Spring Ball: Five Takeaways

Spring Football is done at Washington for another year, so it’s time to pick through the bones and see what we learned about the Huskies. We knew going in they lost a lot of experience along the lines and wouldn't have a starting quarterback that may or may not be here this fall. We'll go position-by-position in-depth starting Tuesday, but today is a day to reflect on the balance of Spring Ball.

What were the Huskies able to achieve during their 15 allotted spring practices? Here are five things we learned watching UW go through their workouts.
1) The defense finished ahead of the offense - This was the most glaring outcome of spring for me. A lot of it has to do with Washington not having their starting quarterback, Cyler Miles, around for spring football. It’s never an easy thing trying to break in two new quarterbacks that have never played in spring; in theory that means two-thirds of the turns that were taken on the field were done by a brand-new quarterback. Advantage, defense.

Also, with the defensive backfield really showing up against a beleaguered receiving corps down in numbers, that helped the defense’s cause. And finally, the defensive line imposed themselves on the offense line, which was a bit of a surprising development. Players like Joe Mathis, Elijah Qualls, Taniela Tupou, and Will Dissly took nice steps forward as the offensive line struggled a little with players out and others at new positions.
2) Jeff Lindquist is at the head of the line - This is really not worth debating anymore. Obviously there was a big question going into spring as to who would come out ahead of the three available quarterbacks - Lindquist, K.J. Carta-Samuels, or Jake Browning - but there’s no question after 15 practices who is on top. And you don’t have to go by his 13-16 for 237 yards and two touchdowns performance in the Spring Preview to know that, although that was a great way for the junior from Mercer Island to cap off his spring.

Again, can’t understate how important it was for Carta-Samuels and Browning, who in any other era of college football would still be in high school right now, to get the turns they received in April. They are an invaluable part of their learning process and will only make them better as they progress with Jonathan Smith guiding them. But they aren’t ready to compete at the Pac-12 level, not yet. Not by a long shot. Carta-Samuels is closer than Browning simply because of his year in the program, but they have a ways to go to eliminate the decision-making errors that plagued them in spring.

Chris Petersen said, when asked what’s the most important thing the quarterbacks need to work on over the summer to continue their development, and he said the same two things he’s said since he first got here; accuracy and decision-making. For the most part the accuracy is there - the quarterbacks were a combined 36-48 during the Spring Preview. But it’s the four interceptions thrown that Petersen will use to hammer home the importance of decision-making. And on that score, Lindquist is miles ahead of Carta-Samuels and Browning. Frankly he should be. He’s the lone upperclassmen in the group and he does have a college start under his belt. That’s a full resume compared to the rest of the room.
3) The running game will struggle in the fall - This observation comes with a couple of massive caveats. First, the offensive line only returned three starters for 2015, and two - Dexter Charles and Coleman Shelton - weren’t available for spring. The third was Shane Brostek, and he hadn’t started a game as an offensive linemen since 2012. That meant not only new players across the board, but also at new positions (Dane Crane at guard, Siosifa Tufunga at center, etc…).

The second caveat is that the run game just isn’t a featured group in spring in terms of getting a lot of live, game-speed reps. Petersen acknowledged during spring that the running backs are the ones that take the biggest pounding of any of the players during the season, so his goal this spring was for backs like Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman to get their work on but also understand the spring was for the players they needed to get tape on - Jomon Dotson and walk-ons Ralph Kinne and Gavin McDaniel.

All that said, there’s nothing I saw this spring that gives me encouragement the run game will take a step forward from 2014. They ran for more than 2600 yards last year; Bishop Sankey ran for nearly 2000 by himself in 2013. There’s no question the experience of Charles and Shelton will immediately boost the offensive line, but are they the cure-all? No. I can see the running game improving as the season goes on, but this is an area where the quarterback - especially if it’s the 247-pound Lindquist - will be counted on to supplement the production.

Washington is proving to be one of those backs that, once he gets into the clear won’t get caught. Dotson proved to be the second-fastest player of those available during their recent Combine Day, so he adds more speed. But Lindquist as an X Factor could make hay, as well as add an element defenses have to respect, which in turn could open things up in the run game.

