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UW report card: Grading the Huskies midway through the 2018 season

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 18, 2018, 7:23 p.m.

Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven  tackles Brigham Young running back Lopini Katoa  during the first half of a Sept. 29 game  in Seattle. Burr-Kirven was named to The Associated Press Midseason All-America team on Tuesday. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven tackles Brigham Young running back Lopini Katoa during the first half of a Sept. 29 game in Seattle. Burr-Kirven was named to The Associated Press Midseason All-America team on Tuesday. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The Rose Bowl remains within reach for No. 15 Washington. That’s the glass-half-full outlook midway through the season as the Huskies (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) try to rebound from the painful overtime loss at Oregon last Saturday.

Any realistic scenario of a return to the College Football Playoff is gone, and that for many means a reevaluation of expectations for this team. While the Huskies need some help to win the Pac-12 North – Oregon (2-1 Pac-12) holds the tiebreaker for now – this UW team still has much to play for, and a lot of shuffling is still to come in the standings.

With that in mind, here’s a position-by-position assessment of where Washington stands at the season’s halfway mark.

Offense

Quarterback

For all the scrutiny on Jake Browning entering the season, and for all the heat he took in September, the senior QB has generally played well. His numbers aren’t spectacular: 10 touchdown passes, three TD runs, six interceptions, 1,751 yards and a 153.8 rating. He has been efficient, with a 66-percent completion rate, and his 9.2 yards per attempt is second in the Pac-12.

Yes, there were bad turnovers against Auburn and Utah in September, but Browning has worked to eliminate the head-scratching backward scrambles that got him in trouble at times, and he has made a number of big plays on the move the past few weeks (his 43-yard TD pass to Ty Jones vs. Oregon a prime example).

Browning was the better QB in the matchup against Oregon’s Justin Herbert last Saturday, and he did everything you could ask a QB to do in the fourth quarter to set his team up for a victory on the road in the biggest game of the year.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Jake Browning,” UW coach Chris Petersen said after the overtime loss. Grade: B+

Running backs

The most pressing concern for this entire roster is the health of senior Myles Gaskin and sophomore Salvon Ahmed, the Huskies’ two best playmakers. Gaskin is nursing a shoulder injury, and Ahmed injured his knee against Oregon. It’s encouraging that both returned to the field in the second half last Saturday, but their availability for Colorado (and beyond) is unclear.

Sophomores Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant played well with extended touches. Even if Gaskin and Ahmed are available this week, the Huskies will likely rely on their depth more over the final five games. Grade: B

Wide receivers

Expectations weren’t high for this group coming into the season, and it’s fair to say the receivers have outplayed those to a degree. Junior Aaron Fuller has been one of the most pleasant surprises on the team, averaging 84.1 receiving yards per game, and the 6-foot-4 Jones (team-best five TD catches) has come up with a handful of big-time plays.

There are still questions at the position. Chico McClatcher has yet to find his footing coming off two major operations last year, and the depth took a notable hit with the loss of Quinten Pounds (team-best 20.8 yards per catch) to a season-ending knee injury. The Huskies have to hope that the receivers’ lack of separation against Oregon is not the start of a trend. Grade: B

Offensive line

The line was supposed to be a strength – pegged by some as maybe the strength of the offense – coming into the season. It hasn’t been that. There is reason for that: Preseason All-American left tackle Trey Adams injured his back four days before the season opener and has not played a snap this season. That forced the line to shuffle, and that meant four linemen were making their first career starts at new positions against Auburn (Jared Hilbers at left tackle; Luke Wattenberg at left guard; Nick Harris at center; and Jaxson Kirkland at right guard).

The inexperience showed at times in the first few weeks of the season. Of course, two of the first three games were against top-flight defenses, and the line deserves credit for its improved play of late.

The left side of the line (which has included Henry Roberts and Henry Bainivalu as part of the rotation) remains a work in progress. Petersen was asked this week about the line’s play against Oregon. “Did we like progress and go, ‘OK, this is the next step as a group.’ I don’t know,” he said. “There were a couple guys in there that battled pretty hard. They all battled. I thought Nick Harris had a pretty good game. We’ve got more to us, we do. I think they’d all say that.” Grade: C+

Defense

Defensive line

Shane Bowman’s broken foot has thinned an already thin defensive line, which has meant more snaps for veteran walk-ons John Clark and Josiah Bronson of late, and likely means the Huskies will turn to true freshmen Sam Taimani and Tuli Letuligasenoa for their Pac-12 debut Saturday against Colorado.

Senior Greg Gaines is playing at an All-Pac-12 level, but he’s been asked to play more snaps that he has in the past because of the lack of depth inside. Senior Jaylen Johnson has been a steady presence, and it will be interesting to see how the versatile Benning Potoa’e is employed in the second half of the season. Grade: B-

Linebackers

At another position with limited depth, senior middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has rarely left the field – and for as good as he’s been there’s no reason to take him out. BBK leads the nation with 93 tackles; he was named to The Associated Press’ Midseason All-America team this week, and he is a front-runner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“That guy needs a cape,” Petersen said this week.

Tevis Bartlett (12 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble vs. Oregon) has quietly had a productive senior season while being asked to play both inside and outside.

Beyond those seniors, there are major question marks. It doesn’t sound like DJ Beavers will be back before November, if even then, and the young outside linebackers (third-down specialists Ariel Ngata and Joe Tryon) have shown potential but also a lot of inconsistency. One encouraging development was the return of junior Brandon Wellington (torn ACL late in 2017), a projected 2019 starter who could see more time in the middle of the defense in the second half. Grade: B+

Secondary

Best defensive secondary in UW history? It’s quite the billing to live up to, and there have been times where that has looked true. One area where the Huskies haven’t been elite? Turnovers. In 2016, the Huskies led the nation with 33 takeaways (2.4 per game), including 19 interceptions. This season, they have forced eight turnovers in seven games – with two interceptions.

Part of that has to do with offenses game-planning away from UW’s secondary (Arizona State, even with one of the best receivers in the nation, wanted nothing to do with that secondary), but the Huskies have also dropped several chances at key interceptions.

One could make a case for Taylor Rapp for defensive MVP recognition – “He’s as good as they come,” Petersen said this week – and third-year sophomore Byron Murphy is a projected first-round pick. Grade: A-

Special teams

Across the board, this might be most disappointing season on special teams of the Petersen era.

With punter Joel Whitford apparently limited by an undisclosed injury, Washington ranks last in the Pac-12 in opponent punt returns, allowing 13.1 yard per return. The Huskies also rank dead last in the league in punt returns (averaging just 5.1 yards on 13 returns). They are also middle of the road in both kickoff coverage and kickoff returns.

Redshirt freshman Peyton Henry leads the Pac-12 with nine field goals made, but there is that one notable miss in the biggest moment of his young career.

Petersen’s conversations with Henry after the Oregon game? “I told him way back when: ‘You’ve got a nice leg and (if) you just keep working like you’re working, you’re going to do some really good things.’ All you want him to do is keep working. Be all in. Lock in. Put their best in they got and sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.” Grade: C-

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