Once spring practice ended, the chaos commenced.
Two days after Washington wrapped up 15 April practices with its annual Spring Preview, redshirt freshman quarterbacks Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff entered their names into the NCAA transfer portal on Monday. Sirmon — a 6-foot-5, 235-pound Bothell product and former four-star recruit — reconsidered and pulled his name from the portal on Wednesday. Roughly an hour earlier, it was reported that five-star 2020 outside linebacker and Kennedy Catholic standout Sav’ell Smalls had eliminated the Huskies from his list of eligible suitors.
So, yeah, we have some things to talk about.
What better time for my first mailbag on the UW football beat? Let’s get to the questions.
Let’s start by publicly acknowledging that the UW pass rush probably couldn’t look much worse. The Huskies recorded just 24 sacks in 14 games last season, their lowest total since 2008. Their 1.7 sacks per game ranked 100th nationally and 10th in the Pac-12. Outside linebackers Benning Potoa’e, Ryan Bowman, Joe Tryon and Ariel Ngata — who are responsible for applying pressure — produced a combined three sacks on the season.
So yes, the pass rush will be better. But how much better, exactly?
If the Spring Preview is any indicator, a pair of sophomores — Tryon and Ngata — could surge in the fall. Both players racked up two sacks in the scrimmage, and both players were named spring ball MVPs (of which there were six total) to boot. Tryon looks like a 6-5, 266-pound Transformer, with the size and strength to bully opposing offensive tackles. At 6-3 and roughly 220 pounds, Ngata is more suited to use his speed and flexibility to bend around the edge. Bowman is also back this season and started opposite Tryon throughout the spring. Four-star freshman Laiatu Latu may also push for playing time when he arrives this summer.
Oh, and don’t forget about defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. The 6-3, 287-pound junior has produced five sacks in his first two seasons and could be ready to make another move — even without Greg Gaines beside him.
Add it all up, and there’s reason for optimism regarding the 2019 Husky pass rush. Now, let’s see the results.
Let’s assume you’re referring to early enrollee freshman safety Cameron Williams and redshirt freshman wide receiver Austin Osborne, both of whom impressed this spring and could be ready to contribute in the fall.
In terms of under-the-radar risers, I’d like to shine a spotlight on redshirt freshman linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. A 6-0, 233-pound walk-on who originally hails from Anchorage, Alaska, Ulofoshio actually played in three games last fall and forced a pair of fumbles. He trained both at inside and outside linebacker this spring and showcased a burst in the pass rush and a knack for timing his blitzes.
And in this case, ability might meet opportunity. The Huskies are extremely thin on the second level, especially inside. Could Ulofoshio push fifth-year senior Kyler Manu for playing time? Stranger things have happened.
And Jimmy Lake sounds pretty convinced.
“In training camp (last year) we saw a player that was physical, fast, could run around, played with reckless abandon, was just hitting everything in sight,” UW’s defensive coordinator said last month. “So it’s not surprising me, anything that he’s doing right now — rushing off the edge, playing inside linebacker.
“He does things a million miles an hour. Everything that we look for, right? Guys playing fast, guys playing physical. Eddy definitely does that.”
I’ll answer the first part with a story. When I was a junior in high school, I was primarily considering attending either the University of Missouri or the University of Illinois to continue my education. Mizzou had the more prestigious journalism school, but my brother attended Illinois and so I always had a soft spot for the university. I made my visits but couldn’t decide. Months passed and I couldn’t decide. My parents asked and asked and asked, and I shrugged and shrugged and shrugged.
Then I opened a pack of Pop Tarts, which happened to be imprinted with the logo of an undisclosed university. A black and gold Missouri Tiger was staring right back at me. It was fate. (It was also brown sugar.) I was probably always going to go there anyway, but that Pop Tart sealed the deal.
The lesson: many high school kids are indecisive, and the reasons behind their eventual decisions can be suspect as well.
