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Duck Dive: Washington Football 2022 Preview

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

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Gabey Lucas of UW Dawg Pound for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Washington’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

New head coach DeBoer, OC Grubb, and the rest of the staff from Fresno St over the last two seasons are taking over an offense that ranked 96th in F+ advanced stats. The Bulldogs were considerably better on offense, ranking 50th last year. Coincidentally they were Oregon’s 2021 opener, and they played UCLA shortly before Oregon did, so I did quite a bit of film study on this staff. I liked DeBoer’s offense and checked out some of his previous film when he was the OC at Indiana in 2019. It’s fairly wide open and modern offense, mostly operating out of 11-personnel, with a 2:1 preference for passing over designed runs – all of those things are pretty different from UW’s offense for most of the last decade and certainly last year’s putrid performance. I thought he picked up a lot of concepts from Jeff Tedford, an offensive mind I have a lot of respect for.

DeBoer walks into a real puzzle in selecting his signal caller. Each of UW’s three potential starting quarterbacks has both a notable plus and a minus, making sorting out this race a challenge. #5 QB Morris has been the starter the last two seasons and is familiar with the considerable number of returning personnel, but his limited arm strength and frequent turnovers kept his NCAA passer rating last year at 123.6, well below the FBS average. Incoming Indiana transfer #9 QB Penix is more accomplished and experienced (5 more career games and 100 more pass attempts), plus he’s worked with DeBoer previously with the Hoosiers, but he’s been in a slump ever since and finished 2021 with an even worse 101.9 rating while battling injuries to both shoulders and having torn his right ACL (his plant leg as a southpaw) twice. 5-star redshirt freshman #7 QB Huard looks like he’s got all the talent in the world and is probably the future starter in years to come, but so far he’s only started one game in which he threw four interceptions and recorded a miserable 89.4 rating.

The best guess from both Gabey and me is that Penix will win the job in Fall camp with Morris as the primary backup, but by the end of the season Huard may be ready to surpass Morris at second-string. I think Morris is getting squeezed here between Penix’s greater experience and Huard’s greater raw talent, and we both suspect that he’ll wind up transferring out at some point. But I also think this race is pretty tight with all the different strengths and weaknesses here, and it wouldn’t take much to shake things up in the next few months.

The running backs used a four man-rotation last year, and Gabey and I have been talking for years about how that’s too many and they really should have just picked a lead back with some rotational relief. At any rate they lose the first- and third-leading rushers in Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, as well as two 2021 recruits who’ve left the program without playing in Caleb Berry and Emeka Megwa.

They return the second and fourth backs, #22 RB C. Davis and #6 RB Newton (though Davis needed 28 more carries to get the same number of yards as Pleasant, who was the only one to earn over 4 YPC). This was a pretty terrible rushing performance last year, ranking 125th in rushing yards per game in raw stats. We spent quite a bit of time on the podcast trying to figure out if Davis or Newton are salvageable backs in a better offense. What I gathered from charting UW’s games last year was:

  • the offensive line was awful, allowing a very high stuff rate
  • the playcalling was predictable, with formations that telegraphed the run
  • the per-play rush efficiency was decent at 57%, but the explosive run rate was atrocious at 8%
  • the “YACO” rate (runs that would have failed except the back muscled through) was high

I put those things together to read that the rushers had the deck stacked against them and still would reliably get 3-5 yards per touch, but that’s all they’d ever get. So I agree with Gabey that if Davis and Newton were put in a better offense with a better line, they’d probably be serviceable.

