Six true freshmen look ready to help the Huskies this season, and Jake Browning appears better than ever.
The Huskies concluded their second week of fall camp Sunday with a closed practice at the Seahawks’ headquarters in Renton. Practices from here on out (until spring ball) will be closed in their entirety, with the exception of Saturday’s invitation-only scrimmage for season-ticket holders at Husky Stadium.
Here are my top 10 takeaways after watching two weeks’ worth of open practices:
10. The Fab Six (plus one)
These true freshmen appear are ready to contribute. Listed in order of those most likely to play this season:
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Salvon Ahmed: The former star running back at Juanita High was terrific in the first few practices, even while learning a new position out wide. The ball didn’t come his way as often in the second week, but he’s too good to keep off the field, even in a limited hybrid role. Expect coaches to use Ahmed the way they did with another stellar prep running back, Chico McClatcher, when Chico was a freshman in 2015. That year, Chico had 19 rushing attempts, eight receptions, 25 kick returns and six punt returns.
Ty Jones: The 6-foot-4 receiver from Provo, Utah, came on strong in the second week, becoming a regular on the second-team offense and coming up with a couple of big catches down field. He’s going to play.
Hunter Bryant: The Chris Petersen-Jonathan Smith offense doesn’t ask its tight ends to do much in the passing game — Darrell Daniels had just 17 catches in 14 games last season — and that’s at least part of the reason Bryant hasn’t “flashed” as much as some of us expected he would coming into camp. Even so, the former Eastside Catholic star adds a downfield threat the Huskies don’t otherwise have at the position, and he can help this team.
Elijah Molden: The 5-foot-10, 186-pound defensive back has played primarily nickelback in camp, though he did earn a promotion to the second-team defense on Saturday and played outside corner. That versatility will help him get on the field this season, and ultimately help the defense.
Brandon McKinney: After 12 practices, the 6-foot, 191-pound safety from Orange, Calif., was tied for the team lead (with several others) with four interceptions. By the end of the second week, he was a regular with the second-team defense, playing safety alongside redshirt freshman Isaiah Gilchrist.
Keith Taylor: That’s right, I do expect all three true freshmen defensive backs to play. It’s hard not to compare Taylor — at 6-2 and 186 pounds — to Kevin King because of his length and physicality. Like Molden and McKinney, figure Taylor will have the biggest impact on special teams this season.
Ready in a pinch: Henry Bainivalu. The Skyline High product earned a promotion as the No. 2 left tackle on Saturday. It’s never ideal to play a true freshman on the offensive line — and no doubt, coaches would like to redshirt Bainivalu this season — but the lack of depth (more on that in a moment) on the line could force Bainivalu into action at some point.
9. Something special
Special teams ought to be a strength for this team. Petersen personally coaches the kick and punt returners — and is more hands on with the kickers and punters on the practice field than he is with quarterbacks — a sure sign of how important special teams are to the head coach. New punter Joel Whitford should indeed be “a weapon,” and Dante Pettis is already the most accomplished punt returner in school history. There are an enviable number of options to replace John Ross III at kick returner — McClatcher, Austin Joyner, Sean McGrew, Ahmed, to name a few. Senior Tristan Vizcaino is a wild card entering his first season as the primary placekicker — you just never know how someone will react until under pressure for the first time — but he’s been steady in camp.
8. Pressure’s on
A few folks have asked me to predict who will lead the team in sacks. At this point, I’m not sure I have a good answer. The Huskies don’t have a Hau’oli Kikaha or a Travis Feeney or a Joe Mathis type coming off the edge. I know folks have been intrigued by Benning Potoa’e for a long time, and he still has high upside. He’s just not there yet. Tevis Bartlett and Connor O’Brien are high-energy, high-effort guys and will get a ton of snaps, and Jusstis Warren’s emergence at outside linebacker/defensive end is the biggest surprise of early camp. And while outside linebacker is the biggest question mark about this defense — that’s the feeling here, anyway — I’m not sure it’s an alarming concern. Pete Kwiatkowski’s greatest strength might be his ability to scheme up pressure on the quarterback, and having guys like Vita Vea, Greg Gaines and Jaylen Johnson up front gives the defensive coordinator a formidable starting point.
