STANFORD, Calif. – Did the future arrive inside Stanford Stadium on Saturday night?
OK, maybe that’s saying too much. After all, a 20-13 win over 3-5 Stanford is not the same as toppling the 2004 USC Trojans (or even the 2021 Oregon Ducks, who UW will see inside Husky Stadium next Saturday). These 4-4 Huskies remain frustratingly flawed – with inconsistent play calling, holes along both sides of the line and an unsustainably streaky passing attack.
And yet, there were individual performances that should encourage UW football fans. The most encouraging part was who made the plays.
It was second-year freshman inside linebacker Carson Bruener, making plays; second-year freshman wide receivers Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, making plays; redshirt freshman running back Cameron Davis, making plays; true freshman defensive lineman Voi Tunuufi, making plays; redshirt freshman left tackle Troy Fautanu, making plays; redshirt freshman cornerback Mishael Powell, making plays; second-year freshman outside linebacker Cooper McDonald, making plays.
No one made more than Bruener, who collected 16 tackles (nine more than anyone else), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his first career start. After standout inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio sustained a season-ending arm injury against UCLA, Bruener – a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder, and the son of Husky and NFL tight end Mark Bruener – was told Thursday he’d start ahead of redshirt freshman Daniel Heimuli.
“I was a little bit shocked, honestly,” Bruener said on Saturday night. “I knew I was playing good, and both Daniel and I have been splitting reps with the ones at the MIKE (position). He’s a player himself. We both love each other up, help each other each and every practice. So I think we’re a pretty good duo. When (defensive coordinator Bob Gregory) told me I was starting, I was like, ‘All right, well it’s my time to shine. Let’s see what I can do.’”
He did plenty, all while Ulofoshio texted tips. Meanwhile, Mark Bruener – currently a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers – watched the game as well.
Though, technically, he was watching … and working.
“It was cool, seeing (my parents) here,” Carson Bruener said. “Ever since I started playing (more) – a game ago, I guess – my dad was able to fly out. Now my parents are like, ‘All right, we’re not missing another game.’ So they’ve been able to come. I saw them after the game. It was amazing to see them. With (my dad), I talked to him a little bit. He was like, ‘Well, the scouts were talking about you.’”
Added UW quarterback Dylan Morris: “That dude’s got such an unbelievable motor. He’s got the bloodline in him and he bleeds purple and gold. He’ll lay his heart on the line out there for any of us, and I think that just really showed. It’s super cool to see a freshman work like that.”
But he’s far from the only freshman who put in work. With sixth-year outside linebacker Ryan Bowman out for the season with a shoulder injury, Tunuufi was counted on for more pass rush – and he provided plenty. The 6-1, 275-pounder – whose former coach at Salt Lake East High School, Brandon Matich, once told The Times that “I’ve never seen feet quicker than his” – produced the first two sacks of his college career.
It was a physical eruption made possible by a mental readiness.
“He’s very understanding. He knows the magnitude, the seriousness of high-level football and high-level defense,” UW defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles said this month. “So when you speak to him, you don’t think he’s as young as he is. The same conversations that me and Ryan Bowman have – Ryan has played a lot of football here, he’s our big dawg – so when me and Ryan talk football, and I speak football with Voi, there’s no drop off. The same terminology that I can use with Ryan, Voi understands it. That’s pretty impressive, being a young guy in the program.”
Given the program’s injuries, “young guys” will be counted on to help the Huskies climb out of Pac-12 purgatory – guys like Bruener and Tunuufi and Cameron Davis, who rushed for 99 yards and 5.5 yards per carry in the most consistent work of his college career.
“We all know what (injured running back Richard Newton) can do. We all know what Sean (McGrew) and Kamari Pleasant can do,” said UW head coach Jimmy Lake. “Maybe this is the first time that everybody sees what Cam Davis can do with extended carries. This is the most carries he’s ever had, and you can see the burst. You can see the vision. This is everything that we see in practice.”
For the 4-4 Huskies to achieve bowl eligibility – and maybe, just maybe, upset rival Oregon this week – practice potential must translate into game production. And Lake owes it to himself and his program to see what he has.
That means feeding young players like Davis and Tunuufi and Bruener, for better or worse. It means occasionally allowing freshman quarterback Sam Huard to do more than hand the ball off, then sprint to the sideline. It means assessing and understanding UW’s positional depth, so he can reinforce his roster via (gulp) high school recruiting and the transfer portal.
A bowl game, of course, is the primary goal.
But it’s also time to prepare this team for 2022 and beyond.
Husky fans got a glimpse of a brighter future on Saturday night. Lake would be wise to place his faith in that future the rest of the way.
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