There’s a mystery in the middle of UW’s offense.
But the game plan is anything but.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, Husky football fans will tune in to see which scholarship signal caller — graduate student Kevin Thomson, redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris or true freshman Ethan Garbers — will start under center. It’s a code that has yet to be cracked.
But that code — the mystery — also doubles as a decoy.
Let the quarterback assume the spotlight. The running game will steal the show.
“I’m all in on that mindset,” said redshirt junior Jaxson Kirkland, who earned preseason All-Pac-12 first-team honors last week. “There’s nothing like running the football, especially imposing your will on the other team. That sets the tone for not only the offense but the whole team.
“I love going on a long drive where it’s just run after run, seeing the look in the D-line’s eyes. They don’t want to be there anymore. That’s kind of my goal, to take the will out of the players on the other side of the ball.”
Kirkland and Co. have been waiting more than 10 months, essentially, to steal an opponent’s soul — and they plan to do it by battering the Oregon State Beavers into oblivion. They plan to do it, specifically, with perhaps the largest offensive line in program history — consisting of Kirkland (6-7, 295), left guard Ulumoo “M.J.” Ale (6-6, 355), center Luke Wattenberg (6-5, 300), right guard Henry Bainivalu (6-6, 335) and right tackle Victor Curne (6-3, 330).
They plan to use an army of padded tanks to trample everything in their path.
“It’s pretty cool having such a big O-line,” Kirkland said. “I think that looks pretty intimidating, running the ball. I bet as defenders, seeing that huge wall, it’s not that fun to put your hand in the dirt and have to go up against this group. It’s kind of cool being such big guys, but it’s not just that we’re so big. I think we’re such a physical group. We want to impose our will on opposing defenses.”
And the more important mystery, honestly, might be which Washington running back receives the first carry. Though Richard Newton and Sean McGrew carried much of the load last season, redshirt senior Kamari Pleasant — who rushed just 16 times for 35 yards in 2019 — is currently listed as the starter.
Expect both Newton and McGrew, as well as redshirt freshman Cameron Davis, to make an impact on offense. But, in the eyes of first-year UW offensive coordinator John Donovan, the 6-0, 230-pound Pleasant may be as much a running back as a battering ram.
“He’s had a great camp,” Donovan said of Pleasant last week. “I hope he goes out there and we can’t take him off the field because it’s so noticeable that he’s crushing it. But those other guys are going to play, and they’re good enough.
“(Head coach Jimmy) Lake’s got a philosophy. He wants to be physical as a team, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to run it every snap. But you know what, when you have to, you have to be able to do it. And I think those guys up front appreciate that mentality, because there’s going to be points in games when you have to control the line of scrimmage one way or another.”
That’s when the Washington Huskies will look to snatch some wills.
And it’ll be up to Oregon State to withstand that assault.
After all, in last November’s 19-7 road win, the Huskies ran for 245 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns against a broken Beaver defense. That included 174 rushing yards, seven yards per carry and a 60-yard score for UW junior Salvon Ahmed.
And last weekend, in a 38-28 road win, the Washington State Cougars — without standout running back Max Borghi — compiled 229 rushing yards, 7.6 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns of their own (with true freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura making his first career start). Notre Dame transfer Deon McIntosh ripped off 147 rushing yards with 8.2 yards per carry and a score.
Meanwhile, Oregon State’s most lethal defender is redshirt senior outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. — who exploded for 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks last season.
The best way to slow a 6-4, 245-pound pass-rusher? Don’t let him rush the passer.
“I’d probably say the physicality, for sure,” said UW senior defensive back Elijah Molden, when asked what fans can expect from the new-look Husky offense. “Coach Donovan and coach Lake combined, they both have aggressive personalities and they express that through football. So I’m excited for them to see the weapons we’ve got on offense. We’ve got a lot of weapons. So it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Granted, Washington football fans will get to watch the Huskies’ starting quarterback as well. Donovan’s pro-style offense intends to be a balanced barrage, with a merciless running game mixing with an explosive passing attack. That quarterback, whoever he is, will have plenty still to prove.
But the Huskies’ offensive fate rests on much more than a mystery.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, they’ll be out to steal some souls.
“It’s been incredible to be a part of, just the growth that everyone in here has seen from the offense,” junior tight end Cade Otton said. “Obviously we came into camp without many reps, and it’s been incredible growth from everyone and (I love) just how we fit together in our offense. I think it’s going to be really tough to deal with for other teams, and I’m excited to go out there with my guys and show the world.”