The Rose Bowl is in the rearview mirror.
What’s next for the Washington Huskies?
Before they host Eastern Washington in the season opener on Aug. 31, Chris Petersen’s crew needs to get through 15 spring practices, the first of which kicks off at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. There will be no shortage of new starters and position competitions, primarily on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s true, you can only learn so much in April. But why should that stop us from trying?
Here are the eight biggest story lines for the Huskies this spring.
Welcome to Jacob Eason Season
Maybe you’ve heard of the kid. A 6-foot-6, 227-pound junior from Lake Stevens, Eason was ranked by 247Sports.com as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2016 class. He signed with Georgia and immediately ascended to the starting spot, completing 55.1 percent of his passes and throwing for 2,430 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2016. But after injuring his knee in the 2017 opener, Eason was overtaken by five-star freshman Jake Fromm, and after the season he transfered back to his hometown team.
Following an NCAA-necessitated redshirt season, Eason is an FBS starting quarterback once again. But will he finally fulfill his five-star ranking, or will his highly anticipated homecoming fall short of expectations?
Those answers, of course, won’t be available until the fall. For now, we can focus on Eason’s command of the huddle, on his chemistry with UW’s inconsistent crop of receivers, on his understanding of the playbook and willingness to lead an experienced offense (and, it almost goes without saying, on the shotgun welded onto his right shoulder).
One thing is certain: Every move the strong-armed signal caller makes this spring will be scrutinized.
Welcome to Eason Season. It’s about time to buckle up.
Salvon Ahmed grabs the running back reins
Salvon Ahmed’s athleticism has never been in question.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the Husky Combine this month, easily topping the team. As a complement to established starter Myles Gaskin, he averaged six yards per carry and rushed for 996 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Washington.
Still, all that athleticism doesn’t guarantee that Ahmed can replace Gaskin, who exceeded 1,200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his four memorable seasons on Montlake. Ahmed will get the opportunity to prove he can operate as a feature back, but UW also has plenty of options competing for significant snaps.
Junior Sean McGrew, for example, contributed 226 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry last season. Fellow junior Kamari Pleasant added 5.1 yards per rush. Richard Newton showed promise in practice but redshirted his freshman season while nursing a shoulder injury. And don’t forget that four-star freshman Cameron Davis will arrive this summer.
All things considered, Ahmed is deservingly the front-runner in the running backroom. But it will be worth noting how he handles that role and how UW fills out its backfield rotation around him.
Junior Adams attempts to transform the UW wideouts
The bad news: UW really only had three legitimate contributors at the wide receiver position last season in juniors Aaron Fuller (58 catches, 874 yards, 4 TD), Andre Baccellia (55, 584, 0) and sophomore Ty Jones (31, 491, 6).
The good news: Fuller, Baccellia and Jones are all back this fall. But will they be better? And who else can lend a pair of hands?
The hope for Eason and UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan is that the talented trio of highly touted redshirt freshmen Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Trey Lowe will emerge this spring and fall. It will also be interesting to keep tabs on sophomore Terrell Bynum, who has yet to catch a pass but registered an impressive 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the Husky Comine this month. Top recruit Puka Nacua will also enroll in classes at Washington this summer.
It’s first-year wide receivers coach Junior Adams’ job to develop his new cast of relatively unproven players. Adams — whose previous stops include Western Kentucky, Boise State and Eastern Washington — has earned the reputation of an effective teacher, and he’ll have plenty of pupils to positively impact this spring.
UW defensive line is short on experience, long on talent
Greg Gaines leaves big shoes — or cleats? — to fill, both literally and figuratively. The same can be said for departed Husky defensive linemen Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman. And besides junior Levi Onwuzurike (34 tackles, 6.5 TFL and 3 sacks in 2018), defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe has little proven production to point to.
But rest assured: the reinforcements are on their way. Seniors Josiah Bronson and John Clark were part of the rotation last fall and will be counted on for larger roles. Fifth-year senior and former outside linebacker Benning Potoa’e is also listed as a defensive lineman on the Huskies’ online roster.
Besides the seniors, redshirt freshmen Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani will have opportunities to establish themselves as formidable forces in the middle. And keep an eye out for 315-pound, four-star freshman Jacob Bandes, who enrolled early and could make a (powerful) push for playing time this fall.
Outside of Onwuzurike, the competition along the defensive line is wide open. But don’t mistake a lack of previous productivity for an absence of potential.
Washington finished 15th nationally in rushing defense last season, allowing an average of 116.1 rushing yards per game. The objective is to maintain that same standard with new names along the line.
Life goes on for inside linebackers without Burr-Kirven and Bartlett
The above statement may be hard to believe, considering that classmates and freshman roommates Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett combined for 45 starts, 496 tackles, 37.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and six interceptions in their prolific four-year careers. Burr-Kirven dominated in the middle of the Husky defense last season, piling up 176 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two sacks and two interceptions en route to being named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
So where does inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory go from here?