The Huskies have added two transfers, #32 RB Dumas whom I saw in the Spring game and looked fine, and Wayne Taulapapa who’ll arrive in the Fall. Dumas got 4.8 YPC on 136 carries last year at New Mexico, and Taulapapa got 5.2 on 62 at Virginia. We’ll have to wait and see how they do in the new offense going up against new defenses, but I think DeBoer’s track record here should be a comfort to the Huskies - at Fresno St he developed two very high quality backs in Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims, and gave those guys the ball on over 95% of carries. In a room with probably four serviceable backs (or five if returning backup #26 RB Sunday who had 8 carries last year is counted), it’s hard to imagine that DeBoer will fail to pick out the one or two best and just focus on them.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Oregon at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Huskies lose tight end Cade Otton, who was their ace in the hole for most of 2020 and 2021, although defenses started double covering him and that depressed his numbers somewhat (the NFL saw through that, and the Buccaneers selected him in the fourth round). They also lost three other backup tight ends who basically didn’t play last year, most notably 2020 4-star Mark Redman.

Based on the Spring game, the playing time looks like it’ll be split up among three returners: #83 TE Culp, #37 TE Westover, and #88 TE Moore. Culp is the closest thing to the do-it-all tight end that Otton was, though I think both his hands and his blocking are less reliable (his vertical leap is very limited so he doesn’t get much of a height advantage on the coverage, or as Gabey put it on the podcast, “he’s not a jumpy boy”). Westover is a walk-on and I am honestly baffled whenever I see him on the field — he gets creamed when he tries to block and as a split-out receiver he’s less gifted than the actual inside WRs – but he’s been playing since 2018 and has a lot of experience under his belt. Moore was a high 3-star Juco; I’ve yet to see him put it together and he was behind Westover in the Spring game, but simply for the lack of any other experience I think he’ll be in the rotation.

The only other two tight ends on scholarship are redshirt freshman low 3-star #35 TE Jumper and low 4-star 2022 recruit Ryan Otton (brother of Cade) enrolling in the Fall. From watching DeBoer’s film at three different schools, knowing what I do about how he designs offenses that are actually responsive to his roster’s talent profile, and discussing this at length on the podcast, I think we’ll see mostly 10- and 11-personnel out of UW instead of the frequent 2- and 3-TE sets of previous years. So I think we’ll pretty much only see Culp on the field, with some of Westover split out (as Gabey put it, “lowercase 12” personnel), and development time given to Moore and the younger Otton.

The WR corps loses valuable possession receiver Terrell Bynum, as well as untested backup Sawyer Racanelli, to the transfer portal. Bynum was the second-leading receiver, right in between the two returning starters #11 WR McMillan and #1 WR Odunze who each had about ~440 yards apiece last year. They also return frequently used backup #3 WR T. Davis and sweep man #0 WR G. Jackson. In the Spring game I saw a lot of #2 WR Polk who’d previously transferred from Texas Tech; he flashed at times last season but was limited with a chest injury, though looked fully healthy and ready to be a starter in Spring.

The receivers should be getting a few Fall additions as well - mid 3-star true freshman Denzel Boston and low 4-star redshirt freshman #15 WR Tinae (he missed some Spring practices with an injury but should be ready; Gabey says he caught a few balls towards the end of the Spring game which I didn’t see but it’s possible I zoned out due to boredom). There are two transfers, low 4-star Lonyatta “Junior” Alexander from Arizona St and mid 3-star William Nixon from Nevada, though neither played much last year. Apparently Nixon could play running back as well, but I don’t think that room needs the body as much as the wideouts do.

I thought deep passing to this group of wide receivers was the only functional part of last year’s offense, and they’re returning all but one from it and should be in better health. At only nine scholarship guys (five proven returners, four unproven additions) I think the room is a bit smaller than ideal, and trading the certainty of Bynum for the unknown of the new kids gives me pause. But overall I think this unit should be just fine once again with an average 24/7 composite talent rating of .8974 (a low 4-star). That’s pretty remarkable given all the turnover in recent years.

Oregon v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

There’s a lively debate as to how much of the offensive struggle last year was due to former coordinator John Donovan’s antiquated and predictable playbook vs the obvious problems the offensive line had blocking in it. I can’t resolve that entirely but I can say that I’ve been charting the same poor footwork, hand placement, and assignment errors from this o-line for years prior to Donovan’s arrival, ever since OL coach Huff took over in 2017. I was astonished that he was retained by DeBoer, and more so to learn that there are still some UW fans who think this might work out. Run-blocking problems were the obvious issue last season, but I’ve been documenting the bizarre habit of short-setting by the tackles and other pass-blocking problems for five straight years.

