(In No Particular Order)
Death Row is for Real
It’s kind of crazy to say it, considering how well Washington’s defense was in 2015, but they should be even better this fall. They were 31st in total defense and 13th in scoring defense, but if they can find answers for Tani Tupou along the defensive line, Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton at the outside linebacker positions, and Brian Clay at safety, all the other spots will be manned by returning starters. There aren’t a ton of holes to fill, and based on the emergence of Jaylen Johnson along the defensive line, Joe Mathis at BUCK, Psalm Wooching at SAM, and Jojo McIntosh at safety, this year’s defense should lead the charge toward a 10-game winning season.
Jake Browning and John Ross III should bring back game-changing ability to Washington’s offense
Browning, the true sophomore quarterback, has worked hard on his deep passing - and he has a willing receiver in John Ross to catch those deep balls. In 2014, Ross tied a school record for the most catches of 50 yards or more with four: if he matches that number this fall he’ll have the all-time Husky mark for big plays by a receiver. The major knock with Browning’s progression through the 2015 season was his inability to consistently find receivers over the top. That should change with Ross’s return, as well as the use of other speedsters like Chico McClatcher.
The offensive line is still a work in progress.
Kim Grinolds has often referred to this year’s Washington team as a ‘young veteran’ team. That description fits the UW offensive line perfectly. They return eight offensive linemen with starts for the 2016 season, but those eight starters have a total of 64 starts: that’s an average of only eight starts per lineman. That’s not a lot. Shane Brostek and Jake Eldrenkamp are the two senior starters, and they only have 16 starts between them. But the experience gained by players like Trey Adams, Kaleb McGary, Andrew Kirkland, Jesse Sosebee and Matt James last year should give them confidence to press on in their development. The biggest question mark will be how quickly Coleman Shelton takes over for Sifa Tufunga. If spring is any indicator, Shelton has already picked up his fifth position along the offensive line easily and will continue to lead the line. But there’s no doubt this group has to continue to grow quickly together if Washington is to take advantage of their skill on offense.
The defensive line should be better than last year
To go along with the Death Row theme, it’s pretty stunning how well Washington’s defensive line came together last year in the absence of four starting seniors. They put together a season where they were top-20 in rushing defense and senior Tani Tupou became a second-team All-Pac-12 performer. It was a remarkable achievement, but 2016 could be much more. After spring, it’s clear Jaylen Johnson has what it takes to fill Tupou’s considerable shoes. Now all he needs is some confidence in game situations, and he’ll get that during Washington’s non-conference schedule. Spring suggested Shane Bowman and Damion Turpin should be more than ready to sub in for Johnson to provide ample depth at that defensive tackle position. Add to them the rock solid trio of Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea, and that’s six big men that stayed healthy during spring and produced a lot of ‘touch’ sacks along the way. If Mathis and Wooching terrorize the edges to the same extent Feeney and Littleton did last year, Washington’s front seven should be even better than last year’s. And that really is saying something.
The pass catchers are poised to surprise some people
Going into the spring, the loss of Jaydon Mickens’ graduation seemed to be offset by the return of John Ross. But then Isaiah Renfro went to attend to personal matters, Quinten Pounds was held out of spring, and Brayden Lenius got hurt during the first practice of spring and never fully came back. Things frankly looked pretty bad. But then Chico McClatcher showed up. Andre Baccellia emerged. Nik Little started to show signs right about the same time Tony Rodriguez did the same at quarterback. And Ross never wavered in his return to action while Dante Pettis continued to consistently contribute. Add in the play of walk-ons like Connor Griffin and Drew Before and now the Huskies looked to make some noise in the passing game. And we’re not even talking about the tight ends and what the additions of Jeff Lindquist and Will Dissly could mean to that group. The Spring Event wasn’t a true spring ‘game’, but it did give some hints that the pass catchers just might be ready to raise their game as Jake Browning is expected to this fall. Outside of one catch by Myles Gaskin for nine yards, the receiving corps (including the tight ends) accounted for 27 catches for 276 yards, led by Baccellia and Before. If the running backs can provide the steady yards, the receivers and tight ends showed this spring they can add that ‘chunk’ dimension the Huskies need to make their offense a complete one.