7. Run it up
Myles Gaskin. Lavon Coleman. Sean McGrew. Kamari Pleasant. Salvon Ahmed. One through five, have the Huskies ever been stronger at running back? “We’re breeding horses right now, man,” Coleman said. Gaskin and Coleman combined for more than 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Coleman, a senior with NFL aspirations, practically slept in the weight room this summer, bulking up to 235 pounds, but he laughed off any concerns of a weight issue. This isn’t an Eddie Lacy situation. “No, no, no. I’m not getting fined for weight,” he said. After the first week of camp, he was back down to his playing weight from last season, around 225. Pair that with his 4.5-second 40-yard speed, and he’s a handful as the No. 2 back. Carries have been sparse for McGrew and Pleasant in camp, but they’ve produced even with limited opportunities.
6. Thumbs up: Wide receiver depth
Seems crazy to say with the departure of John Ross III, but the Huskies should be even better at wide receiver this season. They probably won’t have one receiver put up the kind of numbers Ross did last season — 81 catches, 1,150 yards, 17 TDs — but the Huskies have seven receivers who should be regulars in the rotation. Dante Pettis, Chico McClatcher and Andre Baccellia are the starting receivers right now, with Aaron Fuller, Brayden Lenius, Quinten Pounds and Jones a strong second wave. Last year, the Huskies had six players finish the season with double-digit receptions (including RB Gaskin and TE Daniels). The guess here is the Huskies will double that this season — with 12 players (including running backs and tight ends) finishing with 10 or more receptions.
5. Thumbs down: O-line depth
Four starting offensive linemen from the Peach Bowl return this season, making the first wave of the line an apparent strength for an offense that should again be one of the best in the nation. In particular, the Huskies are strong on the edges, with tackles Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, and up the middle with senior center Coleman Shelton. Guards Andrew Kirkland and Nick Harris will almost certainly get the call to start the opener at Rutgers. But the depth behind them is, for now, this team’s biggest issue. Redshirt freshman Luke Wattenberg, likely the line’s top reserve, injured his arm and could be out for up to few weeks, according to a team source. Junior Jesse Sosebee has gotten some time with the No. 1 line, but he has little game experience, and backup center Matt James struggled early in camp snapping the ball.
4. Front seven from heaven
At 340 pounds, Vea runs like a linebacker, and he’s probably the strongest guy on the team. NFL scouts are lining up to see him. Add in Gaines, in what could be his final season at UW, and the Huskies have the Pac-12’s best D-line tandem. There’s belief that Johnson, if he can stay healthy, will have the kind of season many expect him to. There is unproven depth on the line, but Levi Onwuzurike and Shane Bowman have had a good camp, and it’s possible Warren sees more snap on the line than at outside linebacker. The inside linebackers, we know, are the heart of the defense, with Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor forming one of the program’s best linebacker duos ever. There’s little dropoff when DJ Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven rotate in.
3. Three breakout candidates
Byron Murphy: Since the first week of spring ball, there’s been a steady drumbeat about Murphy … and it keeps getting louder. There’s little doubt that he will be the next star in the UW secondary.
Andre Baccellia: Baccellia has been one of the most consistent receivers on the roster. He’s right there with Pettis as having the best hands on the team.
Brayden Lenius: After writing about Lenius last week, one source close to the 6-foot-5 junior receiver told me his injury issues in early 2016 were greater than anyone outside the program knew about. He’s 100 percent now, and it’s shown. It appears he had another big catch during Sunday’s closed practice at Seahawks’ headquarters (see highlight later in the video below).
2. A secondary concern
Will this defensive secondary really be “10 times better” than it was last year. Obviously, no, it won’t. But Jimmy Lake’s comments make obvious how pleased he is with the progress of his rebuilding secondary. Murphy and Jordan Miller will be the starting cornerbacks, but there’s a strong push behind them from Austin Joyner and Myles Bryant. There’s also strength and versatility in the safety trio of Taylor Rapp, Jojo McIntosh and Ezekiel Turner. I’ve said it several times already this month, but it’s worth repeating: The secondary will be fine.
1. One bold prediction about Browning
It’s hard to imagine a quarterback as good as Browning was last season coming back with such little fanfare as he’s getting now, at least from a national perspective. Yahoo Sports on Monday published a list of the most “intriguing” quarterbacks in the country … and Browning is No. 16 on the list. After he finished sixth in the Heisman voting last season. Some of that can be explained by our geographical location up here in one corner of the country, away from the spotlight afforded to the quarterbacks in Los Angeles, who, by the way, don’t have near the same resume as Browning. Some of that can also be explained by Browning himself. In truth, his personality doesn’t demand a lot of attention. He’s a player who exemplifies one of Petersen’s favorite mantras — “Don’t talk about it; be about it.” — and as such Browning doesn’t want the spotlight, doesn’t seek it. Scouts seem to agree that Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen are the better NFL prospects, but the bet here is Browning again proves he’s the best QB in the Pac-12.