The o-line loses the center Luke Wattenberg from last year’s starting lineup, and last year’s left guard has been converted to the defense, #68 DL Ale. Longtime starter #51 LT Kirkland got an NCAA waiver and will return, as will the starter at right guard for the last two years #66 OL Bainivalu, though both were unavailable for the Spring game so I got to watch some potential backups. Starter #79 RT Curne also returns, though he might be moved to guard.

Notable returning backups are #78 OL Mele whom I’ve seen play both center and right tackle in relief over the past three seasons, #71 LG Kalepo who rotated with Ale last season, and #74 C Luciano who’s apparently the best snapping option despite sailing a whole lot over the QB’s head in the 2021 Spring game. I think those three returning starters and three returning backups will comprise the starting lineup plus sixth man in 2022, something like Kirkland-Kalepo-Luciano-Bainivalu-Curne, or maybe Mele at center or right tackle with Curne possibly bumping over to right guard. All except Kalepo are upperclassmen who started playing college ball in 2018 or earlier.

In the 2019, 2020, and 2021 recruiting cycles, UW landed seven 4-stars plus a high 3-star at offensive line. I’ve named one already, Kalepo, but the other seven of those eight potential o-line studs have never played a snap for the Huskies outside some scant garbage-time downs. I got to watch all of them in the 2022 Spring game (except one, #50 C Murao who was being held out), as they were on the number two and three offenses. These underclassmen are all significantly more talented on paper than the upperclassmen who have been getting starting reps and were playing with the ones in the Spring game. None of the underclassmen looked better to me going up against UW’s defense than the likely starters, but none looked significantly worse either. The upside for the Huskies is that I doubt an injury to any of the starters would affect the o-line’s performance much, since there’s so much available — albeit totally inexperienced — talent to fill in.

The downside is given that the line will be basically the same personnel who performed so poorly last year, with the same position coach overseeing them, I cannot seriously entertain the prospect for improvement even if DeBoer installs a superior playbook to Donovan’s. Since many — possibly all — of the upperclassmen will graduate at the end of this season, Gabey pointed out that those 4-stars will likely form the bulk of the 2023 lineup. In my opinion, the only hope for a better performance in 2022 is if they switch it up now and invest in the future by playing the underclassmen. It remains to be seen if the new staff agrees.

Oregon v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Defense

UW will undergo a scheme change on defense from a two-gapping 2-4-5 with very high safeties to a one-gapping 4-2-5 with a hybrid LB/S. In terms of personnel type the units map fairly cleanly from one system to the other, though the responsibilities at several positions will change somewhat.

The system that new DC Inge runs seems to have been adopted from Dave Wommack’s defense (which I believe he developed at Southern Miss in the 1990s, though the history isn’t well documented), whose son Kane brought it with him when he took over as coordinator at Indiana in 2018. Prior to that, Inge had worked as LB and DL coach at a variety of schools and a three-year stint with the Buffalo Bills, but whenever I can find film for him before 2018 it’s not with this scheme. In Buffalo, Inge was demoted from DC to assistant DL coach in 2012, then went to Indiana where he was co-DC for three years before being demoted to LB coach and then special teams only when Wommack arrived. So it appears he’s a fairly recent convert to this 4-2-5 structure and its “Husky” nickel position (which doesn’t refer to UW’s mascot, that’s just a coincidence), and Inge has only been coaching it the last two seasons at Fresno St. That’s quite a change in lineage from former UW coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s system which he’d developed at Montana St over 20 years ago and the Huskies had been using, under three different DCs, for the past eight.