It’s unlikely he’ll find another Burr-Kirven any time soon, but Brandon Wellington should be ready to start in his senior season. The former Eastside Catholic standout rebounded from a torn ACL late in 2017 to contribute eight tackles in the 2018 Apple Cup and seven tackles and a tackle for loss in the Rose Bowl.
With senior D.J. Beavers’ status murky following a lower leg injury suffered in the Rose Bowl, expect a handful of Huskies to compete for the other starting spot. Senior Kyler Manu, redshirt freshmen M.J. Tafisi, Jackson Sirmon and Edefuan Ulofoshio and true freshman early enrollee Josh Calvert will all fight for starting snaps this spring. True freshmen Daniel Heimuli and Alphonzo Tuputala will also join the fun this summer.
That’s a lot of options and few answers. One of UW’s most emphatic question marks resides in the middle of its inexperienced defense.
Early enrollees aim for positive first impressions
Oh, and there’s a lot of them. A whopping 10 freshmen enrolled at UW in January, with junior-college transfer Corey Luciano joining that group.
The freshmen are as follows — (takes a deep, determined breath) — defensive tackles Jacob Bandes and Sama Paama, quarterback Dylan Morris, inside linebacker Josh Calvert, offensive linemen Julius Buelow, Nathaniel Kalepo and Troy Fautanu, cornerback Kamren Fabiculanan, safety Cameron Williams and outside linebacker Miki Ah You.
Still with me? Good. Of that group, the most likely to produce immediately this fall — because of their ability and availability on the depth chart — is Bandes, Calvert, Williams and Fabiculanan. It will be worth monitoring Morris as well, because, well, he’s a local four-star signal caller, and who doesn’t love one of those?
Though he isn’t technically an early enrollee, it will be telling where Luciano — a 6-3, 270-pound offensive lineman from Diablo Valley College — lines up to begin the spring. The No. 4 offensive tackle in his junior college class via 247Sports.com, Luciano looks more suited for an interior offensive-line position. But the Huskies have a hole to fill at right tackle as well, and might the former Monte Vista (Calif.) High School standout make a significant first impression?
That’s the goal, at least, for UW’s eleven January enrollees. It will be difficult to contribute in the fall without first ascending in the spring.
The cornerback competition commences
One of these spots has basically been decided. As long as he stays healthy, 6-2, 200-pound junior Keith Taylor — who led the Pac-12 by allowing just 0.51 yards per coverage snap last season, according to Pro Football Focus — will be a starting cornerback this fall.
Opposite Taylor, though, the intrigue awaits.
A trio of redshirt freshmen — Kyler Gordon, Dom Hampton and Julius Irvin — all impressed behind the scenes throughout their redshirt seasons and should compete for starting snaps. Gordon stole the spotlight at the Husky Combine, finishing first in the vertical jump (42.5 inches), second in the three-cone drill (6.52 seconds) and pro agility drill (3.87 seconds) and third in the broad jump (10 feet, five inches). Fabiculanan also joins the cornerback jamboree this spring and highly touted freshman Trent McDuffie will be added to the mix this summer.
The Huskies should be set in the slot, with standout nickelbacks Myles Bryant and Elijah Molden both returning.
Add it all together, and what do you get? Answer: a group with relatively little experience but tidal waves of talent. This competition should be fun to watch.
Options at safety are limited (or are they?)
On paper, the Husky safeties seem to be lacking. After all, only two of them — juniors Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrist — have played a safety snap on the collegiate level. And of those two, only McKinney has started a game. Sophomore Alex Cook — a converted wide receiver — and early enrollee Cam Williams round out the group.
But is there more than meets the eye on the back end of the UW defense?
It would not be a surprise to see Molden or Irvin (or both) slide back to safety this spring. Molden — a 5-11, 190-pound junior — was named to the All-Pac-12 second team last season, contributing 29 tackles, five passes defended and a forced fumble. Behind Bryant at nickel, Molden’s potential impact may be diminished.
As for Irvin, the 6-1, 183-pound redshirt freshman was ranked as the No. 9 safety in the country by Rivals and the No. 12 safety by 247Sports.com when he signed with Washington out of Anaheim (Calif.) Servite High School in 2018. Irvin primarily played safety at the high-school level, and given Gordon and Hampton’s presences in the cornerback competition, he may be best-suited to return to safety this spring.
Add four-star signee Asa Turner to the mix this summer, and the Huskies should have a spirited safety competition. Granted, Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh won’t be magically reappearing inside Husky Stadium in August. But at least Jimmy Lake has some pieces to play with.
Those pieces will begin to fall into place in the spring.