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Ten Observations From Day One

So much to take in Monday during Washington’s first day of Spring Football, so many things to watch for. These were the 10 things that stood out to me while watching the team go through their two-hour practice on the east field next to Husky Stadium. 

1) Monday felt like a mid-week practice.

With two new offensive coaches and a team still trying to gather itself after a New Year’s Eve Peach Bowl loss to Alabama, nothing looked out of the ordinary Monday. If you would have put this practice in the middle of spring football a week or two from now, it would not have been out of place. The drills were run with pace, the teaching per the script. And when they ran team periods, there were plenty of turns for all and the offense even ran tempo. In short, it didn’t look like a program catching its breath. It looked like a program that had hit the ground running. It looked like a program in its fourth year under the leadership of a head coach that has a plan in place and they are implementing that plan. 


2) Energy and chatter were as usual. 

One of the things you look for is how ready are the players to get spring football underway? To paraphrase Chris Petersen, spring is something you get through; you can’t win spring. But watching for the small things like effort, energy, communication can offer keys as to how much buy-in there is. Based on Monday’s practice, the buy-in is very much there. Some of that is simply due to the fact that the guys get to put the helmets back on, and that jacks them up. But the receivers and defensive backs were up to their old tricks, chatting each other up a lot. And when plays were made on both sides of the ball, everyone knew about it. 


3) Jake threw. 

Even when he’s not doing anything, Jake Browning is still the focal point. That’s what comes when you’re the No. 1 quarterback on a team preparing for another playoff appearance. But recently off shoulder surgery, it wasn’t expected that the junior would throw at all right off the bat. But he did. It wasn’t anything severe. He didn’t just start chucking fly routes. But to see him throw at all is encouraging, and Petersen noted post-practice his involvement in the physical aspect of spring football will ramp up as things go. Don’t know if that means fans will get to see Browning participate in any full team drills April 22nd, but he’s getting some work in. And that is encouraging. 


4) Sean McGrew is a full-on running back.

I have to admit, I didn’t see this one coming. I thought McGrew would follow the McClatcher freshman blueprint, where Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith would focus on getting the diminutive back the ball in a number of ways by the line of scrimmage in space, and let his quicks and space do the rest. But with only three scholarship running backs available Monday, McGrew went through practice like the number-two back behind Myles Gaskin. His day was hit-and-miss, as you would expect in a second-year player, but Running Backs Coach Keith Bhonapha put McGrew through his paces like he would any other back. Maybe his role evolves over time, but at this point the Huskies look to use McGrew much in the same way they used Gaskin and Lavon Coleman last year - at least on initial inspection. 


5) David Ajamu is running free.


For all the players that were held out from Monday’s workout like Connor O’Brien, DJ Beavers, Greg Gaines, Mike Neal and others - it was fantastic to see Ajamu romping down the seams in the middle of the field, catching the ball and going full-speed. Granted, the senior-to-be played in 13 games last season, and that gave him the confidence he needed to push forward, but with Darrell Daniels and Jeff Lindquist gone and the Huskies looking for a second receiving option behind Drew Sample, Ajamu’s work this spring could be crucial. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 245 pounds, Ajamu has always had the athleticism to be an impact receiver, but it’s taken him a long time to recover from the knee injury at USC that set him back. If Monday is any indication, Ajamu is all the way back. 


6) Ty Jones and Brayden Lenius stand out like sore thumbs.

When it comes to the scholarship receivers - and I didn’t see Nik Little do anything at all - Jones and Lenius are welcome additions to the 2017 roster. Getting Lenius back could be a major key toward Washington trying to replicate the 2016 monster numbers set by John Ross and Dante Pettis. Pettis is clearly leading the group with Chico McClatcher, but Lenius - who was suspended the first three games of last season which worked its way into an indefinite suspension - offers that big threat. And at 6-foot-5 and 234 pounds, he looks like a quick hybrid tight end out there. And the true freshman Jones, the only player that was a high school senior last year who is now at UW, had a mixed debut with some balls on the ground, but his physical presence cannot be ignored. The official roster has him listed at 6-foot-4 and 206 pounds, but he plays bigger than that. 


7) Matt Lubick and Scott Huff looked like they had been coaching at UW for years.

Bush Hamdan and Chris Strausser are gone; in are Lubick and Huff. The incoming coaches have 35 years combined experience coaching the college game, and they didn’t look out of place at all Monday. They were running the drills and coaching up their guys like they had been there for years - especially Huff, who coached alongside Strausser for years at Boise State. As with every year, the terminology is going to vary just a little bit to keep the opposition honest, but as the offensive linemen said post-practice the schemes are exactly the same. There might be a little more of a learning curve for Lubick, who was the national receiver Coach of the Year in 2012 with Duke, as well as a finalist the same year for the AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year - but he’s extremely experienced and this move won’t faze him in the least. And this is the third receivers coach in three years for many of the players, so the only constant for them has been change. They are used to it by now. 


8) It’s good to see Vita Vea back.

With no Greg Gaines, whose left arm was in a sling, Vea was the lone giant inside the Washington defensive line Monday. Flaked alongside players like Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman, the 6-foot-5, 344-pound junior-to-be was the Brayden Lenius of the DL: he stood out like a sore thumb, but in the best way possible. Vea is simply ginormous, and it’s not sloppy. He’s just an extremely big man, and it shows. And for those UW fans hoping beyond hope, thinking there’s a sliver of a chance he stays for his senior year - don’t ask. If he plays the whole season and does what he did in 2016, he will be a top-12 draft pick in 2018 as Danny Shelton was in 2015. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if he’s a top-5 pick. When Petersen talks about not winning spring, he’s really saying just survive spring unscathed. There’s three players that applies to above and beyond the rest: Browning, Trey Adams, and Vita Vea. 


9) Azeem Victor worked a lot more than I expected.

Losing Victor in the middle of Washington’s defense during their loss to USC was a double-blow. It not just affected the team in their first loss of the season, but it took away their number-one defensive War Daddy, the player that set the tone of the rest of ‘Death Row’. The fracture in his right leg was repaired right away, but he didn’t do anything during UW’s recent Combine Day, suggesting he would go through Spring Football the same way Jake Browning would - carefully, or very little work at all. But there he was Monday, in the middle of everything exactly as you would hope he would be. And he was there for the whole practice, no apparent limitations. That’s big. For Azeem to get a full spring in would not just help him physically in preparation for fall, but also boost his confidence and get him back to full-time War Daddy status. 


10) Jordan Miller has picked up the ball right where Sidney Jones left it. 

Watching Miller go up against Pettis Monday was shades of Ross versus Jones. It was fun to watch. Each were giving each other plenty of stick, and the competition was right back to where it’s always been. Not bad for a day one of spring football, but expected for a position group that, frankly, has it rolling under Jimmy Lake. I’ve always been very high on Miller, and thought last year was going to be his breakout year. If Jones hadn’t hurt himself at the recent UW Pro Day, there’s a very good chance both he and Kevin King would have gone in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft, and it still might happen. Those two are the reason Miller never really saw a ton of meaningful game action, but now it’s his time to show he’s ready to step up and accept the leadership mantle. He’s the next in line, a line that started with Desmond Trufant, went to Marcus Peters and now will continue with Jones and King. Miller showed Monday he’s ready to take the role on in a big way.


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