Nick Harris is week-to-week.
Which could mean just about anything. It could mean that Washington’s 6-foot-1, 302-pound center will play in Saturday night’s Pac-12 opener against California. It could mean that the preseason Associated Press All-American will miss the overwhelming majority of his senior season. It could mean he’ll retire in mid-October to join Chris Petersen’s coaching staff, or embark on a second career as a competitive dancer.
The most realistic result, though, is that Harris will make his 30th UW start Saturday night at Husky Stadium. The Huskies’ senior leader suffered what looked like a lower-body injury in the first half of UW’s 47-14 victory over Eastern Washington last weekend. He did not return to the game, but Harris also was seen walking and laughing with his teammates on the sideline throughout the second half.
In a convincing victory over an FCS opponent, there would be no reason to rush a reasonably healthy Harris back into the game.
And, besides, redshirt freshman Matteo Mele impressed as his replacement.
“Matteo did a good job,” Petersen said during the Husky coach’s Monday news conference. “Matteo’s been getting a lot of reps in practice as well. Nick’s played a lot of snaps for us, so we’ve been able to work (Mele) quite a bit as well. You never know when that day is going to come where the guy’s gotta go, so he got a lot of good reps.
“Gotta keep progressing with him and Nick’s week-to-week, and we’ll go from there.”
Still, if there was one area of concern, it centered on Mele’s shotgun snaps. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound redshirt freshman sprayed a few snaps to quarterback Jacob Eason’s left and right, though Eason was able to corral the erratic offerings.
That’s hardly a surprise, considering Mele was 1.) appearing in his first career game, and 2.) has precious little experience at the center spot.
But whether it’s Harris or Mele (or Justin Britt or Kermit the Frog or Danny DeVito or Drizzy Drake or anyone else, really), snaps are always going to be a concern.
“Always,” Petersen said. “A little bit like a field-goal kicker and an extra point, you take that stuff for granted and there is a lot going on. The fronts are changing, a guy’s head-up on him and as soon as he snaps it he has to hit him. Then there is (a different scenario with) someone not on him and all that stuff in terms of where you’re stepping (and you) can pull the ball just a little bit.
“Matteo wasn’t a center until he got here, and the thing we really like about him is that I think he can play multiple, multiple positions, and we just need him there.”
A final word on Eason
Petersen glanced at a sheet of paper roughly 20 minutes after Washington’s decisive victory last Saturday, then laughed and turned to the waiting media.
“I’m checking the stats because they’re so important to me,” he joked.
It’s true, few people on the planet value individual statistics less than Petersen. Still, the seasoned coach had to be impressed with his starting quarterback’s final line: 27 for 36 passing (75% completions), 349 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions.
He said as much Monday.
“The O-Line did a nice job letting Eason set his feet, and I thought he was really, really good for a first game coming out of the gate,” Petersen said. “He was really sharp on his reads and got hit a little bit, got knocked down, so that was probably good for him to know he can take a shot.”
Saturday, Eason gave more than he took. But it wasn’t the highlight-ready deep strikes that most impressed Petersen.
“You know, I think (Eason) took what the defense gave him,” he said. “I think he just kind of stayed within the reads and kind of went there. There was one throw that we probably got lucky on where he tried to throw away and kind of got hit as he was throwing it away that could have been a little bit scary. They could’ve gotten their hands on it. So that was a good one to learn from.
“But for the most part, I thought his decision-making was really good.”
Washington scored five touchdowns in six red-zone trips, with the only empty possession the result of backup quarterback Jacob Sirmon taking a knee to end the game. The Huskies converted just 56.5% of red zone trips into touchdowns last season, which ranked 105th nationally.
Saturday looked like progress, but it might be too small of a sample size to really judge.
“I think it was progress, yeah,” Petersen said. “You’re concerned about the first game just with some self-inflicted wounds and stuff seems to show up a little bit more in the red zone. Defenses, a lot of them change their style and mentality, they come after you more, trying to knock you back to get you out of there.
“It’s a whole different game down there, really. So I thought it was pretty good for Game 1.”
Still, UW’s best offensive strategy might be to avoid the red zone altogether — as Eason did when he hit Andre Baccellia for a 50-yard touchdown trot.
“There’s no question,” Petersen said of the explosive score. “I think that was one of the issues last year. We did a great job moving the ball between the 20s. And we had a decent amount of explosive plays.
“But we spoke about this before, a lot of our explosive plays didn’t score. They got us down there, and that’s when things can get tough and you’ve really got to be precise with your game.”
The next step for Ahmed
Besides Eason, of course, the breakout star Saturday might have been redshirt freshman running back Richard Newton. The 6-foot, 210-pound bruiser barreled ahead for a 23-yard touchdown on his first collegiate snap, and he finished with a team-best 91 rushing yards on just 12 carries.
But what about Salvon Ahmed, the team’s speedy junior starter? It was difficult for the Kirkland product to get going, and he finished with just 44 yards and a 1-yard touchdown on 15 carries.
The physical tools — say, Ahmed’s 4.32-second 40-yard dash, for instance — have never been an issue. But can he develop the vision and patience to let him properly employ that speed?
“I think he played well,” Petersen said of Ahmed. “Like I said, I think getting him real game reps is what we need to do. That’s where he’s going to continue to grow. He’s got really, really good speed. He can accelerate with the best of them. So a lot of times in practice he’s spectacular there.
“But when the backs become spectacular in the games I think they’ve got to make sure they slow down to see the holes. And then when they see it, they have to go, put their pads down and either make guys miss or fall forward. That’s an area we’re always working on. It’s hard to simulate in practice.”
Over the course of four spectacular seasons, Myles Gaskin consistently did both in games for UW. But Ahmed can’t deliver similar results, Petersen said, by simply emulating his predecessor.
“Myles has his own unique style. That was him,” Petersen said of Gaskin’s ability to slow down and set up blocks. “That’s how he ran and his vision was so good. I think everybody’s got their own way, their own style. But it always comes down to vision.”
What’s Peyton Henry’s range?
With a 35-7 lead midway through the third quarter last weekend, Petersen opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Eagles’ 27-yard line, rather than attempt a 45-yard field goal.
Eason promptly missed Baccellia and the Huskies turned the ball over on downs. But that’s not really the issue.
Does the coaching staff trust sophomore placekicker Peyton Henry — whose long last season was 45 yards — to deliver from distance?
“I think (Henry) has a strong leg. I know he’s got distance from there,” Petersen confirmed. “But I think we were kind of a little bit in that gray area. There’s a lot of gray areas down there. Whether you’re going to punt, whether you’re going to kick a field goal, whether you should go for it … it’s interesting to watch that play out in the series. We’re always a play or two ahead in our minds of, ‘This is going to be two plays to go for it here.’ And then you could get a negative play, which changes it and you’ve got to adjust quickly.
“So that was one of those gray area ones where we could have tried it but also wanted let our offense see what they could do.”
- On UW’s four sacks against Eastern Washington: “We need to play with that type of effort. I think the pass rush has improved. It’s a fine line, because if you just light your hair on fire and at all costs get after this guy, you’re going to run by him half the time. You saw a little of that on Saturday, because (EWU quarterback Eric) Barriere is a very good runner. So he steps up and out. So you’ve got to get after him, but you also have to work together and stay in your rush lanes. So there was progress there, no question. But there’s still work to do.”
- On the college debut of redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon, who completed 1 of 2 passes for 21 yards: “(It was) hugely important. We kind of wanted to get him some more reps earlier in that game, because it was good. The pass that we called, he was on the money. It was a really good throw, really good read. So that was good. That was good to get him in the game. Like I said, he’s been progressing.”
- On the starting debut of fifth-year senior inside linebacker Kyler Manu, who finished second on the team with seven tackles: “Yeah, I thought he played well. He did a nice job. He played the best football that I’ve seen him play. Now he got more of an opportunity, was on the field longer. But he was a guy that had a nice game. We’re proud of him.”