C. Williams. All but Molden and Taylor of that list were freshmen last year, and I expect those four to at least incrementally improve next season.

I have just two questions about the secondary. First, whether they have another player like Bryant who can fill the shifting roles the nickel does in that defense, which is somewhat different than Molden’s job and needs a guy who can play all over the field. There’s a ton of talent on the bench here, but the only other guy I saw take the field was #23 DB McKinney, and Gabey tells us he’s been passed up on the depth chart. So I’m not sure who it’ll be, or if they’ll move one of the six returning rotational guys into that spot.

The other question is whether Taylor’s job as corner is in jeopardy. He was pretty clearly the guy opposing QBs were picking on (it certainly wasn’t McDuffie on the other side) and even passing offenses that I didn’t think much of were winning toss-ups against him. Unlike most of the other DBs on the field, Taylor was a junior last year and I think if he were going to show out as an elite cornerback it would have happened by now. There were two other 4-stars on the roster who played corner in high school, #31 DB Fabiculanen and #29 DB Irvin, plus a mid 3-star Gabey mentioned, #21 DB Hampton, none of whom I believe I saw at all last year, but all of them were freshmen so I’m curious if any have taken enough of a step forward to unseat Taylor … assuming the staff is willing to entertain such a thing.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Oregon at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

I spent the last two years calling for three Pac-12 coordinators to be fired based on my film study of their poor playcalling - ASU’s OC Likens and USC’s DC Pendergast have already been covered in this series; UW’s OC Hamdan was the third. To be fair, I’ve also been calling for UCLA and Stanford to clear house … but since they’d never actually do that, please don’t hold those against me, reader.

I think my doubts last summer that Eason would translate into a better passing game were borne out, especially that they’d miss all the intangibles that Browning brought. As noted, I got fooled by the WR’s returning production and didn’t expect the coaches to screw up the playing position and reps that badly. I nailed the TEs and predicted the RB rotation instead of one dominant back, plus that they’d miss Gaskin’s heroic YAC. I believe I hit the right tone about the OL - they returned a lot and figured to be good by Pac-12 standards, but not elite and the source of much of the offense’s mediocrity.

For the defense, I got the general idea that the DBs would continue to lead the team and there’d be no real falloff to that unit right, though only half of the individual DB personnel starters accurately (a lot of high quality options to choose from there). The falloff in explosive rushing defense without Rapp came to be, as they tumbled to #30 in FBS, but it wasn’t as dramatic of a problem as other issues. I totally nailed the linebacker section though: who the starters would be, including the freshmen, and the impending catastrophe in the middle and what that portended for the defense. I correctly called the personnel at DT, and while I think I described the production from the starters accurately, I thought they’d be in trouble when the backups were in given all the inexperience … but Bronson played better than I thought for a former walk-on, and I should have foreseen that, given that all the interior DL has to do in this defense is occupy space, some of the enormous but inexperienced new guys would be just fine as second-stringers.


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