First Take: Spring Ball Day One

Now that spring football is officially underway at Washington, I wanted to throw out 10 impressions of what I saw out on the east field Monday. These are observations, and assume they’ve been written in pencil. There are still 14 more practices to go until it all ends April 23rd. 

1. It looked like the off-season was a productive one. Sure, you can look at the weight gains and who passed the look test and so forth, but there’s no doubt that bodies have been remolded in the way the football staff wants. When you see two players like Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria side-by-side and see that there’s only a pound of difference between them now, yet their bodies look different than they did last year - that’s proof that work was put in. 

2. No lack of energy from the start. I have no idea if the players read the press clippings or not, but everyone outside the program understands expectations are on the rise at Montlake. There’s a sense that this team is on the verge of something, and it could be big. The tone set yesterday, even during warmups, was palpable. It wasn’t over the top, but it was noticeable. Guys were eager to get after it, and the coaches - even without the unmistakable Jeff Choate bellows - were into it. 

3. The defensive backs will lead the defense in 2016. It was clear watching them that they understand the difference they can make as a unit. It wasn’t just telling that Budda Baker picked Jake Browning off with the first one-on-one of spring; in some ways it looked like they fully expected that to happen. Between Budda, Sidney Jones, Kevin King, Darren Gardenhire, Jojo McIntosh, and the rest of the defensive backs, that unit has the ability to shut passing games down in a way that should help mitigate the graduations of Tani Tupou, Travis Feeney, Cory Littleton, and Brian Clay. 

4. Ikaika Malloe and Bush Hamdan hit the ground running. Malloe may be the new coach on campus, but it’s clear the former Husky didn’t need a breaking-in period. If you didn’t know the coaching situation at Washington, it would have been very hard to identify the first-year coaches. And I include Hamdan in that, despite the fact that technically he did coach the receivers in the bowl game last year. Watching Malloe, he definitely has some different ideas than his predecessor Choate; he was working sleds without pads and had some unique drills that I’m interested to see more of going forward, like offensive line mirror drills and the like. Same goes for Hamdan, since this was the first time we have had the chance to see his practice methods. 

5. It was great to see John Ross and Trevor Walker back at it. Obviously there are going to be a few players that won’t participate in spring ball, and that list will probably fluctuate depending on who gets healthy and who gets dinged up. But for the first day, it was really good to see Ross - felled by a knee injury a year ago - full-go and showing off his trademark speed. I have no idea if he’s going to be as fast as he was before the knee, but he didn’t look like he had lost a step Monday. And Walker was paired with Ezekiel Turner for most of the day with the two safeties behind Baker and McIntosh, and the junior from Texas looked confident, poised, strong, and fast. It’s been so long since we’ve seen him in a game - Arizona State in 2014, to be exact - that many thought his best days in the purple and gold might be behind him. Not so fast, my friends.

6. No drama for the quarterbacks. While it was strange to see Jeff Lindquist working exclusively with the tight ends, it was equally as strange going into a spring campaign knowing full well what the quarterback pecking order would be. It’s Jake Browning, K.J. Carta-Samuels, and then either juco transfer Tony Rodriguez or true freshman Daniel Bridge-Gadd. That’s it. No muss, no fuss. It’s just that simple. With the hierarchy put in place early, it should allow Jonathan Smith to attack spring with a clear game plan and focus on getting each guy ready for their specific duties, compared to having to couch all that within the context of a position battle. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Smith wants Carta-Samuels, Rodriguez and Bridge-Gadd to compete their brains out to win the starting spot, but who am I kidding? It’s Jake Browning’s world, and the rest of us are just watching him get ready for the takeover. 

7. Chris Strausser is going to be a mad scientist in spring. With Coleman Shelton anchoring the offensive line, his fifth position played along the OL as a Husky, the Washington Offensive Line Coach was messing with all sorts of combinations Monday - and it was just the first day. Trey Adams, Andrew Kirkland and Jared Hilbers got time at left tackle. Michael Kneip and Henry Roberts got work at left guard. Shane Brostek and Jesse Sosebee were at right guard, while Kaleb McGary and Devin Burleson were at right tackle. Kirkland and Burleson have now gotten work at both tackle spots and I expect they’ll be the ones needed to step in either position when asked. And Shelton has the expertise to be able to play pretty much anywhere in a pinch. This means Strausser is going to have a lot of flexibility to find his best five, and plenty of options to get there. 

8. What is Jonathan Smith going to do with the tight ends? Jordan Paopao must have thought it was his birthday AND Christmas Monday when he received a couple of nice gifts in Jeff Lindquist and Will Dissly. Now Dissly isn’t a full time tight end, and who knows what Lindquist will be asked to do, but that goes to the heart of the question; what exactly is Smith’s plan to utilize all these bodies? Right now the tight end room consists of Darrell Daniels, David Ajamu, Drew Sample, Mike Neal, Lindquist, Dissly, and walk-on Derek Hunter. That’s seven players for a group where, on a typical down you might play two at most. Is Smith going to go jumbo a lot on third-and-short or goal-line situations? That was my first thought, but maybe there’s even more madness to the moves. With Lindquist you can never throw out (pun intended) any idea that includes the pass, and Dissly was certainly a very, very good tight end during his days in Bozeman, Montana. These position switches certainly leave a lot to the imagination. 

9. Clear candidates to replace Tupou. Just seeing how Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was rotating in his front, it sure looked like there are three players vying for that coveted defensive tackle position owned by Tani Tupou last year; Damion Turpin, Jaylen Johnson, or Shane Bowman. Now we could certainly see more ‘big’ fronts with a combination of  Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines, and Vita Vea, but from looking at the body types available and how Kwiatkowski likes to use them, it seems clear those three have a chance to really make a move this spring. We haven’t seen Benning Potoa’e yet, and there’s no question he has the raw ability to jump right into that battle at a moment’s notice, but Turpin, Johnson and Bowman were the ones Monday to get the reps during the team periods. 

10. An heir apparent to Jaydon Mickens? Granted, this was just the first of 15 spring practices, but it was hard not to be impressed by the work put in by redshirt frosh receiver Andre Baccellia. The 5-foot-10, 166-pound Baccellia sure has the look about him to remind folks of Mickens; Jaydon was only 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds as a senior. And he also has the footwork and ability to turn defensive backs around. More than once I saw him come back to the ball, catch it and in one fluid motion dart quickly to the sideline and up the field before the cornerback could lay a hand on him. We’ve talked a lot for the need for some of the receivers to step up and provide targets and production for Jake Browning, and Baccellia might be at the top of the list when it comes to the new faces that will be relied on to take Washington’s passing game to the next level. 


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