Washington’s season opener against Eastern Washington is scheduled for 12 p.m. on Aug. 31.
But in a more realistic sense, the season starts in the spring.
More specifically, it starts at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, when Washington kicks off the first of 15 spring practices; when quarterback Jacob Eason presumably lines up with the first-team offense for the first time at UW; when nickelback Myles Bryant assumes a leadership role in a suddenly unrecognizable secondary; when a Rose Bowl attendee strives to reload, not rebuild.
When some Huskies flourish, and others begin to fade.
But who will fall into each category? Here are six (or more) Huskies with the most to prove this spring.
QB Jacob Sirmon (RS fr., 6-5, 221) and Colson Yankoff (RS fr., 6-4, 209).
There will be a quarterback competition this spring.
Just not for the starting job.
Jacob Eason is UW’s starting quarterback. Let’s get that out of the way right now. But that doesn’t end the signal caller intrigue in Seattle. Sophomore Jake Haener, redshirt freshmen Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff and true freshman early enrollee Dylan Morris will all compete for the backup job, with Haener — who appeared in four games in relief of Jake Browning last season — the favorite to secure the spot.
But can either Sirmon or Yankoff — both of whom were ranked as four-star recruits in the 2018 class — make a positive impression? Considering the current log jam in the UW quarterbacks room, plus the fact that 2020 prospect Ethan Garbers and 2021 legacy Sam Huard are already verbally committed, it’s conceivable that one of these redshirt freshmen could leap headfirst into the transfer portal a year from now. That makes this spring even more important, despite the starting spot being unofficially unavailable.
It’s worth noting, too, that Yankoff unveiled some uncommon athleticism at the Husky Combine this month. The 6-foot-4, 209-pound quarterback somehow registered the top time in the 3-cone drill (6.50 seconds), edging out three defensive backs (Kyler Gordon, Myles Bryant and Elijah Molden) and one wide receiver (Andre Baccellia). He was at least four inches taller and 19 pounds heavier than the rest of the top five. Yankoff also finished fifth with a 37.5-inch vertical jump.
And no, none of that necessarily translates to surefire success at the quarterback position. But the redshirt freshman from Hayden, Idaho, has skills to develop — and that’s what the spring is for.
RB Salvon Ahmed, junior, 5-11, 195.
Ahmed has already proven that he can play. Spelling best friend Myles Gaskin, the junior from Kirkland has rushed for 996 yards, 10 touchdowns and six yards per carry in his first two seasons in Seattle.
The next step is to do it consistently.
Gaskin, for example, played in 52 games in his illustrious UW career, rushing for no less than 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his four seasons. He was productive, sure. But he was also remarkably reliable.
Ahmed’s challenge, then, is to prove that he can provide the same explosiveness, the same precision, the same attention to detail, every practice this spring. If not, juniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant and redshirt freshman Richard Newton are all plenty capable of stealing snaps.
Of course, Ahmed’s speed still separates him — literally — from the current crop of competing running backs. The 5-11, 195-pound junior led all Huskies with a 4.32-second 40-yard dash this month.
Speed alone, however, does not secure a starting position. Ahmed must be both complete and consistent, and that starts in the spring.
WR Chico McClatcher, senior, 5-8, 181.
When he led the Pac-12 with 18.5 yards per reception in 2016, Chico McClatcher’s career path seemed all but certain. He would turn in two more prolific seasons in Seattle, then follow fellow UW wideouts John Ross and Dante Pettis to the NFL. He would be a staple in the slot, terrorizing overmatched, overwhelmed linebackers and safeties. He would be a 181-pound pinball bouncing frantically off defenders.
Instead, McClatcher has morphed into one of UW’s biggest question marks.
It started in Sept. 2017, when a torn ACL and a broken ankle in the same leg upended McClatcher’s junior season. After returning and registering just nine catches for 134 yards in eight games last fall, the Federal Way product left the team for personal reasons in late October.