Smalls says on May 1 that he will not attend the University of Washington. Could that change between now and the early signing period in December? Absolutely. The Huskies aren’t out of it until a letter of intent has been signed and delivered.
As for Irvin, who was limited this spring with a shoulder injury, I expect him to contribute at the safety position in some capacity. Lake has said that Irvin — a 6-1, 183-pound redshirt freshman from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite High School — is smart enough and athletic enough to play any spot in the secondary. It may depend on who settles in at safety beside him. Lake could opt for junior Brandon McKinney, who is more of a strong safety. He could roll the dice with true freshman Cam Williams, who looks more like a free safety. He could slide senior Myles Bryant back from nickel to safety and play him on either side.
Lake will keep tinkering with the tandems, but I expect Irvin to play.
Washington’s best QB is Jacob Eason. Its starting QB should be Jacob Eason.
I’m trying to say that as plainly as possible.
Eason and sophomore Jake Haener split the majority of starting reps throughout the spring, and Haener seemed to have more of a command of the offense through the first couple weeks. But Eason strung together his best practices at the end of the spring, and the 6-6 junior A.) made more big plays and B.) avoided more big mistakes than his counterpart. That isn’t to say that the former Lake Stevens standout is primed for a Heisman push. Eason was more erratic than he and the coaches would probably like in April and he’s still continuing to digest the playbook after running the scout team last fall.
Remember, this competition is far from over. But Eason — who won the starting job as a true freshman at Georgia in 2016 — should be able to do it again in August. Then all he has to do is exceed some unfair astronomical expectations. If he doesn’t, the Huskies have multiple options — namely, Haener, redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon and true freshman Dylan Morris — waiting in the wings.
We’ve already referenced three redshirt freshmen in this mailbag: Irvin, Ulofoshio and Osborne.
So, since I make up the rules of the mailbag, let’s say they’re eliminated from contention.
In that case, give me Kyler Gordon. It’s a safe bet that he and fellow redshirt freshman cornerback Dominique Hampton will both play plenty this fall. But the 6-0, 195-pound Gordon stood out most in the spring, registering a team-best 42.5-inch vertical jump at the Husky Combine and then using it to finish second in the secondary with five April interceptions. If Myles Bryant does indeed start at safety, then junior Elijah Molden will likely shift inside to nickel and that will open up a starting cornerback spot opposite junior Keith Taylor.
Gordon, Hampton and true freshmen Trent McDuffie and Kamren Fabiculanan could all conceivably compete for that spot. But I’ll say Gordon (literally) rises above the rest.
Honorable mentions: defensive tackles Sam Taimani and Tuli Letuligasenoa, linebackers Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi, wide receivers Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe, running back Richard Newton.
Two questions, one answer.
The biggest concern when training camp starts has to be the inside linebackers. The presumed starters — Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu — are seniors who have started a combined two games of college football. Wellington has 50 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack in three seasons, and that somehow makes him the proven one of the two. Manu, meanwhile, has made 12 total tackles in 24 career games.
And what if Wellington — who returned from a torn ACL last season — suffers an injury at some point? The Huskies do have plenty of available bodies, including redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon, M.J. Tafisi and Edefuan Ulofoshio and true freshmen Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli and Alphonzo Tuputala. But that group has played in a combined 10 games. Are you ready to roll one of them out against Oregon?
One name you won’t see is senior D.J. Beavers, who was forced to medically retire this spring — further damaging UW’s depth on the second level.
Maybe Wellington and Manu’s experience will pay dividends. Maybe Sirmon, Tafisi or Ulofoshio will excel with a redshirt season’s worth of seasoning. Maybe a four-star freshman like Calvert or Heimuli will make an instant impact in the fall.
Or maybe none of that will happen. Without Ben Burr-Kirven, Tevis Bartlett and Beavers, there’s suddenly a hole to fill in the middle of the UW defense.
And when they arrive at training camp in August, the next wave of Washington inside linebackers will have plenty still to prove.
That’s easy: subscribe to The Seattle Times. If the walls cave in, we’ll be here to cover the wreckage.