While walking off the podium following Wednesday’s post-practice press conference, Jimmy Lake made a joke previously uttered by a thousand chuckling coaches before a thousand spring scrimmages.
Regarding Saturday’s Purple vs. Gold game, he said, “I bet Washington will win.”
Which, of course, is true.
But there will also be individual winners.
Before 15 spring practices culminate with Saturday’s noon scrimmage — which will be played in front of roughly 9,000 fans and broadcast on the Pac-12 Network — here are seven positions (outside of the obvious quarterbacks) where players could help their case with an impressive performance.
This is a numbers game. UW has seven scholarship running backs on its roster, and five of them — sixth-year seniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, junior Richard Newton, sophomore Cameron Davis and redshirt freshman Jay’Veon Sunday — earned first-team reps in parts of the past 14 practices. McGrew, Pleasant, Newton and Davis also contributed in the Huskies’ four games last fall.
Perhaps surprising to some, it was Davis — a 6-foot, 205-pound former four-star recruit, who received just 15 carries last season — who took the most starting reps of any running back this spring.
“Cam Davis is one of those gems that you keep chipping at and eventually it’s going to come out,” UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said.
“There was a time when (you thought), ‘Does he really know the plays? Does he really know protection?’ But I will say this: Over the course of these past two weeks, I have seen that (growth). The one thing I’m excited for, which I think Husky fans are going to be excited for, this is a guy who is a difference-maker with the ball in his hands.”
Will fans be able to see that on Saturday? For the most part, we know what McGrew, Pleasant and Newton can do. It may be time for Davis to step into the spotlight.
Three wide receivers — senior Terrell Bynum and redshirt freshmen Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan — have maintained starting spots throughout the spring.
But there is a very real competition ongoing at wide receiver.
In fact, sophomores Taj Davis and Ja’Lynn Polk and redshirt freshman Sawyer Racanelli have all ascended in the latter half of the spring, piling up touchdowns and tight-window catches. While position coach Junior Adams’ room is teeming with dynamic athleticism, the receivers who consistently catch the ball, run precise routes and block in the running game will ultimately play in September.
Of course, all six will play on Saturday. But against a talented set of UW defensive backs, will any separate themselves before two more wide receivers — Michigan transfer Giles Jackson and four-star freshman Jabez Tinae — join the competition this summer?
Barring injury, UW’s starters at inside linebacker — juniors Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon — appear essentially set.
But that’s where things get interesting.
Apart from the starters, UW returns five scholarship inside linebackers: junior M.J. Tafisi and sophomores Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Alphonzo Tuputala and Miki Ah You. The 6-0, 245-pound Tafisi has received praise from Lake this spring and was pushing for a starting spot in 2019 before a significant stinger suffered against Arizona ended his season. Tuputala appeared to be the next man up last fall, but has missed several weeks of April practices for an unspecified reason. And in Tuputala’s absence, Heimuli — a 225-pound sophomore and former four-star recruit — has taken a smattering of snaps with the starters.
This week, UW defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory said Heimuli is “getting close (to being ready to contribute). He still needs to learn more of the defense. It still needs to be second nature to him, where it’s not quite yet. But he’s making really good progress and has had a good spring so far.”
Which inside linebackers will prove this weekend they’re ready to push for playing time? And will the ones who don’t feel tempted to enter the transfer portal?
Without juniors Laiatu Latu (medical retirement) and Zion Tupuola-Fetui (torn Achilles), keep an eye on the Husky pass rush on Saturday.
Of course, sixth-year senior Ryan Bowman should be considered a constant at outside linebacker. But on the opposite side, sophomore Bralen Trice, senior Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin and redshirt freshmen Sav’ell Smalls and Cooper McDonald have all received first-team reps this spring.
But will any from that list enjoy a ZTF-like ascension? Trice (6-4, 255) has developed into a consistent playmaker this spring, and Smalls (6-3, 255) — who has sat out a number of practices with an apparent injury — has the five-star athletic tools and twitch to effectively rush the passer. Martin (6-3, 265) possesses a physically formidable frame, but it’s unclear if he can convert that into prolific production.
Don’t be surprised if the occasional inside linebacker slides out to rush the passer as well — something Tafisi, Ulofoshio and Ah You have taken turns doing in recent practices.
At nickelback, the Huskies essentially have a two-man race.
In one corner stands Oklahoma transfer Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles — who brought 32 starts, 112 career tackles and three interceptions with him to Washington. The 5-9, 175-pound senior has not disappointed this spring, stacking up interceptions while occasionally sliding back to safety as well.
In the other corner, say hello to 6-1, 185-pound sophomore Kamren Fabiculanan. Though “Kam Fab” has played in just one game in his first two seasons in Seattle, the Camarillo, Calif., product brings impressive length to the position and has enjoyed an impressive spring as well.
Ultimately, it feels like “Bookie” — easily the most proven option — will settle into a starting spot. But both players have risen to the occasion this spring, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change on Saturday.
In the last several weeks, four safeties have alternated with the top two teams: juniors Cameron Williams, Dominique Hampton and Julius Irvin, and redshirt freshman Makell Esteen. Two other competitors — senior Alex Cook and junior Asa Turner — have been largely limited in recent practices.
The 6-2, 225-pound Hampton is the most physically formidable athlete, and he has drawn rave reviews since sliding from cornerback to safety at the start of the spring. Williams, too, is an experienced option who started seven games as a true freshman in 2019.
The most perplexing piece in this particular puzzle is Irvin — who arrived as a coveted four-star recruit but has been largely relegated to a backup role. Still, the 185-pound safety has finished the spring strong and could threaten for a starting spot this fall.
“Julius Irvin is playing his best football since he’s arrived on campus,” Lake said on Wednesday. “He’s from the same class as Kyler Gordon, and he’s probably saying to himself, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I be the guy to go out there and start and be the next great defensive back at the University of Washington?’”
That’s what all six safeties should be saying. And on Saturday, they’ll have an opportunity to prove that they can play.