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Duck Dive: Washington Football 2021 Preview

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

Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Special thanks to Gabey Lucas of the Dawg Pound for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Washington roster. Listen HERE.


In 2016, Washington had their best season in a quarter century, with a 12-1 record, a conference championship, and a trip to the playoffs. In the four years that followed, the team they’ve fielded and the program’s philosophy have been remarkably stable - the same core staff, the same basic scheme on both sides of the ball, the same ideas about how games are won and how to go about recruiting.

And yet everything about the program has been in slow but steady decline since that peak, from the win totals to the quality of the roster to the aptitude of the staff. The head coach and both coordinators have been replaced with people commited to the same structures but far less track record in executing them, and the assistants taking their places have little to no experience in coaching. The talent infusion from the last couple of recruiting cycles before the coaching changeover is stuck in limbo, because of the cultural commitment to earning playing time through loyalty rather than ability.

This should be a familiar narrative to Pac-12 fans from a number of schools, not least of which is Oregon. But while we can guess how this story ends, it’s not written yet. Washington remains one of the most talented teams in the conference and the continuity of the program is powerful. The shortened season last year doesn’t give us much in the way of certainty, and there are several suggestions that a stronger team could come out of it if this staff plays it right.


Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Offense

One of new HC Lake’s first moves was firing the offensive coordinator of the previous two years, Bush Hamdan, and replacing him with OC Donovan. While his resume was hardly thrilling, my prediction at the time was that he’d run the same offense which required no further installation, and if he simply didn’t call as many foolish plays on 3rd downs as his predecessor did then he might actually constitute a slight upgrade - and I think that’s happened.

Still, outside of garbage time this team had only a 45% success rate on designed passing plays, given the down & distance. The Huskies haven’t been above water in their passing offense on my tally sheet since 2016, and I think losing their playcaller from the glory days — Jonathan Smith, now Oregon St’s head coach — has been a big part of it. They haven’t had the same elegance or well layered and sequenced drives since he left, and other advanced statisticians have taken note.

Another factor is probably the quarterbacks, since in three of the last four years their starter hasn’t had a lot of arm talent (and in the fourth, the QB had a cannon for the arm but not much else). In 2021, predicting the quarterback race is pretty easy - they return last year’s starter, #9 QB Morris, who will almost certainly get the nod again since his main competition has all departed. The backup will probably be #10 QB O’Brien, a grad transfer from Colorado St who had a decent 2019 but a poor 2020 before he left. 5-star true freshman #7 QB Huard arrived in time for the Spring game but didn’t look ready to play, he’s almost certainly in third place.

The comparisons between Morris and pre-injury Jake Browning, UW’s starter during that 2016 run, are obvious - while he can get the ball down the field he needs an extended pocket and a full windup to do it, without the easy arm strength you see in NFL quarterbacks. On the podcast, Gabey expressed appreciation for the kinesiology of Morris’ throwing motion compared to Browning, but to me he looks like he’s really pushing the ball on what are mostly pretty short passes. He does however possess good field awareness, knows the offense well, and is very slippery - he never took a sack in four games, despite the offensive line giving the defense several shots at him, though I think he left the pocket too early on a lot of his scrambles. Morris’ NCAA passer rating of 136.0 was literally the FBS median in 2020.

For those inclined to see it, there are plenty of signals of a big problem in the wide receiver room. After a 2019 in which most observers agreed that UW played senior wideouts with poor hands out of position over more talented young recruits, those youngsters got their shot in 2020. The result was a widespread exodus - five receivers left via the transfer portal, including the top two receivers and two more 4-stars.

However, I tend to think this unit will be fine, because there’s still a lot of talent and a decent amount of experience in it, especially after they added a couple of transfers of their own. The leading returning receiver is #4 T. Bynum, a 4-star who’s been around since 2017 and played as a possession receiver for the last two years, with about 500 career receiving yards on 40 catches. They also return two other 4-stars from the 2020 class who got some play last year, #11 WR McMillan and #16 WR Odunze, though it’s tough to evaluate their debuts since they only have seven catches between them. Two more mid 3-star freshmen return as well, #17 WR Davis and #19 WR Racanelli, though they didn’t see the field last year because the former opted out and the latter was injured.

