The bye week is over.
The mailbag is back.
Before Washington (5-3) hosts No. 9 Utah (7-1) inside Husky Stadium at 1 p.m. on Saturday, let’s answer a couple more UW football questions.
Away we go.
In short, UW won’t be pulling any redshirts — not for a team without any realistic chance of competing for a Pac-12 title. Besides, the team’s most eligible freshman inside linebacker — early enrollee and former four-star prospect Josh Calvert — suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. UW’s other scholarship freshman inside linebackers — Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala — need more seasoning before they’ll be capable of upgrading the position.
Still, Washington’s coaches understand there’s an issue on the second level. The UW defense is allowing 179.6 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in conference play, and the Huskies are about to host a 7-1 Utah team that touts the Pac-12’s premier rushing attack. This is not a winning formula.
If seniors Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington and redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi were all playing at an all-conference caliber, the coaches likely would not have shifted sophomore Ariel Ngata from outside to the inside linebacker spot in the middle of the season. But they did, and that says something.
But let’s not assume the 6-3, 213-pound Ngata is an instant answer. Sure, he led the Huskies with eight tackles and a tackle for loss in the win at Arizona on Oct. 12. But that doesn’t make him Ben Burr-Kirven.
“He’s doing OK. He needs to take another step,” UW inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory said of Ngata this week. “He’s not completely comfortable in there, but he’s getting better.”
The Huskies need Ngata to get better in a hurry. Or, perhaps they just need Manu, Wellington, Sirmon and Tafisi to take positive strides in the final month of the regular season.
Strip away the excuses, and Washington’s inside linebacker play simply hasn’t been good enough at times this season. Perhaps Ngata will help in that department — eventually.
“It’s really different playing inside linebacker than outside,” Gregory said. “Certainly there’s a lot of spaghetti (traffic) in front of your face, so it can really slow guys down. Because you’ve got the offensive line; you’ve got pullers; you’ve got a running back, and all kinds of stuff (to pay attention to).
“So guys have to be kind of instinctual in there. I do think (Ngata’s) got some good instincts. He needs to continue to grow.”
I think ultimately it comes down to where Eason is projected to be drafted. If Washington’s 6-foot-6, 227-pound junior quarterback expects to be a first-round draft pick, it’s unlikely he’ll stick around for his senior season. I’m not sure UW’s incoming freshman wide receivers will play much or any role in that decision. Plus, it’s easy to forget that the 2020 Huskies will be tasked with replacing three starting offensive linemen, and Eason A.) is not particularly mobile and B.) has a somewhat significant injury history.
Through eight games, Eason has completed 67.4% of his passes, throwing for 1,981 yards with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. For the most part, he has been accurate. He has been durable. He has been a good teammate. He has made good decisions. He has struggled at times against Pac-12 opponents, but he lit up Oregon to the tune of 76.7% completions, 289 passing yards and three touchdowns. He’ll have opportunities to further pad his stats against underwhelming Pac-12 defenses at Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State.
And ultimately, this isn’t just about what Eason puts on the field in 2019. It’s a projection. Does an NFL general manager look at Eason’s physical tools and athletic ceiling and envision Super Bowls and Pro Bowl appearances? Would he be willing to stake his job on that? And how much might impressive showings at the NFL Combine and his pro day help sell Eason to coaches and executives?
Assuming a strong finish to the 2019 season, Eason will undoubtedly have an opportunity to jump to the NFL. A case can always be made for why he should stay (and Chris Petersen will certainly make it). But I’m not sure the 2019 win-loss record will have a tremendous impact on his decision.
First, let’s acknowledge that this is an equal parts strange and awkward situation. UW junior wide receiver Ty Jones — who amassed 31 catches, 491 receiving yards, 15.8 yards per reception and a team-best six touchdown catches last season — has sat out the first eight games this fall with a dislocated lunate bone and torn ligaments in his right wrist. Still, UW coach Chris Petersen has maintained for the last several weeks that Jones is practicing fully.
He’s just not playing in games.
It’s certainly understandable for a fan (or anyone else) to question why a guy who led UW in touchdown catches in 2018 and is supposedly practicing fully didn’t play against his team’s biggest rival, with conference title hopes hanging in the balance. Perhaps, to maintain his redshirt, the plan is simply to play Jones in the final four games this season.
Here’s what UW head coach Chris Petersen said on the subject on Thursday:
“We’re trying to get him back going. He’s practicing full speed, all those type of things. It’s really hard for a guy that hasn’t been in the mix to just go, ‘OK, here we go,’ and pick up where he left off. These other guys that we got have been grinding for a long time in a different way. So I think before this thing’s all said and done we would like Ty back in the mix with us. But it’s a work in progress.”
So, it sounds like the plan is to play Jones at some point this season. That’s not very specific.
But then again, Petersen rarely is.
I’m not in the business of telling you fine folks how to feel, so you’ll have to monitor and manage your own frustration (while remembering, hopefully, that life is short and the universe is big and in the grand scheme of things, this oddly shaped brown ball isn’t actually all that important).
But I think it’s fair to hope the Huskies win out, and expect them to win their final three games at the very least.
I think that for several reasons. This is a young team that should reasonably improve in the home stretch. It’ll also be a well-rested team, with a pair of bye weeks in the last third of its season. And its final three opponents — Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State — boast a combined conference record of 4-10. Washington will be the better, more rested, more talented team in all three games. UW should win all of them, and nothing less is an acceptable expectation.
As for Utah? That’s different. But just because the Huskies shouldn’t beat Utah doesn’t mean they won’t beat Utah. If the home-field advantage matters, and the UW defense tackles, and Eason continues to impress, and the offensive line plays its best collective game, and running back Salvon Ahmed breaks a run or two, and Jimmy Lake’s crew snags a couple turnovers — then sure, the Huskies can win. Stranger things have happened inside Husky Stadium.
(And, yes, I’m referring to the lightning delay.)