Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin may hold key for Huskies against stout Auburn defense

Myles Gaskin’s success in the running game will be a key to Washington’s hopes in the 2018 season opener against Auburn. Oh, and he might return a kickoff or two just to show off his versatility. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Twenty months ago, Washington went to Atlanta for its first College Football Playoff appearance. The opponent that day, Alabama, featured one of college football’s most dominant defenses in recent memory.

And Alabama lived up to the billing in its 24-7 victory on New Year’s Eve 2016, holding the Huskies to a net total of 44 yards rushing on 29 attempts (including five sacks of Jake Browning).

The No. 6 Huskies are heading back to Atlanta for their highly anticipated season opener against No. 9 Auburn on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC), and UW coach Chris Petersen is expecting a similar type of test the Huskies had there 20 months ago.

“I look at Auburn on defense and it seems very Alabama-ish to me,” Petersen said Sunday. “It’s that physical style, that really athletic — they don’t give you anything. You have to earn everything.”

Many of the questions about the UW offense this offseason have centered on Browning and whether he, in his fourth season as the starting QB, can produce like he did when he was the Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2016.

Petersen shrugged off a question about Browning on Sunday.

“I feel great about him,” Petersen said. “I think he’s done a really good job in camp and he’s played in a lot of big games so you feel good about that. So I know he’s going to be able to handle all that. Everybody wants to go talk about him. That’s the last guy I really want to talk about.”

For Petersen, Saturday’s game comes down to the matchups at the line of scrimmage. If the Huskies are going to pull off a signature win in SEC country, they must establish a run game with Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed.

“If we don’t give (Browning) a chance to set his feet or get our run game (going), no one is going to have a chance,” Petersen said. “Jake’s going to be fine. They’ve got some guys that have played a lot of football on that defensive side and they are very stout and very physical. So to me it has to do with how some guys up front hold up to give him a chance to do his thing.”

Hamdan’s debut

Saturday’s game will mark Bush Hamdan’s debut as the Huskies’ offensive coordinator and play-caller.

“You talk about getting your feet wet right away against a defense like this. This is tough sledding,” Petersen said. “It’s going to be as challenging as anything we do all season long.”

The Huskies’ offense isn’t expected to look dramatically different than it has the past four seasons under Jonathan Smith; this is, after all, fundamentally Petersen’s offense. But there will be new plays and new formations with Hamdan in charge. What exactly those changes are, well, the Huskies of course aren’t offering any clues before game day.

“Bush works morning, noon and night trying to get this thing right like all of our coaches do,” Petersen said. “He’s been on it pretty hard.”

The return of Gaskin

Junior wide receiver Aaron Fuller will succeed NCAA record holder Dante Pettis as the Huskies’ primary punt returner. No surprise there.

But Petersen said the Huskies could have a surprise at kick returner Saturday – Gaskin.

In 40 career games, Gaskin has had the opportunity to return just two kickoffs (gaining a total of 16 yards on those two returns). But after years of prodding from his star running back, Petersen sounds as if he will relent and give Gaskin some chances on special teams this season.

“He’s just kind of worn me down after four years. He just will not let off,” Petersen said. “That’s what I love about him. He’s returned a couple, I think, in his career, but he’s taken 1,000 reps because he’s my scout-team returner all the time. That’s the beauty of Myles.”

Ahmed, the sophomore running back, will again be in the mix to return kickoffs – he averaged 25.2 yards on his 14 returns last year. Petersen also mentioned running back Sean McGrew, defensive back Austin Joyner and receivers Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds as options on kick returns.