The two transfers in are former 4-star #0 WR G. Jackson from Michigan, a smaller inside receiver with a lot of speed and 309 yards on 24 catches, and Ja’Lynn Polk from Texas Tech, a 3-star outside receiver with 264 yards on 28 catches last year as a true freshman. They’ve also added a 4-star from the 2021 class, Jabez Tinae. Jackson made it to campus for Spring practice, but I don’t believe Polk or Tinae have arrived yet. So even though only one receiver has much experience in this offense, they should have eight on scholarship for the Fall, of whom five are former 4-stars. That looks like it’ll be an adequate number of bodies for the rotation given that about half the time they have two or fewer WRs on the field, and very rarely four or more, but it could be a problem if they get multiple injuries.

While it was painful to lose their top target last year and probably the receiver with the most potential, Puka Nacua, the rest of those five losses are pretty manageable. A certain number of busts transferring out is simply normal in 2021 and doesn’t necessarily indicate a huge developmental problem that indicts those who remain. More to the point, I don’t think the wide receivers themselves will be the bottleneck for UW’s offense in 2021 - to me there are multiple other questions that precede this unit, like the structure of the offense, playcalling within it, QB aptitude, and pass protection.

Arguably the most important unit to this offense is the tight ends. In keeping with the playcalling for the last three years, how they line up gives away whether it’s a run or a pass: when under center they always have one or two TEs in (sometimes with a fullback in the I-formation) and they run 81% of the time in that formation. When they switch to the shotgun, however, their run rate falls to only 32% when they have one or two TEs in, and even further to just 9% when they have no TEs close in for shotgun snaps.

In terms of effectiveness, they get what they need when running the ball from under center without a fullback, about a 57% success given the down & distance, but they’re underwater at every other aspect of the offense. That’s an indicator of just how essential the tight ends’ blocking is to their production.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 Utah at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fortunately for the Huskies, they have one of the best all-around tight ends in the conference in #87 TE Otton. Gabey had some untoward jokes about what I think he means to this team, but I’m not the only one who feels that way - defenses had figured out UW is totally dependent on him as well. Utah in the 1st half and Stanford all game took him away and the offense sputtered as a result, particularly on 3rd downs, and he was critical to their comeback victory against the Utes. If Otton is unavailable or faces defenses who can effectively lock him down, the Huskies don’t appear to have much in the way of replacement.

The rest of the unit is a tougher call to make. In the past they’ve used former walk-on #37 TE Westover as their blocking TE and fullback, though in the Spring game I think #83 TE Culp looked like a more preferred option and I’ve seen Westover take hits that I don’t think his frame can handle. As pass-catchers neither bring much to the table. It’ll be interesting to see if the two other tight ends Gabey suggested as potential pass-catching replacements for Otton step up: redshirt freshman 4-star #81 TE Redman or high 3-star Juco #88 TE Moore - neither have caught a pass for UW before.

Given how much this offense operates with multiple tight ends, putting two good pass-catchers in at the same time would probably be better, but it remains to be seen if UW’s cultural preference for seniority stands in the way. I’m also uncertain what to think of any tight ends who weren’t primarily developed by former TE coach Paopao as Otton and a long string of previously successful tight ends were - Lake fired him immediately after taking over for reasons I don’t understand. Lake promoted current TE coach Cato to fill the position, an analyst who’s never coached in FBS before.

UW was much more effective rushing than passing last season, which has generally been the case since Smith left. I tallied a 52% designed rushing success rate in 2020, without much difference in effectiveness between zone or power, or inside vs outside running, though with a notable bump mentioned above in running from under center with multiple tight ends.

The running back unit has a full room, with four returners who got significant carries in 2020. The most went to a pair of seniors, #5 RB McGrew who’s a smaller, shiftier back, and #24 RB Pleasant who doesn’t really excel at anything and I think is the most prominent example among the skill players of this offense’s preference for seniority. They also return the hard-hitting #6 RB Newton and the 2019 4-star #22 RB Davis.

Even though he’s the youngest, Davis is the only back who looks like the complete package to me, and I think it was suboptimal that he got the fewest carries. Gabey and I both think Davis should be the primary back with the others relegated to situational roles, but given UW’s culture I suspect it’ll stay as a committee approach in 2021. At any rate, depth certainly isn’t an issue here with four experienced ballcarriers all averaging over four yards per rush, and three more backs on scholarship.

The offensive line returns all five starters (and in fact all backups as well, no departures from this unit), and they played every meaningful snap last year. Each of the 2020 starters has been in the system since at least 2018, a couple of them are former 4-stars, and couple of have been o-line starters for several years. As such, I think this will be one of the best lines in the Pac-12 for 2021.

