SEATTLE – Washington’s spring practices were supposed to start this week.
There were supposed to be news conferences and footwork drills and playbook installations. There were supposed to be quarterback competitions and depth chart updates and new assistant coaches’ practice debuts.
And instead, the drought continues.
Of course, all of those things will happen eventually, once the coronavirus is eradicated and college football is shaken happily out of its monthslong hibernation.
But for now, folks, all we really have is each other. We have hope for a 2020 season that is somewhat uncertain. We have the same stale questions, to ponder and pull apart and project.
And sure, like UW coach Jimmy Lake said this week, maybe those 15 practices will still happen in June. Maybe these questions will be addressed earlier than anticipated.
But until then, here are five UW football storylines we weren’t able to see this spring.
The quarterback competition
Well, duh. There was never any question what was going to top the list. And in this case, UW’s impending quarterback competition – between redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris and early enrollee freshman Ethan Garbers – seems remarkably even. They’re all overwhelmingly inexperienced, with Sirmon leading the way with three (!) collegiate passes to his name. They were all former four-star prospects. They’re all primarily pocket passers. There are differences, sure, but the similarities stand out.
And, of particular note, first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Donovan will install a new pro-style offense this offseason – which, on the outside, should even the playing field even further. It’s obviously unfortunate for the 6-foot-3, 193-pound Garbers – who enrolled in the spring quarter with the intention of getting a head start on that competition – that those practices appear bound for permanent cancellation.
But, more broadly, it’s bad news for UW’s football program as a whole. Because without much Pac-12 experience to speak of, the Huskies’ trio of scholarship quarterbacks could use all the practice they can get.
The running back rotation
UW is down its starter at running back, same as just about every other offensive position, outside of offensive guard. Salvon Ahmed – who decided to forego his senior season to enter the 2020 NFL draft – rushed for 1,020 yards with 5.4 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns in 2019. But, with a talented stable of tailbacks returning, will the Huskies actually feel his absence?
That list should probably start with redshirt sophomore Richard Newton, who runs like a tornado tearing mercilessly through a town. The Lancaster, California, product – who dropped 5 pounds this offseason, settling at 208 – rushed for 498 yards and 4.3 yards per carry while scoring 11 touchdowns in his collegiate debut. But Newton also missed three games with injuries, and he’s amassed a number of injury issues both in high school and college.
Thus, UW will want to lean on a committee of capable tailbacks this fall. And senior Sean McGrew certainly fits the bill. The 5-7, 185-pounder runs with more toughness than his diminutive frame suggests, and he actually piled up a pair of 100-yard rushing performances last season. He also led all UW scholarship backs with 6.2 yards per carry. McGrew is a reliable change-of-pace back who should complement Newton, and can also be featured in the return game as well.
Beyond those two, redshirt freshman Cameron Davis (6-0, 200) is an intriguing option who could see his role grow in his second season. Senior Kamari Pleasant (6-0, 221) added another 8 pounds this offseason and might vie for carries as a short-yardage back. And eventually, true freshmen Sam Adams II and JayVeon Sunday will also join the competition.
It wouldn’t answer everything, but spring practices could have provided a sneak peek at UW’s new backfield pecking order. Instead, I’ve got too much time to think of creative ways to describe Newton’s running style.
The wide receiver shuffle
No Aaron Fuller. No Andre Baccellia. No Chico McClatcher. No Quinten Pounds.
Indeed, many Husky football fans grew frustrated with the team’s veteran starters at wide receiver in 2019. But while there’s still plenty of talent on the roster, there’s no guarantee it’ll translate to instant success. Still, two assumed starters are redshirt junior Terrell Bynum and sophomore Puka Nacua – both of whom emerged in the second half last season. The 6-1, 188-pound Bynum combined for 13 catches in back-to-back games against Oregon and Utah and scored the first two touchdowns of his career in UW’s final two games. Nacua also averaged a whopping 24 yards per reception before his season ended abruptly because of a broken foot.
The real intrigue here, however, comes with Washington’s sheer number of capable targets. Ty Jones, Jordan Chin, Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne would all have been looking to climb the depth chart this spring, and the freshman trio of Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze and Sawyer Racanelli could foreseeably make a splash when (if?) they arrive on campus this summer.
That’s a lot of names. It’s a lot of options. But we’ll see how many of them ultimately step up.
The inside linebacker conundrum
At this point, we know that – when UW hosts Michigan, whenever that actually happens – two players will start at inside linebacker for Washington.
That’s about all we know.
At this point, we think one of them will be 6-foot, 234-pound former walk-on Edefuan Ulofoshio, who exploded onto the scene last season after M.J. Tafisi went out with an injury. The Anchorage, Alaska, product had 32 tackles combined against Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State, and added 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble on the season.
But who will slide in next to him? The primary candidates seem to be redshirt sophomores Jackson Sirmon and Tafisi, or redshirt freshmen Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Alphonzo Tuputala and Miki Ah You. It seemed Calvert would contribute in his freshman season before a knee injury took him out of action in fall camp.
Regardless of who ultimately produces, Bob Gregory’s group needs to be better on the second level. A potentially dominant defense won’t reach its collective ceiling if the Husky inside linebackers don’t also do their part.
The coaching dynamic
Jimmy Lake is a head coach for the first time. Ikaika Malloe has been promoted to co-defensive coordinator. They’re joined on staff by new UW assistants John Donovan (offensive coordinator and QBs), Derham Cato (tight ends) and Terrence Brown (assistant defensive backs).
How does practice look or feel different with Lake in charge? How does Donovan relate to his quarterbacks? What do the offensive installations look like? How are the drills different? How is the pace different? How much focus does Lake actually give to the offense? Will practice access for the media and public be altered in a new era, with a somewhat similar staff?
All are questions without suitable answers – for now.
Hopefully – come summer and a new season – much more will become clear.
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