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Washington preview: All eyes will be on quarterback competition in Jimmy Lake’s first season in charge of the Huskies

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

However he managed to get under Mike Leach’s skin over the years in Apple Cup after Apple Cup, Jimmy Lake surely wasn’t afraid to crib a little strategy from the man upon becoming a head coach himself.

No, there will be no Air Raid knockoff when Lake’s Washington Huskies open their even further COVID-delayed 2020 football season Nov. 14 at home against Oregon State.

Nor any soliloquies about raccoons.

But when the Huskies issued their initial depth chart prior to the weekend opener, the quarterback position featured four names all linked by the designation “OR” – as in any of the four could be the starter. You might recall Leach pulling a similar, uh, deception during the entirety of the 2019 season, even as Anthony Gordon started all 13 games and took 97% of the snaps.

Lake’s ruse likely won’t have the same legs – and the fact is, the intrigue with the Huskies goes beyond the quarterback position.

It starts with Lake himself, whose work as UW’s defensive coordinator – particularly in foiling Washington State – made him a quick and popular choice to be elevated when Chris Petersen made his surprise retirement announcement not quite a year ago.

First-time head coaches always bring some degree of mystery, and how the boldness that always infused Lake’s defenses plays on the offensive side of the ball will be tracked closely. The Huskies were ninth in the Pac-12 in offense in 2019, which in large measure accounted for their slip to 4-5 in conference play last season and a consolation-prize bowl after three straight seasons in major postseason games.

But it’s not just the head coach who’s new. Outside of Lake’s beloved secondary, there’s been considerable personnel churn. What’s left is a lineup short on experience – just 10 scholarship seniors, and eight in the junior class. There’s some spectacular young talent from UW’s recruiting hauls, but in a shortened Pac-12 season a certain urgency might weigh against their usefulness – or demand their development be accelerated.

Offense

OK, Lake isn’t going to play four quarterbacks. But maybe three?

“If we go into the game and we still like three of them,” he said last month, “then maybe all three are going to play.”

That’s unlikely, too, but it’s entirely possible that the Huskies might dabble with two – at least early on – and it seems that the two most likely are graduate transfer Kevin Thomson and redshirt freshman Dylan Morris, with sophomore Jacob Sirmon behind them.

Thomson was the Big Sky Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year at Sacramento State in 2019, and third in the voting for the Walter Payton Award honoring the best player in the Football Championship Subdivision. His 27 passing touchdowns helped the Hornets to a share of the Big Sky title, but he also ran for 619 yards and 12 TDs, and that mobility is a dimension the Huskies could use. He’s also the only one in UW’s quarterback room with significant collegiate experience – Sirmon’s contributions being some mop-up snaps a year ago.

The situation is different, but no clearer, among UW’s running backs. Even with the exit of 1,000-yard back Salvon Ahmed, the Huskies have some experience. Sean McGrew had a pair of 100-yard games in 2019, and Richard Newton’s goal-line acumen produced 10 touchdowns. Still, the first depth chart listed the starter as senior Kamari Pleasant, who’s produced modest numbers in 26 appearances – and left off young Cameron Davis, who may be the most gifted.

Things are only somewhat more settled up front. The only two holdover starters have changed position – Jaxson Kirkland to left tackle and Luke Wattenberg to center. But guards Ulumoo Ale and Henry Bainivalu are massive, and there’s no reason this can’t be one of UW’s better lines.

If it’s Lake’s intention to break opponents with the ground game, the Huskies still need vast improvement – that is to say, consistency – from their receivers. Hunter Otton is a top-shelf tight end, but a No. 2 has to emerge – Spokane Prep’s Devin Culp perhaps? – in an offense that uses multiple big formations. At wideout, Terrell Bynum and, before he broke his foot, Puka Nacua showed promising flashes in 2019, but this group seems to lack a proven gamebreaker.

Defense

Producing NFL-caliber players has become something of a tradition in UW’s secondary, so it stands to reason that unit will be the heart and soul of the Husky defense again.

And this time around, it’s a veteran unit as well. Players with starting experience return at all five secondary positions, which Lake likes to think of as interchangeable. Elijah Molden, the de facto nickel back, is All-America material, and the other holdovers – safeties Asa Turner and Cameron Williams and corners Trent McDuffie and Keith Taylor – are going to be tough to displace. Yet it looks like junior Alex Cook, a converted receiver, may get a start at safety, possibly because he’s the biggest hitter at the position. And eventually you’d have to think that Kyler Gordon, maybe the program’s most impressive athlete, will get some reps.

That group might get tested a little more if the Huskies can’t generate a push up front. Both Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon left the program when it appeared the Pac-12 wouldn’t play football in 2020, at a huge cost to the pass rush. A slimmed down – to 305 pounds – Tuli Letuligasenoa steps in for Onwuzurike in the middle and Laiatu Latu takes over for Tryon, though blue-chip freshman Sav’ell Smalls will be hard to keep off the field. Ryan Bowman is among the Pac-12’s more underrated rushers.

If there’s a weak spot, though, it may be at inside linebacker, where play was spotty a year ago. Edefuan Ulofoshio, a one-time walk-on, worked his way into the starting lineup late and is a budding leader. He’ll be paired with Sirmon’s cousin Jackson, a part-time player a year ago.

Special teams

Placekicker Peyton Henry doesn’t have a show-off leg – he tried just three field goals beyond 40 yards last year. But he was 19 of 21 on all field goals and perfect on 49 PATs, which earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors. Race Porter looks to inherit the punting gig that Joel Whitford excelled in last season. Gordon should get to display his athleticism as a returner, along with McGrew and McDuffie.

Schedule and analysis

Lake revealed that the Huskies hit and tackled more in preseason this year than ever before “just to get these guys ready to go. So now we feel like we’ve got two, three games under our belt before we actually play our first Pac-12 game.”

The hope was that could help UW get off to a quick start to the season against Cal, but Saturday’s season opener against the Golden Bears was canceled and ruled a no-contest due to a Cal player testing positive for COVID-19.

UW’s other road games are the Apple Cup – where Lake will see if his defense works as well against the new run-and-shoot as it did against Leach’s Air Raid – and at Oregon just before the Pac-12’s championship weekend.

Even in an abbreviated season, this doesn’t seem like UW’s best chance to challenge the Ducks – not with such uncertainty at quarterback and such big strides to take at running back and receiver. But maybe the defense will develop enough up front to keep the Huskies in the hunt.

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