But I also think that’s not saying much, because Pac-12 lines in general are pretty poor for a Power-5 conference. And I think the starters they’ve chosen have limited physical ceilings and have maxed out their potential under OL coach Huff, whose development and blocking system leave a lot to be desired in my opinion.

#51 LT Kirkland was a starting guard for several years and when he switched over to tackle I had low expectations because I don’t think he has the base for it, but he’s probably the sole success story here. #79 RT Curne, another mid 3-star, was similarly adequate on the other side, though I think his breakdowns in the Stanford game were one of the key reasons the offense was stymied for most of the day.

The interior guards, however, I think were liabilities and I don’t expect them to get much better - #68 LG Ale was by far the weakest link, #76 C Wattenberg is another move from guard (where I don’t think he had lived up to his 4-star billing) and I wasn’t wild about his strength against big nose tackles or blitz protections, and I think #66 RG Bainivalu has been a step down even from Wattenberg since his debut as a 4-star in 2019.

This topic is the one that Gabey and I spent the most time discussing on this week’s podcast and the one in December, and I think we see it the same way at this point. UW had a couple of great recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020 at the position, and has five 4-stars who look like they have much higher ceilings than the starters and might have been playing instead during 2020 - #55 OT Fautanu, #71 OG Kalepo, #50 C Murao, #77 OG Buelow, and #72 OT Rosengarten. In fact, during the 2021 Spring game, that was exactly the line-up left to right for the number two offense, except Murao was unavailable so 3-star #74 C Luciano was snapping the ball instead (and there were some real disasters there).

But due to UW’s cultural commitments, I think it’s highly unlikely that the starters are challenged at all. Gabey thinks that Ale might have a fight from Kalepo since he was the most problematic last year, but even then it’s a long shot. What exactly the depth situation is for this unit is an intriguing question. On the one hand, none of the backups have any meaningful reps, but on the other hand, I think every one of them has more natural talent than the starters, and they’ve all been in the system for two or three years. I really don’t know how it would play out in case of an unavailability for one or more of the starters - it could be anywhere from a downgrade to an upgrade, curiously enough. It would have been nice for the Huskies to have experimented and found out during the 2020 mulligan season, but for reasons that are clear to observers of that culture, that didn’t happen.


Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Defense

In January, Texas hired away UW’s former defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, who had been in Seattle since 2014 and most consider to be one of the best DCs in modern football. The Huskies’ defensive staff has undergone a shakeup, although oddly enough one that doesn’t really change anything. Lake elevated former LB coach Gregory to DC, moved former DL coach Malloe to the outside linebackers, and filled his spot in turn with the current DL coach Rowan, formerly a young analyst. Lake himself was the former DBs coach, who in 2018 became co-DC and playcaller with Kwiatkowsi for two years, and then when he became head coach in 2020 he gave playcalling duties back. Lake assigned DBs to two young men, DB coach Harris and asst DB coach Brown, who had been working under him in previous years at UW.

Gregory is by far the most experienced coach at his job on the defensive staff, since Malloe has only ever coached d-line (pretty well, in my opinion), Harris and Brown only got started FBS positional coaching in 2016 and 2018 respectively, and Rowan is a new coach only a few years removed from playing with two years as a GA and two as an analyst. Lake, of course, has never been a head coach before.

This will be Gregory’s fifth stint as a DC, which started in 1988 at WashU in St Louis, then Willamette in the early 90s, followed by a year at Boise St then jumping to Cal for eight years under Jeff Tedford. He has repeatedly backed away from being a DC, though; the first time to be a GA at Oregon, and the second time he returned to Oregon as the DB coach for three years. The third time he stepped away was most interesting - citing work/life balance issues he left Cal to become the linebackers coach at Boise St then Washington.

Most UW observers, including Gabey and me, consider Gregory to be the worst recruiter and developer on the staff, and his promotion in that sense was perplexing. I think it’s entirely possible, however, that as a playcaller he’ll do just fine - the system is well established, very effective, and at this point more or less runs itself. I don’t think Gregory needs to be a prodigal playcaller to make it work, and just because he may be incompetent at the interpersonal aspects of coaching doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t do the more cerebral work of calling plays - as far I can tell he’s been pretty decent as a DC at all his stops. Kwiatkowsi’s departure was a chance to re-evaluate the entire defensive staff and get some new blood in, but characteristically UW declined to do so. I think that opportunity cost for the future is the bigger issue here, and the immediate effects will be limited.