Last season UW’s defense ranked 34th in F+, not bad for a 4-8 team whose lousy offense was constantly putting them in disadvantageous field position. But the disparity in defending the run vs the pass was enormous – on my tally sheet they were only successful stopping 41% of runs, but almost 58% of passes on a per-play basis. In raw stats, they were 109th in FBS in rushing yards allowed per game but 1st in passing yards. I suspect we’ll see a balancing out of those stats in 2022 with a greater emphasis on run-stopping, using more personnel in the box and no sky-high safeties (they should also have better linebacker coaching but are facing a steep reduction in cornerback talent).

The two starting defensive linemen in the previous 2-4-5 system were both former 4-stars from the 2018 class, #91 DT Letuligasenoa who returns and Sam Taimani who transferred to Oregon. They’ve also lost two other players who were touted recruits but never really played over several years in Seattle, Draco Bynum and Noa Ngalu. Even though Inge’s defense calls for somewhat different responsibilities for Letuligasenoa, I think he’s one of the best interior linemen in the conference and the transition to a tackle in this front should be smooth.

The rest of the unit is fairly light in both experience and, in my opinion, real talent. #55 DT Bandes and #99 DT Tuitele were both mid 4-stars in the 2019 class but I’ve seen very little production out of them in the last three years; Tuitele wasn’t playing in the Spring game and Bandes was with the twos. It appears that a couple of high 3-stars from the 2021 class have surpassed them, #98 DT Peihopa and #90 DT Tunuufi, as both were with the ones in the Spring game and looked better than Bandes to me. Gabey thinks Peihopa will be the other starter; I’d agree based on his size since Tunuufi needs to add at least another 10-15 lbs to really work with this system, though it should be said Peihopa only has two tackles in his college career. Each of those four got some experience last year, though they were well behind the Letuligasenoa and Taimani and have fewer combined reps than either of the starters individually.

There are four more guys in this room who didn’t play last year. Three are low 3-star freshman: #93 DT Finau who redshirted in 2021, and twins Armon and Jayvon Parker who’ll arrive in the Fall; Gabey described all of them as projects who are unlikely to play in 2022. There’s also Ale, the converted offensive guard, who was playing throughout the Spring game but to me he looked like he was still learning the role and about 30 lbs heavier than ideal, with similar footwork issues as plagued his time on the other side of the ball.

The defensive tackles will need four playable guys at any given time; it appears that they’ll have one great starter, four solid if unspectacular complements in the rotation, and four depth guys. That’s more than enough and they should be able to survive a couple of injuries without much problem, though I think the loss of Taimani probably hurts and I’d rate this unit as holding steady at best or maybe a small step back.

The defensive ends look like they have some more effective options, but a lot fewer of them. I think they’ll have four good-looking guys converted from the previous system’s OLB position: returners #45 DE Heims, #3 DE Martin, #45 DE Trice, and #58 DE Tupuola-Fetui. The former Texas A&M transfer Martin and 2020’s sensation Tupuola-Fetui were playing with the ones in the Spring game, with redshirt freshman Heims (who came over from Germany; Gabey told an interesting story about him on the podcast) and Trice (who came on strong at the end of 2021) with the twos.

Ryan Bowman, Leiatu Latu, and Jordan Lolohea, each of whom I think would have been ends in this system, have left the program. There’s only one other scholarship returner, former 5-star #17 DE Smalls, but he was held out of the Spring game and at any rate I don’t think will be useful in this defensive structure after disappointing the last two years and being a complete liability in rush defense. My guess is that he’ll transfer out eventually and I’m surprised he didn’t before the May 1st deadline; Gabey disagreed and bet that Smalls will have more tackles than Heims by the end of the year. I look forward to collecting.

The problem here is that’s the end of the room. Technically there are four returning walk-ons, but three are redshirt freshmen and none have played. They added an unrated Juco, Sekai Afoa-Asoau, and a mid 3-star 2022 recruit, Lance Holtzclaw, but neither were available for Spring practice and I doubt they see the field unless injuries force the situation. Based on film study of Fresno St, this unit needs four playable guys in the rotation and I think they only have four, making a single injury a pretty dire event.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The two inside linebacker spots last year rotated six different guys, in part due to some injuries and in part simply struggling to find good play out of a unit long plagued with poor recruiting and development by the previous staff. Three of those six have transferred out: Jackson Sirmon, Cooper McDonald, and MJ Tafisi, as has Will Latu who sat out his true freshman season with a concussion.