But as a whole, I didn’t see much that tells me the run game is going to explode in 2015. Again, a lot of that probably was by design from the coaches, but when they did get a chance to run I saw too many plays stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
4) A walk-on receiver may very well play an important role this season - As I mentioned earlier, the receiving corps was scraping the bottom of the barrel this spring with John Ross out and their numbers already low. That meant the inclusion of a number of walk-ons to bolster the ranks, including Bellevue’s Max Richmond and Drew Before from Spokane’s Shadle Park.

Those two got all the turns they wanted this spring, and flourished. In fact, they were two of the five players that caught at least four passes in the Spring Preview Saturday. They got noticeably better as spring progressed - especially Richmond.

One thing the Huskies really haven’t had since the days of Patrick Reddick is a third-down specialist; a guy that just can find a seam and be a pest to other teams because physically they shouldn’t be getting open against Pac-12 caliber defenses but have a knack for finding that soft spot, that bit of room to move the chains. I think Richmond could be that guy. He’s only 5-9, but he’s got a bit of that Wes Welker/Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman to his game.

With so many true freshmen receivers coming in this fall, there’s battles waiting to be won for playing time within the receiving corps. I do think a guy like Richmond has a place in that group for a couple reasons. One, while they have guys roughly his size in Jaydon Mickens, Marvin Hall and Dante Pettis, those guys are going to be counted on as pure receivers that go outside and try to be defensive backs on an island. That’s not to say they won’t be trying to find pockets of space too like Richmond, but he seems to have a knack for route-running and getting open in a way that perhaps the others aren’t being asked to do. In other words, he has niche value. He could be used as simply a third-down specialist in the way that a Reddick was.

Secondly, he came in with Petersen and Brent Pease, so he’s all-in. Coming from a Bellevue program that churns out players like Richmond every year, he knows the work it takes to turn into that cliched ‘overachiever’, the guy that does a lot more than he should with what he’s been blessed with physically. The kid grinds. That, coupled with the experience of already being in Pete’s program for a year-and-a-half should put him in a nice position to earn playing time this fall.
5) The defensive backfield has weathered the storm - Talk about a group that was thrown into the fire and came through it with a hardened edge like tempered steel - that’s Washington’s defensive back group. And they did it with a ton of guys missing this spring, which was just as impressive. Like the receivers, they had to give a ton of turns to players like walk-on Sean Vergara, who absolutely held his own.

But you talk about Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Naijiel Hale, and especially Darren Gardenhire - that group of true sophomores that had to play a lot last year before they were ever reasonably ready for Pac-12 play - they have stepped up to the challenge put before them this fall and have used that experience to take the next step up in their development, and they’ve done it in a big way.

Budda is the unquestioned leader of that back end as a second-year player, which is impressive enough. But he’s done it by his actions instead of his words. He’s always been a warrior at practice, and that effort and enthusiasm carried over the rest of the guys around him.

Sidney Jones, for a lot of spring, took one half the field away from the offense - which didn’t help the offense’s cause much. And Hale, after missing the first week of camp, came in without missing a beat like he’d been playing all spring. He will be counted on for valuable reps this fall and may even start more games in 2015.

But Gardenhire was the biggest revelation in spring for me. He had nine interceptions during the 15 practices, which in itself is impressive. But more than that, he took a job that was expected to be a battle between him and Hale for that other corner spot opposite Jones, and he made it his own. He got the opportunity when Hale didn’t start out spring, and when Hale came back it was already over. Gardenhire had won the job and it wasn’t a debate. Not only did he take the necessary step up physically in the off-season (he gained nearly 10 pounds), but he also stepped up his game on the field.

With Jones on one side and Gardenhire on the other, frankly it was hard for the receivers to get much joy at all this spring. They had their moments - and that will always happen - but for the most part the defensive backs crushed it as a group that was missing starters like Kevin King, Trevor Walker, Jermaine Kelly, and others - like Brandon Beaver and Brandon Lewis - that were limited to no contact.

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