The defensive structure at this point is probably best understood as a 2-4-5, though I’ve seen some 2-3-6, 3-3-5, and 3-4 looks in recent years. The interesting wrinkle is that we saw a lot more 3-4 in this year’s Spring game than anyone expected, and Gabey and I discussed what it might mean on the podcast. On most downs since 2014, though, they’ve wanted to have one big lineman playing nose or 1-tech, and another distruptive lineman playing 3- or 4i, with OLBs providing the edge rush and contain.

I think part of the reason that we might see more 3-down looks is that UW has loaded up with a lot of talent at the big bodies, but have no one with the length and disruptive potential that now-NFL lineman Levi Onwuzurike provided for years before opting out in 2020. They’ve also lost Josiah Bronson, a former walk-on with a winding history and who had provided some disruption in the past. The result of this imbalance is that all defensive linemen combined for just three TFLs and no sacks in their four games last year (for comparison, Onwuzurike alone has produced four TFLs and two sacks in a four-game stretch in 2018, and did it again in 2019). In 2021, the d-line is an entire unit of just space-eaters, not much more.

That said, there are some very impressive space-eaters here. All four of the returners who played last year are former 4-stars, each over 300 lbs. The starters will likely be #94 DL Taimani and #91 DL Letuligasenoa from the 2018 class, backed up by #96 DL Bandes and #99 DL Tuitele from 2019. I thought Taimani was well ahead of the rest on last year’s film, though Letuligasenoa was partially injured. Last December, Gabey mentioned that Tuitele might be able to slim down and become that other kind of d-lineman, since in high school he played every position on the line even out to 7-tech, but he’s since added five lbs to go up to 310 and I doubt that’s in the cards.

Those four alone are likely adequate depth, but the rotation might get a little dicey if there are some unavailabilities. There’s one more 4-star in the room, #59 DL D. Bynum, but he hasn’t played since arriving in 2018 and I’m a little surprised he hasn’t transferred yet. The only other returner is #92 DL Ngalu, a high 3-star from 2019 who similarly hasn’t seen the field yet. They took three linemen in the 2021 class, two high 3-stars in #98 DL Peihopa and #90 DL Tunuufi who we saw a bit of in Spring practice, and low 3-star Siaosi Finau who isn’t on campus yet. Gabey said she’d be shocked if Finau plays since he’s a freshman and a Fall arrival at that, but it’s worth noting that he’s the only lengthy linemen they’ll have, and the tallest at 6’4”.

The outside backers have had some pretty devastating losses recently. Joe Tryon had a great 2019 and then opted out for the NFL last year. #58 OLB Tupuola-Fetui had an incredible breakout performance last year with seven TFLs, seven sacks, and three forced fumbles; but in April he tore his Achilles tendon and will likely miss the entire upcoming season. And in the same month promising 4-star #13 OLB L. Latu announced his medical retirement from the game due to a neck injury. Each of those are sad events for college football fans; I was looking forward to seeing them on the field because they’re exciting to watch and this system features OLBs with some spectacular plays.

This unit will probably have a pretty interesting competition in Fall camp after those losses, because as Gabey and I discussed on the podcast, each player brings something different to the table but also has a unique knock on them, and there’s no obvious solution for who should be the starters, primary backups, and situational players

#55 OLB Bowman is a super senior and former walk-on, he knows what he’s doing but there are clear athletic limitations. #17 OLB Smalls is the team’s only 5-star, he played as a true freshman last year and can clearly be a pass rusher but he was a liability in outside run containment because he can’t hold the edge at all at his size. They brought in a transfer from Texas A&M, #9 OLB Martin, who was a former 4-star in the 2018 class but got only 11 tackles in three seasons and 24/7 downgraded him to a .8100 (low 3-star) when he got in the portal. The rest of the room are all 3-stars who have little to no experience, though #41 OLB McDonald and #45 OLB Trice have gotten some attention in Spring.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Oregon State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The inside linebackers, Gregory’s responsibility since 2014 and one I believe he retains in 2021, have been where the falloff in recruiting and development has been most felt. After some really impressive performances in their heyday with backers recruited by former head coach Steve Sarkisian (now Kwiatkowsi’s boss at Texas), there hasn’t been a single ILB on this defense that’s really impressed me in years. The clearest evidence is in rush defense, which has been falling off in my charting system - they stopped opposing offenses from successfully rushing, given the down & distance, on 55.6% of snaps in 2018, then 47.7% in 2019, and an abysmal 37.1% in 2020.

