The Huskies may have lost their second consecutive New Year's Six bowl game, but they enter 2018 with a roster teeming with potential.
A big-picture question was posed to Keishawn Bierria after the Huskies’ 35-28 loss to Penn State in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl. “After everything you’ve been through … ,” the question began.
Bierria, Washington’s standout linebacker, is one of the leaders of a departing senior class that helped build the Huskies into a Pac-12 title contender the past two seasons.
“I remember when I came in my freshman year, we were nowhere near this level,” Bierria said. “And every year this team has risen.”
Chris Petersen sat immediately to Bierria’s left at a podium inside University of Phoenix Stadium. Petersen appeared emotional as Bierria spoke.
“There’s just been a lot of guys that have moved the needle forward in this program,” the coach said a few moments later.
“And I think that these guys understand what it’s going to take to — it’s very hard to stay and win 10 games and try to get to the playoffs and all that. We know that,” he added. “But I think they’ve had a taste of it enough to understand that and we do have some good players. And I’m so proud of guys like Keishawn like how they pushed this place forward. I think we’re in a good spot.”
Good enough to reasonably believe the Huskies could challenge for a return to a New Year’s Six bowl game next year. The loss to Penn State stung. It’s the second straight loss on such a lofty stage, following the playoff defeat to Alabama.
But the Huskies enter 2018 with a roster still teeming with potential, and the expectations for the program certainly won’t subside in the new year.
The Huskies could potentially return nine starters on defense, with Bierria and Vita Vea (off early for the NFL draft) the only Fiesta Bowl starters set to depart.
Jake Browning returns as the leader of the offense, entering his fourth season as the starting quarterback. (Any thought of him being seriously challenged by a freshman QB is naive.)
And even if star running back Myles Gaskin declares for the NFL draft — as many expect him to do — the Huskies have a star-in-waiting in Salvon Ahmed. And in slot receiver Chico McClatcher, tight end Hunter Bryant, and in the development of receivers Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia, the Huskies have experience in the passing game. The return of left tackle Trey Adams from a knee injury should boost the offensive line.
The Huskies have a potential top-10 showdown against Auburn to open the 2018 season at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Anytime you go into the offseason you’ve got to find something to build off,” Browning said Saturday night. “Last year it was Alabama and the year before that it was winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl. You always have find something to build off of. … That all kind of starts with me. I’ve got to make sure that we get rolling a little bit quicker and stuff like that and don’t get behind like that and get caught on our heels.
“But I think as far as something to build off of, we just have to find something. And each person there’s going to be some people that leave, we lose Dante (Pettis) and stuff like that. But people have to step up. And we have another offseason now and going into an offseason healthy and all that. So we’ve just got to build off of it.”