What a difference nine and a half months makes.
Nine and a half months ago, Washington football was preparing for its fourth separate season opener — after games against Michigan, Stanford and Cal were scheduled, then unceremoniously scrapped. The Huskies were attempting to learn first-year offensive coordinator John Donovan’s pro-style system over Zoom, while integrating a first-time starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Dylan Morris.
When it rained, it poured.
Figuratively, then literally.
“Last year was all a blur, so I kind of can’t remember last year,” Donovan joked on Tuesday, four days before No. 20 Washington hosts Montana inside Husky Stadium at 5 p.m. “I just remember last year going into the first game and we’ve got a new quarterback. It didn’t rain all camp and now all of a sudden it was going to downpour. So who knows what’s going to happen.”
Unsurprisingly, the Huskies ran through the driving rain — totaling 267 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns in a season-opening 27-21 win over Oregon State. In his collegiate debut, Morris attempted a mere 24 passes, completing 14 of them for 141 yards and a rushing score.
Nearly 10 months later, Morris’ capabilities have exponentially expanded. UW coach Jimmy Lake said Monday that “he has taken his game to new heights. I don’t want to put a metric on it. But I know you guys saw it. All the practices that we had open, you guys saw his progression. He makes the throws. In turn, what you guys don’t see is he gets us into good plays. We call a bad play into a front that we don’t want to go into, or a coverage or blitz, and he gets us out of that play and gets us into a really successful play. It turns into a touchdown. It turns into a 20-yard gain. Those are the things you can’t see obviously from the naked eye.
“But what you guys did see was an accurate thrower, a quarterback making really good decisions and getting it to the open player and not forcing it. So, he’s a way better player — and he should be — from 2020 to 2021.”
But Morris’ progression, while important, is far from unique. With a more traditional offseason to master the subtleties of Donovan’s system, UW enjoyed a much more offensively efficient fall camp.
“It’s definitely night and day, for sure,” said first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Jaxson Kirkland. “Last year we were just scrambling to finish up the install and playbook heading into week one. As opposed to this year, we had pretty much a whole year working on the offense. A week into camp, we were already done installing everything.
“Now we’re just grooving it all. So coming into game week we know everything. Even if we take plays out here and there, we’re all masters of the playbook.”
But what exactly will that pro-style playbook include? In a second season in Donovan’s system, will the offensive schematics significantly expand — or is the emphasis on perfecting the plays UW fans saw last fall?
“It’ll be somewhat similar,” Donovan said. “It may or may not look too much different, but I do think we have guys who have been around. I think we have a lot of playmakers, and hopefully those playmakers make plays and everybody gets excited about it and away we go.”
One of said playmakers, junior tight end Cade Otton, alluded to “some new things that we’re able to do because we’ve gotten comfortable with the baseline stuff.”
“I don’t think it’s going to look too much different, but certainly more polished,” Kirkland added. “You might see some wrinkles in there with different personnel and such. It’s just going to look more polished and grooved. It’s going to look like a pro team out there.”
But especially for a “pro team,” there are areas to improve. In an admittedly limited four-game sample size last fall, UW finished fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (30.3 points per game), sixth in rushing offense (176.3 yards per game), sixth in pass efficiency rating (136.3), eighth in yards per carry (4.52), ninth in total offense (402.8 yards per game) and 11th in red-zone touchdown percentage (55.6%).
On Tuesday, Otton called this “the deepest and best team I’ve been a part of at UW.”
Starting Saturday against Montana, the Husky offense needs to prove it.
And they’ll do so in front of fans at Husky Stadium for the first time since 2019.
“Words can’t really describe how excited we all are for Saturday, just knowing we’re going to have a packed house again,” Kirkland said. “It’s going to be certainly a surreal experience and we all can’t wait.”
Of course, it can’t get more surreal than what Washington has already experienced.
“It was interesting. I look back now and I can’t even believe it,” Donovan said of last season’s unusual attempts to install an offense. “At times the guys who were here will talk about the kinds of stuff we did, going through learning the stuff. I guess I had some quizzes for (the quarterbacks) back in the day. They were laughing about who I was going to pick (to answer questions) at certain times.
“It’s just wild how that all worked out. But we found a way. We got it done. Credit to those guys for learning what we had to learn last year, and we did OK. Hopefully we’ll do even better now.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say everything has changed.
On Saturday in Seattle, there’s a chance of rain.