The happiest story for this unit in recent years is former walk-on #48 ILB Ulofoshio earning a starting spot and a scholarship. UW fans are excited for him because he finally represents a competent backer, though I still see some physical limitations that were the reason he was unranked out of high school. The other new starter last year was #43 ILB Sirmon, and I wasn’t thrilled with his performance, he’s heavy-footed and slow to diagnose plays which is a particularly poor combination for the structure of this defense - I just don’t see much daylight between him and widely derided 2019 starters.

I very much doubt either has their jobs in jeopardy, between UW’s culture and the players behind them. One 4-star, #14 ILB Calvert, transferred without playing due to an injury. #15 ILB Heimuli, the other 2019 4-star, hasn’t seen the field much, but Gabey thinks he’s the primary backup … I question why he hasn’t seen the field with so many poor options ahead of him. There are a few other bodies in the room, all mid 3-stars plus a 4-star true freshman who probably won’t see the field right away. Depth should be fine - an injury to Ulofoshio would be the most significant due to his extensive experience, but otherwise they have plenty of bodies who look replacement-level in terms of talent, for better or worse.

Pass defense continues to be the Huskies’ strong suit, with a 53% success rate against designed passing plays in 2020. A big part of that is featuring one of the best corners (maybe best player, period) in the league, #22 CB McDuffie.

The corner opposite him, Keith Taylor, is off to the NFL — which surprised me a little because he was definitely the weaker link between the two of them, but QBs have to throw against somebody — and his most likely replacement is #2 CB Gordon. He frequently rotated in as the dime player on passing downs, but I think he’s build more naturally as a boundary corner and he’s a former 4-star so I think this’ll work out. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges as the backup corners in Fall camp, since we haven’t seen much in live ball from any of the candidates who were playing in the Spring game, notably 4-star #12 DB Covington and 3-stars #24 DB Esteen and #25 DB E. Jackson.

They’ve also lost their excellent nickelback, Elijah Molden, to the pros, and it’s pretty clear that Oklahoma transfer #4 DB Radley-Hiles will replace him. I’m not sure who the backup is though, and Radley-Hiles notably has missed some time due to his hyper-aggressive play.

Former 3-star #5 DB Cook was playing the sky-high safety role that’s unique to this defense, which was a bit of a surprise in 2020 - that apparently prompted 4-star #23 DB McKinney to transfer out. Gabey said that the other safeties, #20 DB Turner and #6 DB C. Williams, both 4-stars from 2019, were “thrown in” to the jobs; I thought they were underperforming in 2020, particularly in taking correct angles and making tackles. I asked Gabey to put down a marker for who she thought would be the starting safeties and she went with 3-star #21 DB Hampton and 4-star #29 DB Irvin, who curiously are older than Turner and Williams as they came in with the 2018 class. This unit is clearly Lake’s baby and has led the squad, on a defense-led team, so this should provide the most lively competition in Fall camp.


Washington Spring Game Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview I described the quarterback race pretty well, with the smart but limited Morris facing off against the strong-armed Sirmon and everybody else as depth or insurance. I didn’t quite see coming the exodus of three QBs from this room, although maybe I should have given all the transfers the previous year as well, but I think I accurately laid out the suspected reasons that caused Sirmon not to lock the job down already and therefore never would. The running back by committee prediction turned out to be correct, specifically the four who’d be rotating including the new freshman. I basically took a pass on the wideouts since everybody was essentially brand new, but to be fair it seems that Morris did too. I called the TE unit just right, with Otton being central to their production but not having another TE to throw to despite a frequently 12-personnel offense. I absolutely nailed the offensive line, including both position switches for the returners plus who the replacements and sixth man would be, as well as correctly predicting that for cultural reasons they’d go with older lower-ceiling guys as new starters instead of the young 4-stars they’d recently recruited.

It would have been impossible to predict this defense any better. I got every one of the defensive line rotation right, including the former walk-on who some thought would be eclipsed by the 4-stars. I got the new ILB starters and backups exactly right. I didn’t know that Tryon would opt-out or Latu would be injured of course, but otherwise nailed everybody who’d play OLB. And I perfectly called every one of the secondary starters, including the sixth for their dime package. That prediction included one starting DB who would lose his job and in fact did, and another speculated to lose his job but didn’t - both correct calls in last year’s preview.


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