SEATTLE – An unprecedented season has given way to an unprecedented offseason.
And, because NCAA eligibility was essentially paused this season, UW’s senior standouts suddenly have the option of returning for a final run in 2021. Of course, there’s also a host of Huskies who must decide in the coming days whether to declare early for the NFL draft.
For now, UW’s roster remains in flux.
So far, defensive backs Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor and quarterback Kevin Thomson have opted to pursue an NFL future, while DB Brandon McKinney, QB Jacob Sirmon and wide receiver Jordan Chin have plummeted into the transfer portal. On the other side, starting center Luke Wattenberg announced last week that he will return to Washington for a sixth season in 2021.
But here are some other Huskies who face an impending decision on whether to return to UW next fall.
Cade Otton, TE, Jr.
Otton’s face could probably be found in the encyclopedia entry for an NFL tight end. The talented tight end from Tumwater possesses the size, athleticism, hands and blocking ability to make a seamless transition to professional football. In four games as a true junior, the first-team All-Pac-12 performer amassed team-highs in catches (18), receiving yards (258) and receiving touchdowns (3), while also excelling as a bruising blocker.
But will he decide to declare for the 2021 NFL draft?
“Cade Otton, I say he’s one of the best in the country because I know what the NFL’s looking for,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said this month. “They’re not looking for guys to just flex out and catch passes all day. They want a guy that can line up on the outside of an offensive tackle, kick out a 9-technique, double down on a 6-technique (defensive end or outside linebacker), drive guys off the line of scrimmage, double up to a linebacker and seal him off so they have the run game going on offense, and then be able to release and go make catches.
“For the tape that I’ve seen, Cade Otton is one of the best in the country.”
And, should Otton leave, UW would be left without an array of experience at tight end. Devin Culp (one catch for 15 yards) and Jack Westover (one catch for nine yards) are the only other tight ends who caught a pass this season, and Westover operates more as an H-back than a true tight end. Without its most proven pass-rusher, Washington would likely lean on transfer tight end Quentin Moore to make an immediate impact and second-year freshman Mark Redman to assume a larger role.
Because, as we know, Lake and offensive coordinator John Donovan are keen on featuring that particular position.
“We’re going to be in two-tight end sets, one-tight end sets, three-tight end sets, four-tight end sets, three-receiver sets, four-receiver sets,” Lake said last week. “It’s going to be very, very multiple, which you guys have seen. You guys have only seen the beginning of it.”
Jaxson Kirkland, LT, R-Jr.
UW redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Morris was sacked one time in four games – and even then, he ran out of bounds without ever being touched.
And, without a doubt, that’s a credit to a lot of people and things – the offensive line, the scheme, Morris’ ability to switch protections and maneuver the pocket and get the ball out of his hands.
But Kirkland may deserve as much credit as anyone.
The 6-7, 295-pounder from Portland made an impressive shift from right guard to left tackle this season, and was subsequently named an All-Pac-12 performer this week. He has started 29 games in the last three seasons, proving both reliable and athletically versatile. He has the frame and football bloodlines that the NFL covets.
So, with all that said, will he ultimately stay or go?
UW center Luke Wattenberg has already announced he will return for a sixth season in 2021, and should Kirkland follow suit, the Huskies would likely bring back their entire starting offensive line. That would be a boon to a Husky offense looking to establish itself as the most physical unit out west.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, OLB, R-So.
The issue here is the sample size.
In his first three starts at UW this fall, redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui registered seven sacks and three forced fumbles – winning Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week honors three consecutive times. Unsurprisingly, he was named to the All-Pac-12 first team this week, and could have conceivably been named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as well. It was an explosive impression for the 6-3, 280-pounder from Pearl City.
But was it enough?
Probably not. It’s hard to imagine “ZTF” – who also contributed nine tackles in 12 games as a reserve in 2019 – declaring for the NFL draft after such limited theatrics in a four-game sprint. And, should he return, he’d be expected to wreak more havoc alongside a healthy Laiatu Latu, Sav’ell Smalls and possibly Ryan Bowman.
That’s a pretty pass-rushing picture for UW football fans.
Ryan Bowman, OLB, Sr.
Speaking of Bowman, the fifth-year senior outside linebacker did not play in UW’s final two games this season for unspecified reasons. And without him, Washington allowed 406 rushing yards and 4.95 yards per carry against the likes of Utah and Stanford. The impact of his absence was obvious.
Though Bowman has been a somewhat underappreciated performer throughout his career, he remains a vital cog in UW’s front seven. He rushes the passer, sets the edge and stops the run. In 2019, he contributed 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in 13 games.
Because of the eligibility pause, Bowman would be allowed to return to Washington for a sixth season in 2021.
And the Huskies need him more than most UW fans probably know.
Sean McGrew, RB, Sr. and Kamari Pleasant, RB, Sr.
UW could conceivably return its top two rushers – both already fifth-year seniors – in 2021.
McGrew led the way with 227 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per carry and four touchdowns in four games last fall, while Pleasant added 210 total yards, 4.2 yards per rush and three touchdowns as well.
But, before the senior day game against Stanford, McGrew said his Husky future was still uncertain.
“It’s definitely something I thought about before the season and something I’m thinking about right now,” McGrew said. “I still have no comment on that, because I don’t know what I’m about to do yet.”
Of course, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha’s stable also consists of redshirt sophomore Richard Newton, redshirt freshman Cameron Davis, true freshmen Jay’Veon Sunday and Sam Adams II and incoming freshman Caleb Berry. There’s no shortage of options to go around.
But McGrew and/or Pleasant’s returns would provide some needed stability in the backfield just the same.
Josiah Bronson, DT, Sr.
Could Bronson really be a seventh-year senior?
The answer is yes … if he chooses to be. The 6-3, 300-pound defensive lineman initially signed with Temple in 2015, before losing two seasons due to injury and transferring closer to home in 2017. He made 23 tackles with four tackles for loss and two sacks while starting 11 games in 2019, then was granted an extra year of eligibility last offseason.
Should Bronson return – again – he’d provide depth for a UW defensive line that struggled to reach its standard last season. Redshirt sophomores Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani and redshirt freshmen Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes would also enter the equation. And, don’t forget, UW also signed three more defensive linemen – Kuao Peihopa, Voi Tunuufi and Siaosi Finau – in December.
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