SEATTLE – The news came, as it tends to these days, in a tweetstorm.
One by one Monday, appropriately spread out like a well-designed formation, three prominent Washington football players used the social-media platform to announce their intention to return for the 2021 season.
Suddenly, the gloom that had settled over the Husky program since the decision two weeks ago to shut down for the season began to lift just a little.
“Got some unfinished business with my brothers. Looking forward to getting back to work with my Dawgs. I’m coming back for another year Husky Nation!!” tweeted offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland, starting it off.
Later in the day, tight end Cade Otton began his tweet with a tease for those wondering if he was going to head to the NFL: “I’m declaring … That the Dawgs are coming for it ALL in 2021, and I can’t wait to be apart of it.” (Otton later sheepishly tweeted out a correction, pointing out that he meant to say “a part” not “apart” – which had an entirely different meaning if you took it literally. “Good thing I’m going back to school,” he said, punctuated with some laughing emojis.)
Next up was breakout linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, whose departure would have left a huge hole in the Husky defense: “I think it goes without saying that this team is just getting started, and so am I. See you next year Husky Nation!”
Late Monday night, running back Sean McGrew showed that he was his own man by using Instagram, not Twitter, to reveal his return: “Season didn’t end the way we wanted to, but me and my Dawgs got some unfinished business to handle. Coming back for one more season!!!! #6thyear”
So in one fell swoop, UW coach Jimmy Lake learned that three first-team All-Pac-12 players – Kirkland, Tupuola-Fetui and Otton – as well as his leading rusher, McGrew, were coming back. That same decision had already been announced by senior center Luke Wattenberg, meaning that the Huskies’ entire starting offensive line will return in 2021. Lake jokingly tweeted, “We Signed a Few 5 Star Players Today.”
And then, on Thursday, came one last gift to the program before the year ended: a tweet by senior outside linebacker Ryan Bowman that he, too, will be back in 2021.
Obviously, it’s not enough to guarantee a successful season (though Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News was impressed enough to instantly declare the Huskies to be the early front-runner over Oregon in the Pac-12 North Division). But it’s certainly better than the alternative, which was a tidal wave of defections. That could well have been the outcome after standout defensive backs Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor had already announced that they were forgoing their remaining college eligibility to turn pro. Otton and Kirkland, in particular, could easily have opted to begin their pro careers.
The Huskies are still awaiting the decisions of running back Kamari Pleasant and defensive tackle Josiah Bronson. It’s possible for the Huskies to have 20 of 22 starters back from the team that went 3-1 in their extremely abbreviated 2020 season.
The Huskies also watched three quarterbacks depart the program in rapid-fire succession – not surprisingly, the three who lost the battle for the starting job to Dylan Morris this fall. Kevin Thomson announced he was pursuing a pro career, while Jacob Sirmon and Ethan Garbers entered the transfer portal and wound up moving to, respectively, Central Michigan and UCLA.
That leaves Lake with a problem, though not a crisis – one that was partially solved Thursday.
Lake was facing the prospect of going into spring practice with just one scholarship quarterback, if five-star recruit Sam Huard opts to stay with his high school team, Kennedy Catholic, for its spring season. Instead, Lake dipped into the portal himself and got a commitment from Patrick O’Brien, a graduate transfer from Colorado State who originally signed with Nebraska.
The pending quarterback battle next fall between Huard and Morris (with O’Brien suddenly a wild card) will be a major story line. The Huskies will also need to sort out their receiving situation (with some pressure relieved by the return of their leading pass-catcher, Otton), shore up their run defense and recalibrate their secondary.
This is a year in which everyone was allowed to return for 2021 no matter how many seasons they’ve played college football. Bronson would be back for a seventh year if he so chooses, and Thomson could have opted for what would no doubt have been an unprecedented eighth year. It’s just one of myriad circumstances that make this such a unique season. Normally, the Huskies would have lost seniors such as Wattenberg, McGrew, Bowman and Bronson because their eligibility would have run out. But not in 2020.
Under normal circumstances, Monday could have been the day the Huskies were making final preparations for the Alamo Bowl against Texas the next day. Or, if you want to go down a full-bore revisionist track, they could have been hard at work getting ready for Sunday’s Fiesta Bowl vs. Iowa State. That would have happened if they had defeated USC for the Pac-12 title and stayed healthy.
Of course, a rash of COVID-19 cases in the program precluded their showdown game with Oregon, a possible title matchup with USC, and, ultimately, an appearance in a bowl game. It concluded a disjointed season with an empty feeling.
There was some good news this week with the announcement that the entire athletic program has zero active positive COVID-19 cases. And more good news with all the players who decided to return for 2021.
On the last day of a year that will be forever known for its horridness, it’s wise to take your positivity where you can.
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