The Huskies kick off the first of 15 spring practices Monday morning at Husky Stadium.
The Huskies kick off the first of 15 spring practices Monday morning at Husky Stadium. A look at five story lines to follow leading up to the spring preview on April 23:
1. Rising expectations
A year ago, with another quarterback competition about to kick off and uncertainty all over the field, expectations were understandably tempered for the Huskies. But coming off a strong finish in 2015, including a victory in the Fight Hunger Bowl, buzz is building about UW being a contender in the Pac-12 North. How the Huskies handle the added attention remains to be seen, but there is a lot to like going forward, especially with the nucleus of the defense returning. The Huskies have 15 regular starters (eight on offense, seven on defense) back, and the bulk of the roster is a collection of sophomores and juniors. “Everyone’s going to compete for a job and we’re going to take off,” tight end Darrell Daniels said. “That’s the goal: To be the best.”
2. Finding an offensive identity
The Huskies, finally, are settled in the backfield. This is Chris Petersen’s third spring at UW, the first in which he won’t have an open and uncertain quarterback competition. Jake Browning is coming off a productive true-freshman season as the starting quarterback; there’s certainly room for growth for him as a leader and a passer, but his potential remains high for him and for an offense that was younger than ever in 2015. Next to him, running back Myles Gaskin an emerging star. Experience alone, one can assume, should make things better for an offense that finished ninth in the Pac-12 in total offense (403.1 yards) and tied for ninth in scoring (30.6 points). In 2014, the first season of the Chris Petersen-Jonathan Smith design, the offense ran the ball more often than anyone in the Pac-12, a little more than 60 percent of the time, averaging 4.35 yards per rush. That figure took a notable dive in 2015, when the Huskies ran the ball just 54.6 percent of their snaps (getting 4.47 yards per rush). Entering the third year in this system, it’s fair to ask: What are the Huskies trying to be on offense?
3. Questions far and wide
UW spring football
Monday: Start of spring practices
April 23: Spring preview, 12:30-2:30 p.m.
Schedule: The Huskies will practice Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday each week, except for the final week, when they’ll skip the Friday practice in anticipation of the spring preview.
Note: All practices are at Husky Stadium and are closed to the public. The spring preview is open to the public and has free admission.
For an offense that lacked a consistent big-play threat out wide last fall, the Huskies have to be thrilled with the blazing return of John Ross III. Ross, a junior receiver coming off two knee surgeries, ran a hand-timed 4.25-second 40-yard dash during winter conditioning testing earlier this month. “It’s amazing,” UW safety Budda Baker said of Ross. “We do our player practices and just seeing him run routes and running deep balls, it just makes me really excited for him. He’s going to be a huge difference (maker) for Washington football.”
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The receiver corps’ struggles last season prompted the dismissal of position coach Brent Pease fired, with former Boise State QB Bush Hamdan taking over. The Huskies lose slot receiver Jaydon Mickens, who finished his career No. 2 all-time at UW in receptions, and the Huskies missed out on several of their top receiver recruiting targets. Who emerges out wide?
4. Get in a line
The uncertainty on offense extends to the offensive line, though there were promising developments there last fall. Physically, sophomore tackles Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary are near-perfect archetypes at the position, and if they can stay healthy the prospects for the line are much improved in 2016. Junior Coleman Shelton, a starter at left tackle, left guard and right guard last season, is on the move again and will open the spring as the No. 1 center. Also back is senior left guard Jake Eldrenkamp. Andrew Kirkland, Shane Brostek, Matt James and Jesse Sosebee all started at least two games last fall, too.
5. Buck up
The defense appears to be in great shape, with the bulk of the Pac-12’s best defense in 2015 returning. That includes a secondary that allowed just 11 touchdown passes, the fewest allowed in the Pac-12 since 2008. The Huskies are especially stout up the middle, with three capable tackles — Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea — linebackers Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria and Ben Burr-Kirven, and Budda Baker at safety. Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Darren Gardenhire all started at cornerback. On paper, the biggest concern is replacing the pass-rushing prowess of graduated outside linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, UW’s sack leaders last fall. There are no clear-cut answers, but senior Joe Mathis will again shift from defensive end to Buck linebacker in an attempt to fill one of those holes.