There’s more happening on Montlake than a quarterback competition.
Not that the options under center don’t deserve their share of scrutiny. When Washington kicks off its better-late-than-never fall football season in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 7, one of four signal callers — graduate student Kevin Thomson, redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris or true freshman Ethan Garbers — will accept the opening snap. First-year head coach Jimmy Lake has set no timetable for naming said starter, and added that if a clear winner never emerges multiple quarterbacks could play. That quarterback — whoever he is — will operate with a new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, as well as first-time starters at left tackle, right tackle, center and wide receiver.
So, sure: it’s a compelling competition.
But UW’s offensive success won’t (solely) be dictated by the starter under center.
That inexperienced offense brings back perhaps the most proven talent at the tailback position — where senior Sean McGrew, redshirt sophomore Richard Newton and redshirt freshman Cameron Davis should form a formidable three-headed husky. And while the offensive line is tasked with replacing three starters, the reinforcements don’t lack for athleticism or physical ferocity.
With so much still to be decided, UW’s starting offensive line could — hypothetically — consist of left tackle Jaxson Kirkland (6-7, 295), left guard Ulumoo 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).
That’s a combined 1,615 pounds of long arms, driving legs and giddy aggression.
Point being: UW’s starting quarterback will inevitably assume the spotlight. But its running game has an equally important opportunity to pulverize overmatched Pac-12 opponents.
“When everybody knows you’re most likely going to run, you have to be able to do that,” first-year UW offensive coordinator John Donovan said Tuesday. “That will be a challenge. But I do think those guys take pride in that. Those linemen, they want to pound the rock. They want to get down and dirty and be physical and they take pride in that.
“They’re working that way, and we have to be able to do that. This is definitely a philosophy from the head guy down, that we need to be able to run the ball and throw it. We’re not going to do just one. When we want to run it, we’re going to have to run it, and everybody knows we’re doing it.”
Granted, that hasn’t been a particular strength of late. Last season, UW averaged just 147.85 rushing yards per game (7th in the Pac-12) and 4.17 yards per carry (6th in Pac-12) — its worst marks in each area since 2012. In Donovan’s pro-style, downhill rushing attack, UW’s offensive line will be counted on to enforce its will.
But the Husky running backs will be utilized in other areas as well.
In 2019, four UW tailbacks — Salvon Ahmed, Kamari Pleasant, McGrew and Newton — combined for 30 catches for 180 yards and one total touchdown.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, meanwhile, compiled career-highs in catches (76) and receiving yards (522) in 15 games.
The common denominator is Donovan — who served as an offensive assistant in Jacksonville for the last four seasons and is now running the offense and calling plays at UW.
“They all catch the ball pretty well,” Donovan said of UW’s running backs. “I think when you can utilize the back in that aspect it helps you. That’s another receiver that they have to account for. But the backs also have to block when it’s time to block, based off of whatever route concept we use. But we will have them catching the ball.
“They need to be able to be productive in the passing game, however we’re using them — whether they’re free-releasing or whether they’re checking down. They’ve got to be a weapon for us in the passing game for us to be successful. So yes, I hope they all have careers catching the ball.”
And, it goes without saying, career years for Newton or McGrew or Davis would only help the Huskies’ inexperienced starting quarterback.
“A lot of the stuff is still similar (schematically) to what we’ve had over the years,” said Kirkland, who will shift to left tackle after starting 25 games in the last two seasons at right guard. “But I really like what coach Donovan brings to the table — more of an attack-mode type offense. It’s really simplified this year in terms of how our calls and everything goes for us. I mean, it’s been great.
“We have great wide receivers and a great running back group with Richard Newton and Sean McGrew. I really like utilizing the tight ends, especially with blocking. We have Cade Otton with that. So I think on every edge of this offense, we’re solid.”
The hope is, on Nov. 7, the Huskies will also be solid under center.
But the strength of this offense may actually be everywhere else.