Washington was two positive plays away from entering the bye week at 7-1.
If a Husky made an extra tackle, or jumped a route, or stripped a football in the fateful final drive of a 20-19 home loss to California, maybe the home team would have won. If the UW offense had made one extra play in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s rivalry loss to Oregon (or if a referee had called pass interference on the final play, or if the Husky defense had forced a turnover along the way), the complexion of the 2019 season might be markedly different.
In both cases, the Huskies fell a play or two short. But they’re also not far from an overdue breakthrough.
It’s entirely conceivable that UW could win its final four games and enter the postseason at 9-3. After Washington hosts No. 12 Utah (6-1) inside Husky Stadium next weekend, the team’s following three opponents — Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State — tout a combined conference record of 4-8. The Huskies have beaten Utah four consecutive times (though it will be decidedly more difficult next Saturday).
So, yes, it can be done.
But these six (or more) players must emerge for the Huskies to win out.
TE Hunter Bryant
To be fair, Bryant has already emerged. In eight games, the 6-foot-2, 239-pound junior has piled up 30 catches, 452 yards, 15.1 yards per reception and a touchdown. He has been arguably the most electric playmaker in an offense that could use a couple more of them.
But after catching at least four passes in each of his first five games, Bryant has yet to reach that mark in his last three. He managed just one catch for 8 yards — while dropping a pair of potential third-down conversions — in the loss to Stanford on Oct. 5.
The issue here is not talent but consistency. The Eastside Catholic alum has All-America athleticism. He has the strength to win jump balls and the speed to outrun smaller defensive backs. He’s a perpetual problem for opposing defenses.
So, why isn’t he always used that way? Why has Bryant scored just one touchdown this season, and why did that score come from 47 yards out? It seems, on the outside, that the Huskies’ hybrid tight end should be the program’s primary pass-catching red-zone threat. That has not been the case this season (or in the previous two).
There’s a realistic possibility that Bryant could enter the NFL draft after his junior season. Before he does, Bush Hamdan and Co. better utilize their most talented target.
WR Terrell Bynum (or Puka Nacua, or Jordan Chin, or Marquis Spiker, or Austin Osborne)
Senior Aaron Fuller has caught 40 passes this season.
UW’s other contributing wide receivers — Andre Baccellia, Chico McClatcher, Terrell Bynum, Puka Nacua, Jordan Chin, Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne — have contributed a combined 51 catches.
That’s a problem. But it could also be argued that Nacua and Chin are already emerging. The 6-1, 204-pound freshman Nacua has piled up six of his seven catches in UW’s past two games, erupting for 140 yards and a score. He also led all Husky wideouts with 40 snaps in the Oregon loss. Chin — a 6-0, 174-pound junior — has added a punch in the past two weeks as well, with a 39-yard reception against Arizona and a picturesque 48-yard score in the second quarter against Oregon.
While Nacua seems set to ascend, it’s hard to predict what Bynum’s final four-plus games will look like. The redshirt sophomore caught just three passes in his first seven games, despite earning more reps than UW’s other young receivers. But with Fuller missing the majority of the Oregon loss with an injury, Bynum recorded a career-best six catches for 43 yards while playing a season-high 36 snaps — and several of those grabs extended drives in tight windows.
When Fuller returns from his ankle injury, will Bynum’s role be reduced? Can redshirt freshmen Spiker — who claimed his first career catch last weekend, for 20 yards — and Osborne work their way more into the rotation?
Fuller and — to some extent — Nacua have proven to be viable targets. But the Husky offense still lacks established playmakers. Perhaps Bynum (or Chin, or Spiker, or Osborne) can fill the gap in November and beyond.
OLB Joe Tryon (or Laiatu Latu)
If size and physical traits always translated into sacks, Joe Tryon would already be an All-American. The 6-5, 262-pound outside linebacker is built like a transformer stuffed into a football jersey. Still, he has yet to establish much momentum in his redshirt sophomore season. Through eight games, Tryon owns 22 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. UW’s starter on the other side — junior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman — has done his part, with 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
The Huskies rank seventh in the Pac-12 with two sacks per game. For the Huskies to provide a more consistent pass rush, Tryon has to continue to take positive strides. The same goes for 6-4, 275-pound true freshman Laiatu Latu, who has added 14 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks in his first seven games. Latu’s 47 snaps against Oregon are 20 more than he received in any other game this season. It appears he’ll continue to earn increased opportunities in November.
Tryon and Latu offer immense physical potential. Husky fans are certainly hoping production comes next.
S Asa Turner (or Cameron Williams)
A true freshman has started every game this season at the safety spot beside senior Myles Bryant.
It just hasn’t always been the same guy.
Early enrollee Cameron Williams started the first six games and tallied 17 tackles with a team-best three interceptions. He also allowed several long touchdowns because of coverage breakdowns, which prompted defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake to turn to Asa Turner against Arizona on Oct. 12. The 6-3, 187-pound Turner has started his team’s past two games and recorded 12 tackles with two tackles for loss and an interception.
Heading out of a bye, it will be interesting to see who starts against Utah next weekend. The 6-0, 191-pound Williams was one of the stories of spring and fall practices, shooting up the depth chart almost immediately after enrolling. But he has played a total of just eight snaps in his last pwo games. Turner provides a length that UW’s other safeties can’t offer.
Through eight games, Washington has allowed just five completions of 30 yards or more, which is tied for ninth nationally. (Every team ahead of the Huskies in that area have played fewer games). But all five of those completions have gone for touchdowns.
So, yes, the Husky safeties have largely limited big plays. But when they haven’t, it’s hurt.
It’ll be up to either Turner or Williams to further emerge on the fly.
LB Ariel Ngata
In 10 conference games last season, Washington’s defense allowed an average of 117.1 rushing yards and 3.63 yards per carry.
In five Pac-12 games in 2019, UW is surrendering 179.6 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.
Of course, it was never going to be easy to replace 2018 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven, who amassed 176 tackles in 14 games last season. But senior starters Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington have struggled at times to slow opposing rushers.
If the intention is to get more speed on the field, redshirt sophomore Ariel Ngata is an intriguing option on the inside. The 6-3, 213-pounder has been rendered largely ineffective at outside linebacker, but he slid inside against Arizona and finished with a team-high eight tackles and one tackle for loss.
In the long term, the Husky coaches must hope that some combination of redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi, or true freshmen Daniel Heimuli, Josh Calvert, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala, will develop into run-stopping standouts.
But for now, Ngata may provide the speed and range currently lacking in the middle of the UW defense.
DT Sam Taimani
UW’s most consistent contributors along the defensive line have been Levi Onwuzurike, Josiah Bronson, Benning Potoa’e and Tuli Letuligasenoa. That leaves out redshirt freshman Sam “Taki” Taimani, who has compiled just six tackles without a tackle for loss or sack in eight games. The 6-2, 321-pounder received a season-low six snaps in the Oregon loss.
Taimani was a defensive standout in spring practices, and the converted high-school offensive lineman’s upside is evident. If the Huskies can tap into Taimani’s potential, it’ll allow for a wider and more effective rotation on the defensive line.
And, coming out of a bye week, it would be a bonus if Taimani — a Salt Lake City product — could break out inside Husky Stadium against his hometown team.