Fifteen practices later, what have we really learned?
For one thing, we know that 40-degree mornings with whipping winds and spitting rain fit Chris Petersen’s working definition of “Dawg weather.” And speaking of the sixth-year Husky head coach, we know he won’t be naming a starting quarterback any time soon. We know that Washington once again boasts a wealth of talented defensive backs and offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan has “simplified the offense,” whatever the heck that means.
In other words, we know enough to know that we don’t know nearly enough.
Regardless of the program, the spring provides very little in the way of stone-cold certainties. But here are five predictions and five questions as the Huskies head into the summer.
Jacob Eason will be the starting quarterback against Eastern Washington.
Let’s start under center. Unsurprisingly, junior Jacob Eason and sophomore Jake Haener shared first-team quarterback reps throughout the spring. The expectation entering April was that Eason — the former five-star phenom from Lake Stevens — would eventually win the job, and that’s still the case. Haener was probably the more consistently accurate of the two, but Eason simultaneously made more big plays and committed fewer costly errors.
That was also true in the Spring Preview, when Eason completed 7 of 12 passes for 42 yards and a 17-yard touchdown and Haener went 9-for-16 for 61 yards and an interception.
Don’t expect a hasty conclusion to this competition, but Eason ultimately gives the Huskies a higher ceiling and more options in the vertical passing game. If he can continue to limit mistakes, the junior Georgia transfer will start against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31.
Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton will form one of the best tight end tandems in the country.
It’s not often that a program loses a second-round tight end and somehow improves at the position.
But that may be the case for Washington this fall. The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Bryant — who was slowed by a knee injury in each of the last two seasons — is fully healthy, and it shows. He was UW’s most dynamic, consistent receiving threat throughout the spring. Likewise, Otton — who started 10 games as a redshirt freshman last season — has showcased reliable hands and a willingness to contribute in the running game.
Talent aside, Washington still has an unproven crop of wide receivers and a quarterback in Eason who was very comfortable throwing to his tight ends — specifically, Bryant — during the spring. The Huskies often operate in two tight end sets, and Bryant and Otton should be two of the best tight ends in the Pac-12
Jared Hilbers will be the Huskies’ starting right tackle.
OK, so this is less prediction and more spoiler. The thought prior to April was that the 6-7, 305-pound Hilbers — who started 11 games at left tackle in place of the injured Trey Adams last season — would be the frontrunner in a spirited competition to replace Kaleb McGary on the right side this spring. But that competition was essentially cancelled. Hilbers was the sole starter at right tackle during the practices open to the media.
Still, it’s conceivable that 6-6, 319-pound sophomore Henry Bainivalu — who appeared in all 14 games last season and can play both tackle positions — could challenge in August, especially considering that Hilbers appeared to struggle during last Saturday’s Spring Preview.
But don’t bet on it.
Barring any injuries or surprises, Washington’s starting offensive line on Aug. 31 will consist of left tackle Trey Adams, left guard Luke Wattenberg, center Nick Harris, right guard Jaxson Kirkland and right tackle Jared Hilbers. Specifically, Kirkland — a 6-7, 320-pound sophomore — was named one of six spring practice MVPs.
Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata will fuel an improved pass rush.
Washington’s four primary outside linebackers — Benning Potoa’e, Ryan Bowman, Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata — produced a combined three sacks last season.
Earlier in April, Tryon classified those contributions as “a pitiful amount.”
But how can the Huskies more consistently harass opposing quarterbacks? According to defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, Tryon and Ngata may be the answer.
“Those two names that you mentioned right there, from day 1 to day 15, are two guys that have really improved and have really shown up,” Lake said following the Spring Preview last Saturday. “Our two focuses here in spring were getting more pressure on the quarterback and getting more turnovers, which we didn’t do enough of last year. I think those two guys really provided a spark for us.”
That was certainly the case in last Saturday’s scrimmage, when Tryon and Ngata — both sophomores — finished with two sacks apiece. They each earned spring MVP honors as well. Bowman worked with the starters opposite Tryon during April practices, and he’ll also figure into that position’s inevitable improvement.
After all, a defense that finished 100th nationally with 1.7 sacks per game last season can’t do much worse.
Julius Irvin will be a starting safety this fall.
It’s true, Julius Irvin did not participate in scrimmage drills this spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury.
But just listen to Lake.
“Kevin King played all the positions for us. I see Julius in the same mold,” UW’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach said in early April. “We could have him at corner. We could have him at nickel, or we could have him at either one of our safety spots. He’s that athletic. He’s that smart.”
If he’s that athletic, and he’s that smart — and he’s healthy — then Irvin should start. That would most likely happen at safety, where the redshirt freshman from Anaheim, Calif., lined up during individual drills throughout the spring. Consider also that Lake doesn’t seem set on starting junior Brandon McKinney, who was upstaged by early enrollee freshman Cam Williams late in April. And while Williams certainly impressed, it’s unlikely that Lake and Co. would want to insert a true freshman immediately in the starting lineup.