Now McClatcher is back for his fifth and final season at UW. But which player are the Huskies getting? There’s no telling whether McClatcher’s 2016 burst is completely back, or if his confidence can recover from two essentially empty seasons. At his best, the senior slot receiver can be the playmaker Bush Hamdan and Co. so desperately lacked last season. But McClatcher’s best may be behind him.
We’ll start to see this spring whether a return to the team means McClatcher is really back. Either way, there’s little doubt that his teammates are happy to have him.
“It’s been awesome,” Baccellia said at the Husky Combine. “Chico’s stepped in as an older dude into a leadership role, having a lot of guys’ backs, teaching some of the younger guys when we’re out there. It’s just awesome to have him back.”
LB Kyler Manu, senior, 6-1, 238.
Manu’s statistics don’t scream “potential Pac-12 starter.” In four seasons on campus, the Pocatello, Idaho, product has compiled a total of 12 tackles without a sack, tackle for loss or interception. Ten of those tackles came last season, when he appeared in all 14 games.
But consider that second-level mainstays Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett are both gone and senior D.J. Beavers’ status is in serious jeopardy after he suffered an apparently significant lower leg injury in the Rose Bowl last January. When it comes to playing experience among linebackers, Brandon Wellington pretty much makes up the entire list.
It’d be easy to assume that younger, more highly touted candidates like redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi and true freshmen Josh Calvert and Daniel Heimuli will eventually ascend to a starting job.
But when the spring starts, Manu will have more experience than any of them. He’ll have an opportunity to provide both leadership and stability on the second level. He’ll have an opportunity to show that he shouldn’t be overlooked.
That doesn’t mean that Manu will be a starter beside Wellington against Eastern Washington. But who knows? Maybe he’s saved his best for last.
S Brandon McKinney (junior, 6-0, 201) and Isaiah Gilchrist (junior, 5-11, 202).
If you see any “help wanted” signs around UW, that’s just Jimmy Lake searching for a safety.
Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh are gone. They take 75 career starts, 382 tackles and nine interceptions with them. They leave two returning scholarship safeties with one combined start behind.
Step right up, Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrist.
A 201-pound junior, McKinney made his first career start in the Rose Bowl and contributed 17 tackles and one tackle for loss last season. He has played in all 27 games in his two seasons at UW. The same can’t be said for Gilchrist, a Bellevue native and former four-star prospect who has appeared in just 11 games across his first three seasons.
Starting this spring, McKinney and Gilchrist must prove they can become viable successors to Rapp and McIntosh. If not, it’s conceivable that junior nickelback Elijah Molden or redshirt freshman cornerback Julius Irvin could slide back to the safety spot. Sophomore Alex Cook also flipped from wide receiver to safety this offseason, and early enrollee freshman Cam Williams has an opportunity to impress in his first spring on campus. Fellow freshman Asa Turner will also crash the competition when he arrives in Seattle this summer.
Bottom line, McKinney and Gilchrist won’t be handed the starting safety baton. They have to grab it, and now’s their chance.
OT Jared Hilbers, senior, 6-7, 313.
Of this group with the most to prove, Hilbers has the least to prove. After all, the 313-pound senior from Beaverton, Ore., started 11 games at left tackle last season in place of the injured Trey Adams. With Adams back and Kaleb McGary gone, Hilbers is the favorite to assume starting right tackle duties.
But to do that, he’ll have to fend off 6-5, 321-pound sophomore Henry Bainivalu, among others. A Sammamish native and former four-star prospect, Bainivalu played in all 14 games last season and could be primed for a starting push.
In all, the Huskies are loaded with both depth and experience on the offensive line, returning four Rose Bowl starters (as well as Hilbers, who started for the majority of the 2018 season). Left tackle Adams, left guard Luke Wattenberg, center Nick Harris and right guard Jaxson Kirkland are essentially entrenched atop the UW depth chart.
The real intrigue here rests at the right tackle position, and that competition will likely stretch through the spring and into August. Hilbers (or Bainivalu, for that matter) may not be able to win the job in April, but he can take a commanding lead.
While the games are played in the fall, this competition starts in the spring.