The 4-2 Washington Huskies could rediscover their swagger, or wilt, in the desert on Saturday night.
But before we fire up the coffee maker in anticipation of UW’s 8 p.m. kickoff against Arizona, enjoy another edition of our weekly Husky football mailbag.
Let’s assume you’re referring to Washington’s inside linebackers, who haven’t done a whole lot to make UW fans forget about Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett. When asked how his group graded out in the 23-13 loss at Stanford, inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory said, “I don’t think we played well last week. I think we’d been playing well. I think we’d been improving. Hopefully we take a step and learn from it and play better this Saturday.”
I’m not sure many Huskies fans would agree with the premise that UW’s inside linebackers had been playing particularly well, even prior to last weekend’s loss to Stanford. Through six games, Kyler Manu has contributed 32 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, and Brandon Wellington has added 23 tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery. Their primary backups, redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon (12 tackles, 1 TFL) and M.J. Tafisi (11 tackles), have also been inconsistent in their pursuit angles and ability to finish plays.
With that said, don’t expect a whole lot to change in terms of personnel this fall. Sirmon and Tafisi could certainly earn more significant roles, but Manu and Wellington remain the established starters. When those two depart the program this offseason, expect four 2019 true freshmen — Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala — to challenge Sirmon and Tafisi for starting spots. Calvert, specifically, may have played this season had he not suffered a significant knee injury in fall camp. The 6-0, 217-pound Heimuli — a 2019 four-star recruit — could also be ready to contribute after spending a redshirt season in the weight room.
One player who has hardly been utilized is Edefuan Ulofoshio. The 6-0, 231-pound redshirt freshman walk-on displayed an impressive burst in practices last spring, particularly in the pass rush. The thought was that he could potentially contribute at an inside linebacker spot in 2019, but he has turned in just seven special-teams tackles in six games. Perhaps Ulofoshio will flourish this offseason, with both starting spots up for grabs.
Two more inside linebackers — 2020 three-star recruits Cooper McDonald and Carson Bruener — will join the competition this summer.
Honestly, probably not. It’s true, highly touted wide receiver prospects could look at the limited playing time for young UW wideouts like Puka Nacua (or Marquis Spiker, or Austin Osborne, or on and on and on) and consider those to be cautionary tales.
Or, they could point to the lack of productive playmakers on the stat sheet, and see an opportunity.
To be clear: UW 2020 wide receiver commits Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze and Sawyer Racanelli aren’t going anywhere. That’s a credit to first-year Washington wide receivers coach Junior Adams, who has developed durable relationships with all three. The Huskies look primed to sign the west coast’s premier wide receiver class … and they may not be done. Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School standout Gary Bryant Jr. — who is ranked by 247Sports as a four-star prospect and the No. 64 overall recruit in the 2020 class — took an official visit to Seattle for the home win over USC and considers the Huskies one of his favorites. The 5-11, 164-pound wideout could bring an explosiveness the program has lacked since John Ross was drafted by Cincinnati.
Now, I can’t sit here and say that Puka Nacua’s lack of targets doesn’t matter to prospective recruits. It’s impossible to accurately gauge the priorities of all 18-year-old high school seniors. But Chris Petersen’s “Built For Life” program tends to connect with recruits and their parents, and Adams has quickly established himself as one of the program’s premier recruiters. McMillan, specifically, is an enthusiastic recruiter as well.
In closing: don’t expect Washington’s 2020 wide receiver class to suddenly fall apart.
My initial prediction was 10-2.
It’s no longer 10-2.
To condense my thoughts into a paragraph, I expected UW to pass the ball more efficiently. I expected the wide receivers to take a more noticeable step under Adams. I expected the Huskies’ red-zone efficiency to get better, not worse. I expected them to tackle better. I expected them to consistently stop the run. I expected them to go undefeated at home, and we already know that’s out the window.
With all that said, improvements can be made. The season isn’t over, and given this team’s inexperience (particularly on defense), it’s still possible that the Huskies could play their best football in October and November.
But it won’t be easy. Consecutive games against Arizona, Oregon and Utah looked difficult before, and potentially disastrous now. If the Huskies can’t corral the run and make timely third down stops, they’ll struggle to stop Arizona’s high-powered offense. If they can’t rush the passer, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert will pick them apart. If their defense can’t win at the point of attack, Utah will batter them into oblivion.
A 10-2 finish, with six consecutive wins, remains technically possible (if somewhat unrealistic).
I won’t pick wins and losses, but this is certainly starting to feel like an 8-4 season.
OK, story time. In 2016, I covered Notre Dame, a program with College Football Playoff aspirations (like Washington) that was led by an established, veteran head coach (like Washington). Brian Kelly announced prior to the season that two quarterbacks would play in the season-opener (like Washington).
Long season short, the Irish went 4-8. They had two quarterbacks in DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, but few established leaders. Their defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, was fired in September. The fans suffered through an unexpectedly abysmal season in South Bend — and along the way, many demanded Kelly be fired as well. They paid for full-page ads in the local newspapers, loudly lobbying for new leadership.
And guess what happened next? The Irish went 26-5 in the ensuing two-plus seasons. Kelly hired new coordinators and adjusted his own role within the program. He forced himself to adapt — to evolve, or else. Notre Dame appeared in the College Football Playoff last winter and is currently ranked as the No. 9 team in the country.
Of course, these situations are hardly identical. But if Petersen is willing to honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in his program and make the necessary adjustments, there’s no reason Washington shouldn’t continue to contend for Pac-12 titles. The talent is already on the roster, and the Huskies continue to recruit at an elite national level.
Oh, and one more thing: the sky in Seattle is a long way from falling. Rest assured, these Huskies are not about to finish 4-8.
You’re asking if it’s possible to present a thoughtful, nuanced sports opinion? On the internet?
Not a chance.