This is more of a hunch than a lock, but I’ll take Irvin to start alongside either McKinney or senior Myles Bryant in the season opener.
How will the carries be divided among UW’s running backs?
On the surface, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. Juniors Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew were the starters during the spring, and they’ll earn the first carries in the fall.
But that’s where things get interesting.
Junior Kamari Pleasant and redshirt freshman Richard Newton both bulked up this offseason, and both have shown a blend of burst and brute force. In particular, the 6-0, 213-pound Newton — who was sidelined during his redshirt season with a shoulder injury — could provide an intriguing change of pace from the smaller, shiftier Ahmed and McGrew. Four-star freshman Cameron Davis will also join the competition this summer.
Four running backs earned at least 40 carries last season, so we know Petersen and Hamdan aren’t afraid to split reps. But we’ll have to wait to see just how much of a factor Pleasant, Newton and Davis can be.
Who will emerge at the wide receiver position?
For Jacob Eason’s sake, there better be more than one answer. But while Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones and Quinten Pounds all missed the spring with injuries, UW’s remaining wide receivers didn’t exactly steal their starting spots. Sure, sophomore Terrell Bynum flashed some potential and Austin Osborne was the most consistently reliable of a redshirt freshman trio that also includes Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe. Senior Chico McClatcher returned to the team as well, and it appears he brought his trademark athleticism and quickness with him.
But is there a truly dynamic threat among that group? Fuller, Jones and senior Andre Baccellia were all solid but generally unspectacular last season. McClatcher hasn’t produced at the same level since leading the Pac-12 with 18.5 yards per catch in 2016. The wild card is four-star freshman Puka Nacua — a 6-2, 196-pound receiver who set Utah state records for catches (103), receiving yards (2,336) and receiving touchdowns (26) in his senior season.
The Huskies have plenty of eligible wide receivers.
But can they find a star?
Is Kyler Manu really a starting linebacker?
Technically, he was one in the spring. The 6-1, 250-pound inside linebacker — who made just 12 total tackles in his previous four seasons on campus — was a constant next to senior Brandon Wellington with the first-team defense throughout April. But can a player who contributed so little for four seasons suddenly sprout into a standout on the second level?
It seems unlikely. But what other options do the Huskies have? Redshirt freshmen M.J. Tafisi — who tied for the team lead with seven tackles in the Spring Preview — and Jackson Sirmon have worked mostly with the second team. Early enrollee freshman Josh Calvert also practiced at the position and produced the first interception of the spring. Sophomore Ariel Ngata and redshirt freshman Edefuan Ulofoshio cross-trained both inside and outside, and true freshmen Daniel Heimuli and Alphonzo Tuputala will be added to the mix this summer.
None of the above will immediately erase the memory of Ben Burr-Kirven. But that’s not the question. Can they beat out Kyler Manu?
Who will start beside Levi Onwuzurike on the defensive line?
Unfortunately for UW, the answer won’t be 2019 fourth-round pick Greg Gaines. Still, Ikaika Malloe has plenty to work with on Washington’s defensive line. The Huskies cycled through starting combinations during the spring, with converted outside linebacker Benning Potoa’e, John Clark, Josiah Bronson, Sam Taimani, Tuli Letuligasenoa and Mosiah Nasili-Liu all receiving reps. True freshmen Jacob Bandes, Sama Paama, Faatui Tuitele and Noa Ngalu will compete in August as well.
Let’s assume some combination of Potoa’e, Clark, Bronson, Taimani and Letuligasenoa will work in with the established Onwuzurike this fall. Of that group, keep an eye out for Taimani — a 6-2, 322-pound redshirt freshman who surged throughout the spring.
“I thought (Taimani) did a nice job even last year,” Petersen said. “He was right there on the verge (of playing). I think if we didn’t have this new redshirt rule with four games to play last year, he probably would have been a guy who would have not redshirted.
“He did a nice job last year, which is really amazing because he wasn’t playing much defense in high school. He was really an offensive lineman that we converted, and usually it’s the other way around. So he’s kind of picked up where he left off and he’s doing a good job.”
Who will be the Huskies’ starting placekicker?
Peyton Henry is the incumbent, a 5-11 sophomore who converted 16 of 22 field goal tries in his UW debut in 2018. He also kicked off 73 times, recording 24 touchbacks, last season. Henry was impressive — albeit while primarily attempting field goals between 28 and 40 yards — during the spring, and he capped the month by converting all five field goal attempts in last Saturday’s Spring Preview.
Still, fans will understandably dwell on the 37-yard missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have lifted the Huskies over rival Oregon in an overtime loss last October.
Come August, Henry will have to contend with freshman Tim Horn — a Honolulu native that 247Sports ranked as the No. 3 kicker in the 2019 class. The Huskies didn’t offer Horn a scholarship just to stash him on the bench. But can he hop over Henry and make an immediate impression as a freshman?