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2021 football preview: After winning the Pac-12 North in undistinguished fashion, Washington focuses on ‘unfinished business’

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

There may be no Pac-12 team more eager to put 2020 in the rear-view than the defending North Division champions.

Fact is, the Washington Huskies probably endured more grief than kudos for that distinction. Their showdown with Oregon that would have settled the issue got cancelled by COVID-19, as did their opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship game – the Ducks happily going on as replacements and winning. All in all, the Huskies’ title didn’t come with an asterisk so much as with an eye-roll emoji.

But regardless of whether there’s a championship within UW’s grasp this season, there’s certainly the prospect of getting a better handle on what the Jimmy Lake era might look like.

The Spokane-raised coach’s first season in charge after succeeding Chris Petersen was delayed, then severely abridged and ultimately inconclusive – a 3-0 start that ended with a loss to Stanford, with the trademark rugged defense and an often hiccupy attack. Lake himself called it “unfinished business.”

Some of the rough edges should be smoothed with the return of more than 80% of the starters. But for all the talent that finds its way to Montlake, some game-breaking skill position players still need to break through on offense.

Key pieces

Zion Tupuola-Fetui: Seven sacks in four games in 2020 suggested the Huskies had a potential defensive player of the year on their hands. Then came a torn Achilles tendon in April and the likelihood the sophomore outside linebacker would be lost for the season – until Lake dropped a pre-camp bombshell that Tupulola-Fetui would be back in the lineup sometime this fall. If there are not setbacks in that miraculous timeline and he returns at the same level, it would be a significant game-changer – but it’s trouble if the Huskies can’t generate enough pass rush in his absence.

Dylan Morris: Bringing the Huskies back from 21 points down against Utah – including the winning touchdown pass with 36 seconds left – may have been all that Lake needed to name Morris the starter on day one of camp this summer, rather than wait until game day like a year ago. That was also the game that hinted that Morris could be a make-something-happen quarterback and not just a secure-the-football-and-don’t-screw-it-up guy. Then again, ball security is no small feat for a young quarterback – or an older one, as Husky fans were reminded when Jacob Eason ran the show a couple years ago.

Cade Otton: He’s the Huskies’ best offensive player, period. He’s the elite-level pass catcher they really don’t have at wideout (he led UW in catches, yards and touchdowns in the abbreviated 2020 season), but he’s also a punishing blocker. And in an offense that uses multiple tight ends in multiple usages, he’s even more dangerous. He’ll likely attract enough attention from defenses to create more space for those wide receivers to grow their games, and he’s the perfect security blanket for a younger quarterback like Morris – who found him for two TDs in that comeback against Utah.

Brendan Radley-Hiles: Elijah Molden’s departure to the NFL could have left a gaping hole, but the transfer portal delivered an intriguing successor in “Bookie,” a three-year starter at Oklahoma known for his hard-hitting, a few-too-many unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties and being called out on TV by Kirk Herbstreit. That may not matter much to Husky fans who have their own issues with Herbstreit, but getting the maximum out of Radley-Hiles with a minimum of the fuss is a priority, though Lake has already gushed that he’s “going to energize our stadium.”

Filling in the blanks

Just your run of the mill reception committee. Let’s be real, there hasn’t been anything special about UW’s receiving corps since John Ross and Dante Pettis were making Jake Browning look better than he was. Puka Nacua’s decision to bolt after one season is just another elite recruit who didn’t pan out in a position group that has – by Lake’s standards – underperformed. Is this unit different? Well, the leader is still the mostly dependable, but never spectacular, veteran Terrell Bynum. A broken hand suffered by Jalen McMillan, who figured to be a starter, complicates matters, but Taj Davis had a nearly 200-yard receiving day in a recent scrimmage and portal arrivals Giles Jackson (Michigan) and Ja’Lynn Polk (Texas Tech) add intrigue.

Is there an alpha back in the house? It’s hard to imagine an elite Washington team without a dominant running back, but this position seems destined to be done by committee. Or whim. Last year, Richard Newton had the Huskies’ most carries through two games and was coming off an 81-yard effort against Arizona, when he was summarily benched by Lake for the last two games. He may be back in the lineup for the opener, but Sean McGrew, Cameron Davis and Kamari Pleasant will all get carries – and behind UW’s massive and veteran offensive line, it’s unlikely the rhythm will suffer all that much.

Safety counts. Standards are pretty high in the Husky secondary, so it’s something of an eyebrows-up that Cameron Williams and Julius Irvin have likely made the leap into the starting lineup over Asa Turner and Alex Cook, who occupied the safety spots most of 2020. There’s also an interesting upstart in Dominique Hampton, a swift and strong 220-pounder, though he may not have the coverage skills to be trusted in all situations.

Solving the puzzle

The relative conservatism of Washington’s offensive attack is the sort of thing that produces close games – probably too many of them – and close games lend themselves to upsets. It’s one reason why road games like Oregon State and Colorado on UW’s schedule look more dangerous than they probably should. But other than tight end Cade Otton, the Huskies don’t have an offensive player capable of breaking open games, and one of their game-breakers on defense – pass rusher extraordinaire Zion Tupuola-Fetui – is trying to rush himself back from Achilles tendon surgery. That doesn’t meant it can’t all come together in championship fashion, but the margin seems pretty thin.