The late American humorist, cartoonist and author James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
He must not have been a Washington football fan.
Indeed, with Washington kicking off spring practice Wednesday, Jimmy Lake’s program faces a cavalcade of questions — and its supporters would undoubtedly prefer the answers in advance. They’d like to know who will wind up winning the starting quarterback job, which wide receivers will emerge (if any are left), and whether Bob Gregory’s defense can consistently stop the run. These are mere highlights in an ever-evolving list.
So, apologies in advance, but I don’t have all the answers.
But in the next few days, we’ll ask some of the questions.
More specifically: in each of the next three days, before UW’s spring practice debut, we’ll address one key question facing the program in 2021. Starting with this one:
Is UW’s passing game capable of more than what we saw last season?
The answer is contingent on a whole bunch of things. The good news is that UW returns its entire starting offensive line, and that group allowed just 0.25 sacks per game last season — ranking first in the Pac-12 and second nationally. (That statistic could be attributed somewhat to the Huskies’ hesitance to pass in general, but let’s give the line and tight ends the benefit of the doubt.) As we know, elite pass protection can sometimes make an average quarterback look exceptional.
But how do we assess the quality of the Huskies’ quarterback play? In his first season under center in 2020, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris generally impressed — completing 60.9% of his passes while throwing for 897 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Even so, he’ll have to win the job all over again this offseason — and graduate transfer Patrick O’Brien and five-star freshman Sam Huard promise to provide stiff competition.
O’Brien — a sixth-year senior from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. — brings both experience and a promising set of pro-style tools. A 6-foot-5, 235-pound passer, he completed 60.8% of his passes and threw for 3,394 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his last two seasons at Colorado State. He has the frame and arm strength to succeed in second-year coordinator John Donovan’s pro-style system, and should be relatively unfazed by the challenge of learning yet another new offense.
But experience isn’t everything. And on the other end of that spectrum, Washington is welcoming an early enrollee in Huard this spring. The 6-1, 190-pound freshman arrives with enormous expectations, after setting the Washington high school state record with 13,214 career passing yards in his final game at Kennedy Catholic last month. Even so, it’s unknown how quickly the Husky legacy will absorb the playbook and adjust to a higher level of competition.
For what it’s worth, Huard also leap-frogged more experienced options to win the starting job at Kennedy Catholic as a true freshman in 2017. In a phone interview last month, Lancers head coach Sheldon Cross called him “really, really, really cerebral.”
Plus, the learning process has already begun.
“I have a great relationship with (UW offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John) Donovan,” Huard said after his final prep game. “We’d be meeting on zooms and learning the offense (during this offseason). So I think I have a pretty good base and understanding getting in there. It’s still pretty complex and there’s a lot to get down, but I meet with him on zoom and text him all the time, asking questions and trying to learn that system.
“It’s a lot different from what we do here (with the air raid offense), but there’s some similar concepts and some stuff I can definitely pick up on. Everything that he’s shown me so far, I love.”
Washington’s starting quarterback — whoever he is — will undoubtedly love targeting Cade Otton this fall. Last season, the 6-5, 240-pound tight end led the Huskies in catches (18), receiving yards (258) and receiving touchdowns (3), and he’ll almost certainly improve on those numbers in his senior season.
But, considering Donovan’s dependence on that particular position, which other tight ends will emerge alongside Otton? Junior Devin Culp and redshirt freshman Mark Redman both earned reps last season but have yet to establish themselves as consistent pass-catching threats. Sophomore Quentin Moore (6-5, 245) — the top junior college tight end in the 2021 class — could make an immediate impact on Montlake as well, with a reputation as an athletically gifted receiver.
Still, it’s hard to have success in the passing game without an abundance of scholarship wide receivers. In all, UW has had five of those — Puka Nacua, Ty Jones, Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Jordan Chin — transfer out of the program this offseason, which leaves the Huskies with precious little depth.
And yet, the returning talent is intriguing all the same. Senior Terrell Bynum should provide steady production, and redshirt freshmen Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Sawyer Racanelli combine to form a formidable corps. The Huskies should also get an immediate lift from sophomore transfer Ja’Lynn Polk — who turned in 28 catches, 264 receiving yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman at Texas Tech. Plus, four-star freshman Jabez Tinae will join the competition this summer as well.
With just seven scholarship wide receivers currently on the roster, expect UW to continue to assess possible options in the transfer portal. But ultimately, the passing game’s capability falls to Donovan and Lake as well.
Specifically, UW attempted just 27.8 passes per game last season — which ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 99th nationally. And yet, their 8.2 yards per attempt finished third in the conference — which suggests Donovan’s personnel and system is capable of creating explosive plays.
Since being promoted to head coach, Lake has emphasized the need to win time of possession and manage mistakes — which could yield a more methodical style of play. It’s also sensible to take a more conservative approach with an inexperienced quarterback — especially with a full slate of returning starters at running back and on the offensive line.
But this offense can’t evolve if Lake doesn’t let it.
So, to (attempt to) answer the original question: UW’s passing game is probably capable of more than what we saw last season. But it’s up to Lake and Donovan to let their play-makers loose.