UW has to replace 14 regular starters, including three first-team All-Americans.
Year Two of the Chris Petersen era hasn’t started under the best of terms for the Washington Huskies, with the announcement two weeks ago that 2014 starting quarterback Cyler Miles has taken an indefinite leave from the team.
Miles’ absence adds another missing piece to a puzzling outlook for UW at several key positions.
And yet, as the Huskies begin spring practices Monday morning at Husky Stadium, there is reason to believe this spring could be a smooth one. Well, smoother anyway.
UW spring football key dates
Monday: Start of practice.
Thursday:UW pro day.
April 25: Spring game, noon-2 p.m., Husky Stadium.
A year ago, the transition was, using Petersen’s word, “awkward” at times as UW’s new coaching staff tried to implement its structure into its inherited roster. The coaches literally started from the ground up: One of the first drills of the first practice involved offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith dropping to the turf, belly-first, to show quarterbacks how to properly recover a fumble.
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Across the field and in the locker room, the emphasis on minute details and the demands on greater discipline were an adjustment for players. The “buy in” took longer for some.
“I feel like last year, we were still trying to feel them out a little bit,” junior defensive back Kevin King said earlier this month. “It was our first (spring) with them, so we didn’t know what to expect and a lot of head-butting was going on.
“But this year, people have bought into the program more and see what this coaching staff has to offer can win championships. I think that’s a big thing moving forward, that everybody knows what to expect now.”
Change remains a central theme. This time around, however, instead of trying to change the program’s culture, Petersen and his staff only have to adjust to new personnel on the field. It won’t be easy, not with the Huskies replacing 14 regular starters from last season’s 8-6 team, including three first-team All-Americans in Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson.
But the focus can, inasmuch as possible, return to football. The challenge for UW coaches now is analogous to a magician being able to juggle bean bags after starting out juggling bricks.
“We have that familiarity together. They know how we coach; we know how they learn,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “And that goes a long way right there, just being able to know who needs what. Everybody’s different in how they learn, so being able to cater their needs that way definitely helps.
“They know what to expect for the program, the discipline and how we want to handle ourselves, and the work ethic and all that stuff. It just takes time and experience doing it. All that stuff is obviously way better with a year under our belt. No question it’s going to be a lot smoother.”
There are 160 days until Petersen and his staff head to Boise State for UW’s season opener on Sept. 4, and which quarterback will emerge by then remains the team’s biggest question mark. (For the record, Boise State, coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona, is also in search of a new starting quarterback.)
Five breakout candidates
KEISHAWN BIERRIA, sophomore linebacker
As a redshirt freshman last fall, Bierria filled in capably for Shaq Thompson when Thompson made his one-month shift to full-time running back. Now Bierria must step into Shaq’s shoes as the full-time weakside linebacker. In 14 games last season, including four starts, Bierria had 35 tackles, including three for loss and one sack.
ELIJAH QUALLS, sophomore defensive tackle
Speaking of big shoes to fill, the Huskies will turn to several young defensive linemen in an attempt to replace Danny Shelton, a likely first-round NFL draft pick next month. Qualls, a 6-foot-1, 305-pound sophomore, was Shelton’s primary backup last season. Qualls won’t be asked to replace Shelton alone: Redshirt freshmen Greg Gaines (6-1, 306) and Vita Vea (6-5, 329) are expected to play big roles, too.
JAKE ELDRENKAMP, junior left tackle
The Huskies need four new starters on the offensive line. The good news is they have 14 scholarship linemen entering the spring. The bad news is, outside of senior guard Dexter Charles, the other 13 linemen have combined for 14 career starts. Eldrenkamp, a 6-5, 298-pound Bellevue High product, served as Micah Hatchie’s primary backup at left tackle the past two years.
K.J. CARTA-SAMUELS, redshirt freshman QB, and JAKE BROWNING, freshman QB
Young quarterbacks will be the center of attention this spring. Carta-Samuels and Browning are the first two quarterbacks Chris Petersen recruited to UW. Jeff Lindquist, a backup to Cyler Miles in 2014, remains in the mix and figures to get every opportunity to prove himself again this spring. More intriguing is what the two newcomers are able to do. Carta-Samuels has a big arm and is a capable runner. Browning graduated high school early and enrolled at UW in January. How quickly one, or both, adapt to the college game will likely go a long way toward determining how well UW’s rebuilding efforts shape up in 2015.
UW has three quarterbacks on its spring roster. Junior Jeff Lindquist started the 2014 opener at Hawaii and served as a backup to Miles the rest of the season.
Redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning will be UW’s two most-scrutinized players, with both young quarterbacks going through spring ball for the first time. For them, the learning curve is steep, but it’s possible the Huskies could start a freshman quarterback at Boise.
The Huskies also have four starting jobs up for grabs on each line, and how they go about filling those will be significant story lines throughout the spring, and into fall.
Looking in the review mirror, though, the program’s heavy lifting appears to have been completed. Looking forward, the Huskies can focus on building, and not head-butting.
• Practices are closed to the public, but the April 25 “Spring Preview” at Husky Stadium will be open to all. The game begins at noon and will air on the Pac-12 Networks.