But 2016? They have their quarterback, and Petersen has firmly established his presence. Year three is expected to be the season where fans will be able to answer the question - at what point did Washington make it back to the conversation when talking about college football’s elite?
A big reason why the expectations are enormous is because there has not been one dominant storyline. When you think of the big programs, you think about business as usual. You think about the players that will take over for those that have moved on. You think about reloading, not rebuilding.
And while they still have a ton of work to do to get to the point where Petersen is reloading OKG’s like rolls of film in camera, all of those things that mark the work of a big program are happening right now.
The Huskies are simply getting on with spring football. There’s very little drama on Montlake these days, and Petersen must be loving that fact. It’s all about what’s happening on the east field and in the meeting rooms.
The 2015 season showed Washington can replace top players with players that have been properly developed and put in positions to succeed. They lost four top-45 picks in the 2015 NFL Draft on one side of the ball, the defense - yet that side of the ball ended up the best in the Pac-12 by season’s end. Big programs do that.
All that said, there are some issues worth noting. There are still going to be some battles that offer intrigue and thought along the way to the 2016 season. But you’ll have to excuse us if they seem a bit pedantic compared to the splashy, easy to digest headlines from a year ago when they were trying to replace a quarterback, running back, and a front seven on defense.
1) Who will back up Jake Browning?
At the beginning of spring it seemed like the ‘seating chart’ at quarterback was set: Browning was the clear number-one, followed by K.J. Carta-Samuels, juco redshirt junior Tony Rodriguez, and then true freshman Daniel Bridge-Gadd. But after two weeks, Rodriguez has stepped up and given Carta-Samuels a run for his money. On Monday he seemed to have the better passing day of the two. Carta-Samuels does have the Stanford start under his belt, so in practical terms he would be the one Jonathan Smith would go to in a pinch, but Rodriguez is a far cry from the afterthought he was expected to be back at the end of March. If he continues to pick things up and shows a solid command of the offense, the backup quarterback battle could actually be worth watching.
2) Who is the best option behind Myles Gaskin?
Like quarterback, there is a clear number-one at Washington, and then there’s the rest of the room. Gaskin established himself last year with a 1300-yard effort, so it’s really not even a debate as to who starts versus Rutgers. But behind him, who gets the bulk of the carries? On paper, it seems a no-brainer: Lavon Coleman has played in 24 games and racked up nearly 750 yards along the way. Jomon Dotson, by way of comparison, has played in a quarter of those games for 42 yards. So it’s set, right? We thought so, but now it’s more of a question mark than ever before. Obviously running style plays a part. Coleman is a 220-pound bruising back, while Dotson is a fleet-footed slasher weighing in at 175 pounds. Gaskin has shown himself to be adept at being able to run inside or out, so it’s not as if the backup has to be a direct change of pace player. And Dotson has certainly shown through two weeks that he’s capable of helping the Huskies not just on the ground, but also in the passing game. This is not selling Coleman short. In the nine practices so far, the junior looks to be in great shape and quicker than he was last year. There’s great arguments for both, so it remains to be seen who has that second spot on lockdown. Coleman has the experience and productivity, but Dotson is the new boy with the explosiveness and big-play capability. There are compelling reasons to use both.
3) Can Andre Baccellia break through as a starter?
Much like a sixth man in basketball, that next man up in football can often be a game-changer, but just doesn’t have ‘it’ when looking to be a starting player. Redshirt freshman Andre Baccellia might be facing that dilemma this fall, but he still has plenty of time to change minds. The simple fact is, for as well as the 5-foot-10, 166-pound Baccellia is doing through two weeks of spring ball - and he is doing very well - who is he going to replace? At one receiver position you have the return of John Ross, a ready-made replacement for Jaydon Mickens. On the other side you have Dante Pettis, who has started 13 games in two years. And in the slot you have Chico McClatcher, who is going to be asked to do a lot more than Baccellia and is coming off a season where he played in every game. So in the numbers crunch, Baccellia is getting the squeeze. All three of the players in front of him have to see the field, and as long as they are healthy they’ll play a lot. But developing a talent like Baccellia to come in with minimal drop-off is the hallmark of a big program.