The most intriguing of the returners, former walk-on #48 LB Ulofoshio, missed Spring with an injury and will likely miss some of the early season games. #42 LB Bruener had the second-most tackles of the unit behind Sirmon and seemed to really be coming on at the end of last year, though curiously he was with the twos in the Spring game. The sixth most tackles went to the only 4-star in the unit, #15 LB Heimuli, and he was in with the threes and fours.

There’s a lot of room for a shake-up here, in other words, and I think it’ll come from a relatively inexperienced returner, mid 3-star 2019 recruit #11 LB Tuputala, and a trio of transfers in #2 LB Bright from Pitt, Juco #21 LB King, and Fall enrollee Kristopher Moll from UAB. Bright and King, both low 3-stars, were in with the ones and twos with Tuputala and Bruener, and looked more playable to me than Heimuli and #54 LB Fowler, a mid 3-star who showed up late in the Spring game. Moll was playing a hybrid LB/S in Birmingham for four years though he got injured and missed much of 2021. Gabey says he’ll be in the ILB room in Seattle, though his most recent listed weight is 15-20 lbs underweight for that position.

Between the experience (Bright, Bruener, and Ulofoshio combined for 174 tackles last year), depth, and what has to be much better coaching, I expect this unit to improve compared to previous years. But that’s a low bar to clear and there are a lot of questions hovering over this unit between so many transfers, lingering health problems, potential issues clicking with the new staff and scheme, and a fairly low talent rating on paper.

During my film study of Fresno St’s 2020-21 seasons, the “Husky” position underwent several personnel changes. It seemed that Inge had inherited from the previous staff in Fresno a surplus of ILBs and he tried out different ones in the role, and in box presence vs coverage the H played a lot more like a backer than a safety. The huge structural weakness which almost every Mountain West opponent exploited was that in man coverage the way they align the H on the field lets the QB run away from him, and several offenses changed their starter to a running QB to attack that defensive gap. The results on my tally sheet were shocking – a 55% defensive success rate against RB runs vs a 24% success rate against QB runs.

It looks like Inge is instead drawing from UW’s safety surplus for the H this time, with converted defensive backs #7 H Hampton and #13 H Fabiculanan. In the Spring game these guys were playing much more like the nickel DBs that UW has deployed for a long time. Hampton, a mid 3-star from 2018, was a rotational safety last year (the staff benched him for four games after a taunting penalty against Michigan); Fabiculanan, a low 4-star from 2019, got a few backup reps in 2021. What’s notable about both of them is that they’re a lot faster than the Bulldogs’ converted ILBs, and if anything could address the structural weakness of this defense it’d be speed at the position to close on the QB. If last year’s nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles had returned he’d have been perfect for this position, but he declared early and is now with the Bengals.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

At the traditional safety spots, the entire rotation returns: starters #5 DB Cook and #20 DB Turner, and backups #29 DB Irvin and #6 DB C. Williams. They were used in the same way in the Spring game, with the former pair running with the ones and the latter with the twos. These guys are the last of the low 4-star and high 3-star DBs the previous staff had recruited, and while I think their overall level of play is lower than the safeties during Huskies’ glory days in 2016-18, they’re clear talent standouts compared to the rest of the defensive roster outside one starting DT. It should be interesting to see them on my screen more often now that they won’t be lining up 30 yards deep.

The depth here is just freshmen who haven’t yet played, mid 3-star redshirts #24 DB Esteen and #28 DB Nunley, plus 2022 recruit Tristan Dunn who arrives in the Fall. I didn’t see Esteen and Nunley until pretty late in the Spring game and I doubt Dunn breaks into the rotation early, so unless this unit is unusually hard hit by injuries I suspect only the four returning upperclassmen will take the field.

