First Take: Spring Ball, Week One

Now that we’re five practices in, Washington’s spring football campaign has really taken hold. While there haven’t been any full pads practices yet for the media to enjoy, we fully expect that to happen later this week. But there’s still plenty to chew on through the first handful of practices. These are some of the things that stood out the most. 

1. The Defense is up big early.

This couldn’t come as a shock to anyone, for a couple reasons. The first reason is that defense is almost always ahead of the offense in spring football, no matter the relative strengths and weaknesses of each side. Without a chance to really go live, the offense is at a distinct disadvantage, especially along the defensive line. The quarterbacks aren’t live, which means plays are blown dead quicker too and they, at times, are sitting ducks. Granted, the defensive line is also playing a bit slower than the 100 percent they would normally go because their main goal is to keep players off the ground and healthy, but they still are able to get their job done in a way the offensive linemen can’t quite do, given the same set of rules. Secondly, Washington’s defense is just that good right now, which just magnifies the first point even more and makes it that much harder for the offense to get anything productive done during the team periods. 

2. Jake Browning is still The Man.

We were able to finally talk to Browning after a week’s worth of practices and the true sophomore quarterback is not just miles ahead of the rest of Washington’s current crop of running backs, but he’s also showing signs of improvement already from last year. He told us his big focus in the off-season was his work on the deep ball, which meant getting on the same page with receivers like John Ross III, and that has shown up so far. They haven’t completed a ton of bombs, but his touch on the longer throws has shown up. And it was also clear during our conversation that Browning already has his game face on, even this early in spring. His focus and determination was evident, and I don’t expect that part of his game to let down any time soon. It’s a big gap in development between Browning and the rest of the Washington quarterbacks, and right now that gap is widening. It’s incumbent on K.J. Carta-Samuels, Tony Rodriguez and Daniel Bridge-Gadd to step their games up, and in a hurry. They are getting left behind. 

3. Jomon Dotson is making moves.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound sophomore running back showed glimpses in spotty playing time last season, but so far in spring he looks the part of a back that could break out in the fall as a consistent contributor. He looks fast, he looks assertive, and he’s not just a presence running the ball, but also catching passes and taking back kicks. Dotson is showing up at every practice and makes at least one or two big runs that make you take notice. To be fair, Dotson and fellow running back Lavon Coleman are getting the bulk of the first team carries since the UW coaches already know what Myles Gaskin can do, but we’ve seen Coleman before. We know what he’s capable of doing. But Dotson has that intangible the Huskies need to find since Dwayne Washington declared his intent to turn pro - the ability to break free and out-run defenders in the open field. Dotson’s calling card coming to Montlake was his speed, and now he’s got some heft behind his pads too. 

4. Jeff Lindquist and Will Dissly to tight end is not a novelty.

At first glance, you might think moving Lindquist from quarterback and Dissly from the defensive line was akin to reshuffling the pack with unused cards, but there’s more to these moves than meets the eye. True, the Huskies needed to add another body there with the graduation of Joshua Perkins, but that was already in the works with Jacob Kizer’s arrival in the summer. With Kizer rehabbing an injury, could the Huskies delay his enrollment like they did with Myles Rice last year? It’s always a possibility. At the very least, the moves of Lindquist and Dissly beefs up a group that already has some notable talent, but maybe not a ton of size. David Ajamu and Drew Sample were the biggest tight ends last year, but now Dissly comes in at a sturdy 270 pounds. For those that remember Dissly’s highlight tape coming out of Bozeman High School, the majority of his highlights were as a tight end; he knows the position well. This is not just a move to add another lineman-type player to the end of the line. And with Lindquist, the senior adds a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the entire offense due to having to know everything at quarterback. And that has already showed up a bit in terms of being at the right place and right time to make catches. Lindquist is a natural athlete and loves to play behind his pads, so he’ll find his niche at tight end. 

5. The Receivers are suffering from a lack of depth.

With Isaiah Renfro nowhere to be found and Brayden Lenius and Quinten Pounds limited, Washington’s receiving corps have lost half of their 2015 returning receiver production, which was less than a third of the entire 2015 pass receiving production to begin with. To add numbers to that, UW had 3110 passing yards last year; 986 of those yards came from receivers coming back this year. Lenius and Renfro accounted for 485 of that 986 yards, which is over 49 percent of that production. Ouch. We’ve praised the work of Andre Baccellia so far through five practices, and that praise is warranted; he looks like he could become an impact player. But Baccellia hasn’t played in a game yet, and John Ross is still working his way back to full form and fitness. That leaves Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher as the only true returners that are available right now, and they accounted for 492 receiving yards in 2015. Double ouch. With Aaron Fuller and Jordan Chin’s arrival in the summer, there’s no guarantee they’ll be ready to step in right away, so it’s crucial Renfro, Lenius and Pounds get some work in during spring ball. In Chris Petersen’s words, they don’t need to win spring, but they do need to participate and get their work in, because they will be counted on in a big way this fall. 

6. Don’t apply for offensive tackle at UW unless you can hoop.

Of the five tackles being used right now - Trey Adams, Kaleb McGary, Andrew Kirkland, Devin Burleson, and Jared Hilbers - there’s only one that wasn’t a standout basketball player in high school; Kirkland. And frankly, the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Kirkland is just a natural lineman the way Senio Kelemete was a natural lineman out at the end of the line of scrimmage as a shorter player.  But the others? Adams is 6-8, McGary 6-7, Burleson 6-8 and Hilbers 6-7. Those four are almost literally head and shoulders above the rest of the team when in a group, and that size has become a notable part of that young tackle corps. Not only are they tall, but they are rangy and they also have excellent feet, something that is a pre-requisite if you want to play for UW Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser. Having five legitimate tackle prospects - and two of them, Kirkland and Burleson, have played both tackle positions - almost feels like a bit of a luxury considering where the Huskies have been with tackles in recent seasons. Adams and McGary could end up being at least three-year starters, and there’s talent behind them in the pipeline. 

7. Washington’s defensive line is growing, literally.

Last year, especially with a player like Tani Tupou solidifying the Huskies’ defensive tackle position, he could play inside or outside at 280 pounds. This year? It looks like Elijah Qualls is going to give defensive end a go - at 321 pounds. One of the odd fronts UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has implemented so far includes Qualls at defensive tackle and Greg Gaines at the nose. That’s nearly 640 pounds of pure purple and gold poundage in the middle of UW’s front. And we’re not even talking about Vita Vea and the 329 pounds he brings to the proceedings when he replaces either Qualls or Gaines. Add either Jaylen Johnson at 285 pounds, Shane Bowman at 290 pounds or Damion Turpin at 284 pounds at the other defensive tackle position, and all of a sudden the Huskies’ front has gotten much bigger than before. And it’s not like they’ve really sacrificed speed or quickness for size; there’s plenty of havoc being created up front. 

8. Joe Mathis at BUCK? Yes, please.

The senior from Upland, Calif. told us last Friday that it was the plan last year to try him at BUCK before Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton took off, and after five practices you can see why Kwiatkowski was intrigued with the notion even as far back as last fall. At 256 pounds, Mathis is almost 40 pounds heavier than Feeney was last year. Can he get sideline-to-sideline as fast as Feeney? No. Can he get to the quarterback like Feeney? Oh yeah. In one sequence Monday, Mathis ‘touch’ sacked Jake Browning on the backside, and then was able to get to UW’s quarterback again, hitting his arm as the sophomore was loading up to throw. The subsequent tip landed right in the arms of Jaylen Johnson, who took the pick to the house. There’s no doubt Mathis will not be able to be an every down BUCK in the same manner of Feeney; they are simply different players. But can Mathis offer a lot of value as a BUCK that’s mainly responsible for getting in the backfield? Without a doubt. Mathis should not be asked to replace Feeney in a like-for-like scenario. 

9. The OLB’s and ILB’s are taking shape.

Because the BUCK and SAM positions were played almost as mirror outside linebacker spots last year with Feeney and Littleton, Kwiatkowski is looking for players that can replace those two when it comes to scenarios where he wants to run similar schemes. In some ways, it’s almost become more accurate to refer to the BUCK and SAM as just outside linebackers, or OLB’s, while the WIL and MIK positions as the inside linebackers (ILB’s). So far through five practices it’s become clear who is in which group. For the OLB’s, that group is comprised of Joe Mathis, Psalm Wooching, Connor O’Brien, Tevis Bartlett, Jusstis Warren, Bryce Sterk, Myles Rice, and Amandre Williams. The inside linebackers are led by Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. The next pairing has been Sean Constantine and Ben Burr-Kirven, followed by Matt Preston and D.J. Beavers. Kyler Manu, Jake Wambaugh and Gerran Brown are also in the ILB group. 

10. Is the secondary already set?

It sure feels like it, even though we’re only a week into camp. Sidney Jones and Kevin King are on the outside, backed up by Darren Gardenhire, Jordan Miller and Brandon Lewis, with Gardenhire as the extra corner when needed in nickel situations. At safety it’s been Budda Baker and Jojo McIntosh, backed up by Trevor Walker and Ezekiel Turner, with Taylor Rapp and Hayden Schuh as the third safeties.  Not sure where Brandon Beaver and Austin Joyner are going to fit into that depth when they are cleared to participate, but expect they’ll be battling somewhere for some playing time. And what about Byron Murphy, Kentrell Love and Isaiah Gilchrist? Right now it’s hard to see how they work themselves into the log jam, but UW Secondary Coach Jimmy Lake is no dummy. He knows full well he loses King at the very least, and maybe also Jones and Baker too, depending on their NFL aspirations - so he has to get his reinforcements ready as soon as possible. It’s official; Lake is reloading. 

11. The punting job is Tristan Vizcaino's to lose.

This is the one thought I had going into spring that I had completely wrong. My brain had it that the Huskies were going to replace Korey Durkee with true freshman Van Soderberg as a like-for-like switch with minimal fuss. After all, how many times have we seen freshmen specialists come in and make an immediate impact? That happens at schools all across the country every year. And while I don’t want to get this twisted as me burying Soderberg after just a week of spring ball, it’s become clear to me watching him punt that he’s nowhere near as ready as I thought he would be. Of the 20-30 punts I’ve seen so far, I’ve yet to see even one spiral. Most are knuckleballs that don’t travel. Soderberg is going to need a year to get ready. Vizcaino has been the Huskies’ stop-gap for all the kicking spots the last two seasons, and he’s more than capable of being Washington’s full-time punter. While this could end of being one of the few true starting position battles that spill over past spring, I’m not seeing it right now unless Soderberg all of a sudden goes nuts. I’m sure he’s fully capable of doing that, and frankly he’ll need to if he expects to see the field this fall. 

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