If we’re talking about Baccellia in terms of a 30-catch, 500-yard season a year from now, it will be a great indicator of the steps taken by the offense to match the defense’s impressive form. Developing bodies to step in and produce is what the big boys do: Baccellia has a chance to become one of the poster boys on offense the same way Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines, Vita Vea, Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Budda Baker have done the same defensively.
4) Shane Brostek? Or Boomer Sosebee?
When figuring out the offensive line, things look pretty straightforward. Trey Adams, Jake Eldrenkamp, Colman Shelton, Shane Brostek, and Kaleb McGary all seem set at their various positions. Chris Strausser has the luxury of having Andrew Kirkland in reserve to play either tackle spot and Matt James backing up Shelton at center. That leaves just one other lineman with 2015 starts out of the equation - Jesse Sosebee. Brostek, the son of Husky legend Bern Brostek, came in as the great hope from the Big Island, relatively unknown as a prospect but propped up by his father’s coattails. Five starts in four years hasn’t done much to cement Brostek’s legacy, other than to say he still has time to make a difference on UW’s offensive line. But Sosebee isn’t just standing in line waiting for Brostek’s eligibility to expire. The 314-pound redshirt sophomore started two games in 2015 and looks hungry for more. Of all the offensive line positions, this one looks like it’s the most up for grabs, which is really a way of saying things are pretty set up front.
Could Sosebee get the starting nod against Rutgers? Sure. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise by any stretch of the imagination. Both players are starters, both players have the ability to do the job required. Right now the senior gets the nod, but Brostek doesn’t have it locked down.
5) Who is set to replace Tani Tupou?
Compared to 2014, the Huskies are breathing easy this spring when talking about the defensive line. A year ago they were in the process of replacing three senior starters - Danny Shelton, Evan Hudson, and Andrew Hudson - which meant replacing the whole starting defensive line. Now they are replacing just one starter, Tani Tupou, but that hole is bigger than nearly anyone could have imagined just 12 months ago. Tupou simply played his butt off, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors along the way. Almost as importantly, Tupou ran the front with his leadership and direction, and those intangibles are often hard to come by. Elijah Qualls has certainly picked up the vocal aspect of the leadership mantle; he’s been talking non-stop all spring. But who is set to physically replace Tupou? So far three players have emerged: Jaylen Johnson, Shane Bowman, and Damion Turpin. All are at least 285 pounds, so they are all a like-for-like switch in the size department. Just basing it on who has gotten the most ‘first team’ reps, Johnson has a slight nod over the other two, but Bowman is breathing down his neck. It’s probably unreasonable to expect Tupou’s replacement to match his second-team all league season, but they might be able to replicate his production in the aggregate.
6) The outside linebacker question.
After the 2014 season, Washington had to find answers for the departure of Shaq Thompson and John Timu, one outside linebacker and the middle linebacker. After this past season, UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and Linebackers Coach Bob Gregory had a new problem to solve: finding players big enough to fit into the shoes left by BUCK Travis Feeney and SAM Cory Littleton. One answer appears to be ready-made: Joe Mathis. Mathis, who has played in 34 games so far in his three-year Husky career, moves from the defensive end position. The UW coaches wanted to try Mathis at the BUCK last year, but wanted him, Feeney and Littleton all on the field together. This year there is no such logjam, so Mathis gets the one outside spot all to himself. Backing Mathis up at this stage of spring is true sophomore Tevis Bartlett, who played in all 12 games last season. Bartlett, about 35 pounds lighter than Mathis, is clearly the rangier, sideline-to-sideline type that is comfortable in space but also has the wrestling background to help him closer to the line of scrimmage.
At the SAM, senior Psalm Wooching has emerged as the most likely candidate. He has played in 31 games but hasn’t registered a start. Wooching, throughout his entire career, has been a ‘risk-reward’ prospect: many times he has flashed some amazing skill in making a play, only to counter it with a mistake, a penalty, a decision that cost the defense in some way. If he has found a way to channel his enormous passion for the game in ways that benefit the defense, Wooching is an asset to the front seven. Backing him up is junior Connor O’Brien, cut from nearly the same cloth. No one doubts the talent, but can they both control their impulses and play within themselves? That will be the key to their development.