The talent dropoff in the cornerback room is breathtaking. All of the bluechips have departed: last year’s starters Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon were drafted in the first and second rounds respectively, and backup Jacobe Covington has transferred to USC. I thought this was the best cornerback unit in the Pac-12 by a significant margin and their losses are going to be a real adjustment.

The most experienced returner is 2019 walk-on #23 CB Powell, who had 11 tackles last year. He was playing with the ones in the Spring game alongside unrated FCS transfer #1 CB Perryman. The next most experienced returner was walk-on freshman #16 CB Banks, who had one tackle last year. He was with the twos, alongside redshirt freshmen #19 CB McCutcheon and #14 CB Spears, both mid 3-stars. The final two scholarship corners are redshirt freshman mid 3-star #25 CB E. Jackson and true freshman low 3-star Jaivion Green, but neither were available for Spring. There are two other walk-ons in the room who haven’t played yet and I didn’t see in Spring, unrated Juco #34 CB Hill and unrated redshirt freshman Nagarajan.

The starters here aren’t hard to guess, it’ll be Perryman and Powell since they have some experience and the staff played them first in the Spring game. Beyond those two it’s a toss-up, nobody has any experience or serious talent on paper and they’re all freshmen. I find myself surprised at how much UW fans and the Pac-12 media are whistling past this graveyard; they’re going from the best unit in the league — and a tentpole of the entire team for the better part of a decade — to quite possibly the worst on the entire West coast in any division.


Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview, I opened with three paragraphs about the slide UW has been on since their peak in 2016, with an inexperienced staff committed to a moribund culture and talent that never sees the field. It reads as remarkably prescient in light of last year’s 4-8 season and season-opening loss to an FCS school.

I think I accurately described Morris’ passing problems, though I didn’t explicitly predict all the interceptions he’d throw. I think I nailed the WR room, both the lineup and as being the best unit on the team, which was a counter-intuitive call because they had lost five guys including clearly the most talented to the portal that offseason. In reviewing the TEs I discussed how much their use in the formation gave away the play and it certainly turned out to be painfully predictable; I also talked up Otton quite a bit and I still think that was appropriate despite his numbers, since even a cursory look at the film will show how much defenses focused on taking him away. I thought that the running back Davis ought to be selected as the primary back, which given his numbers in 2021 doesn’t look great but I still stand by it; I also predicted that that wouldn’t happen and they’d go with an ineffectively large rotation and that certainly did. I had a lot of negative things to say about the returning starters at offensive line and their position coach, and all of that seems particularly spot-on now. But I also said I thought it’d be one of the best o-lines in the league (though tempered that by saying this league’s o-lines are terrible so that’s not saying much) and I’m not sure they cleared that bar. Statistically they were a mixed bag, with pretty decent TFL and 3rd down numbers but lousy sack and rushing yardage numbers. I think my hesitation to call them a straight-up bad o-line is justified by hindsight, though they were pretty clearly a big problem in the structure of a run-first offense. I regret not being as forceful in my article as I have been on the podcast on this subject.

I went out on a limb and called Gregory’s promotion to DC from the underperforming linebacker unit as a neutral or maybe a positive, contrary to the widespread laughter that it provoked in the commentariat, and I think their #34 ranking justifies that. I also think that describing the failure to get new or more experienced position coaches in as the real problem was also accurate. I thought that the increasing 3-4 looks we’d seen and on-paper talent at d-line indicated the possibility of a switch away from the constant 2-4 front they’d used in previous years; that turned out not to happen at all and it’s made me re-evaluate several of UW’s d-lineman in hindsight – I probably should have looked harder at those guys’ lack of production. The rest of the defense – OLBs, ILBs, safeties, and corners – were all described perfectly accurately, though this wasn’t much of a challenge since the rotation was very clear from 2020 and the quality of each player was obvious to anyone who took a passing look at their film.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports