By Adam Jude
The Seattle Times
The No. 1 priority for the University of Washington football team this offseason is, without a doubt, to reinvigorate an offense that ranked as the least productive in Chris Petersen’s 13-year head-coaching career.
The Huskies ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring at 26.4 points per game in 2018, and all they have to do this offseason is figure out how to replace the most productive quarterback in program history and the most productive running back in program history.
Here’s the good news: Outside of the record-breaking backfield of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, the Huskies return the rest of the offense almost intact. Even better: They appear to have capable answers at quarterback and running back.
It’s a new era for the Husky offense, and there is reason for optimism. The Huskies return seven regular starters on offense, including four starting offensive linemen, two regular starting receivers and a rising tight end in Cade Otton. That doesn’t count another tight end — junior-to-be Hunter Bryant — who, when healthy, is the team’s best pass-catching option.
Here is a position-by-position analysis for the 2019 Washington offense:
The most accomplished quarterback in program history has graduated, and yet on paper the Huskies could be even better — and deeper — at the position in 2019. That’s what happens when a former five-star national player of the year becomes eligible. Jacob Eason, the former Lake Stevens High School standout, sat out the 2018 season after transferring from Georgia, where he won the starting job as a true freshman in 2016. He drew strong reviews while leading the UW scout team last fall.
Eason will be the starter when the Huskies open the 2019 season against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31. Jake Haener, entering his sophomore season, will get every opportunity in spring ball and fall camp to make an impression, but few quarterbacks in college football offer the kind of upside Eason has with his powerful right arm. If all goes well for Eason in 2019, there’s a good chance he’ll enter the NFL draft a year early, and the real QB competition would then start in the spring of 2020. For now, Haener is a solid No. 2, and redshirt freshmen Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff, and true freshman Dylan Morris — who enrolled in classes earlier this month — will compete for the No. 3 job.
Could junior Salvon Ahmed be the next great Husky running back? Ahmed rushed for 996 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns in two seasons as the backup to his close friend Myles Gaskin. Now he gets his turn as the featured back. We’ve seen glimpses of Ahmed’s potential. He had a combined 20 carries for 134 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon and Colorado when Gaskin was out with a shoulder injury. But the following week, he was held to minus-2 yards rushing on eight carries at Cal. What is Ahmed’s ceiling? “I don’t think anybody’s seen it yet,” Gaskin said in August. “I’ve seen him do some things like, ‘Man, did you just do that?’ He plays football at a thousand miles per hour.” There’s good depth here, with junior Sean McGrew (50 carries, 226 yards, 1 TD) looking capable of carrying a greater load, and junior Kamari Pleasant offering a bigger change-of-pace option. Richard Newton was out with a shoulder injury for part of his redshirt season, and will be a wild card going into the spring.
So many questions. The 2018 season was an inconsistent one for the wide receivers, prompting a change in the coaching staff. Petersen hired Junior Adams to coach the receivers, and Adams’ immediate priority will be to recruit a top-end receiver (or two) to add talent to a position in need of it. Back are junior Ty Jones, and seniors Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia, who had an encouraging breakthrough in the Rose Bowl with 12 catches for 109 yards.
The biggest storyline for the receivers in 2019 will be the development of touted redshirt freshmen Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Trey Lowe. It seems telling that, of the three, only Lowe (with brief cameos in the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl) played at all in 2018. Can any of them make a meaningful contribution next fall?
The status of seniors Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds remains up in the air. Pounds, the Huskies’ best deep threat the past two seasons, suffered the third torn ACL of his career midway through the 2018 season. McClatcher, after two major injuries in his left leg in 2017, stepped away from football in October. At the time, Petersen expressed optimism that McClatcher would return at some point.
Junior Hunter Bryant has All-America potential, if he can stay healthy. A knee injury cost him the final month of the 2017 season and the first nine games of 2018. His performance in the second half of the Rose Bowl — four catches, 51 yards — is one reason to be bullish about an improved passing attack in 2019. Lost in the shadow of Bryant’s comeback season was Cade Otton’s debut season. Otton, a sophomore, is the classic Washington tight end — a solid contributor in the run game and a valuable threat in the passing game, reminding some longtime observers of Husky legend Mark Bruener. Junior Jacob Kizer has significant experience, too, and senior Jusstis Warren has proven valuable in a fullback/H-back-type role.
A lot to like here. Four Rose Bowl starters — senior Trey Adams, junior Luke Wattenberg, senior Nick Harris and sophomore Jaxson Kirkland — are back, and senior Jared Hilbers started 11 games while Adams was out with a back injury last fall. Adams was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2016; Harris was the All-Pac-12 first-team center last fall; Kirkland played every meaningful snap at right guard as a redshirt freshman; and Wattenberg was probably the most improved lineman on the team.
Beyond that, the Huskies should have the best depth they’ve had at the position during the Petersen era. Adams’ return for a fifth season is a massive boost, and after injuries derailed his 2017 and 2018 seasons he will be plenty motivated going into his final year. Senior Henry Roberts is a versatile veteran capable of filling in just about anywhere, and sophomore Henry Bainivalu seems poised to take on greater role in 2019.