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College Football Preview 2018: 6. Washington Huskies

6. Washington Huskies

They look like the clear favorite in the Pac-12, but Jake Browning will decide whether this team is ready to seriously challenge the nation's elite

Myles Gaskin

Offense: Washington's 2016 offense was one of the best in school history, as the Huskies averaged nearly 42 points per game, eighth nationally. That group took a step back in 2017, as UW missed wide out John Ross' game-breaking speed on the outside. The good news is that most of the significant pieces from that '17 offense are returning, including a veteran quarterback.

That veteran QB is senior Jake Browning, who has started 39 games in his Washington career. Browning enters 2018 with something to prove; after being a Heisman finalist and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in '16, he was just an honorable mention pick in the league. He had 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns, both numbers down significantly from the year prior. Browning has the arm strength and feel for the game to be an elite-level QB, and there is no denying how good of a team this is when he plays at that level. He could well be the difference between this team being a ten-win team, and them winning it all.

Running back is in good hands, as the Huskies bring back senior Myles Gaskin, who is on the verge of becoming Washington's all-time leading rusher. Gaskin isn't going to run anyone over, but he is a quick, shifty athlete that proved last year he could lead this offense, with 1,380 yards and 21 touchdowns on the season. Sophomore Salvon Ahmed impressed as a true freshman last year, and should see more action this season as an electrifying playmaker.

Despite a productive season from Dante Pettis (63 catches, 761 yards), the Huskies definitely missed John Ross in 2017. Ross stretched the defense vertically, which opened up a ton of different things for this offense. Now, UW must deal with replacing Pettis, putting a ton of pressure on this maturing receiver group. The hope is senior Chico McClatcher can rebound after suffering a broken ankle last year, or junior Aaron Fuller takes a major step forward. There is also hope the top prize of the 2017 recruiting class, Marquis Spiker, can make an instant impact. Spiker has game-breaking speed and has the look of a star receiver at this level, but he will need time. Sophomore tight end Hunter Bryant should provide a bright spot. Bryant quietly had 331 yards receiving last year and proved he could stretch the field, averaging 15 yards per catch. If he can take a step forward and some combination of McClatcher/Fuller/Spiker emerge, this unit should be able to replicate Pettis' impact.

The offensive line is going to be very good, as four starters return to a group that played very well towards the end of '17. There is loads of veteran experience, headed by the two tackles, seniors Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary. McGary was All-Pac-12 a year ago and remains one of the premier pass blockers in the conference, while Adams is hoping to regain his 2016 form after missing half of last year with a knee injury. Junior center Nick Harris and senior guard Jesse Sosebee are also returning.

Even without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver at this juncture, Washington's offense looks like one of the Pac-12's top units entering 2018. There is a ton of experience at every level, and good overall balance between the run and pass. Head coach Chris Petersen and this offensive staff should have plenty of fun trying new and unique things with this group.

Defense: Playing in the high-scoring Pac-12, Washington's defense often gets ignored. That shouldn't be the case in 2018, as this side of the ball has all the tools to be very dominant, particularly on the back-end.

UW will definitely miss high NFL Draft selection Vita Vea on the defensive line, but they should still form a formidable pass rush. Senior Greg Gaines is an All-Conference talent that should really take over in Vea's absence. The veteran has played 33 games at nose tackle, and knows how to be disruptive in this conference. Junior end Benning Potoa'e is a rock-solid pass rusher that drew good reviews coming out of the spring, but the starting spot left by Vea is still up for grabs as fall camp continues.

The Huskies had one of the nation's best rush defenses (fourth in total yardage) in 2017, thanks not only to Vea and Gaines' work, but the rangy linebacker corps. Seniors Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven are two of the better linebackers in the conference, a pair of smart, athletic defenders. Burr-Kirven led the team in tackles a year ago with 84, while Bartlett proved to be more of a blitzer, with 12 TFL. Washington's staff is very excited about newcomer Ale Kaho, a five-star recruit out of Las Vegas. A lot of people expect the true freshman to see snaps right away, perhaps even vie for a starting spot at outside linebacker, even though he is more natural on the inside.

2017 was a rebuilding year for Washington's secondary, as they had to replace three NFL Draftees in Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King. It was rebuilt just fine, and now has a chance to be pretty special. Sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy went from a star on the scout team to a key cog in the back, picking off two passes and deflecting seven passes despite dealing with injuries. He will be aided by two veterans, junior Austin Joyner and senior Jordan Miller at that cornerback position. This defense often lines up with five defensive backs on the field, which should be very helpful in getting UW's talent in the secondary on the field, including safeties Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh. Rapp is perhaps the most important defender on the team, a rangy defender who knows how to make the big play.

Washington allowed just 16.1 PPG and under 300 yards per game in 2017, both in the Top 10 nationally. They did that with a secondary that was retooling heavily and a front seven that wasn't incredibly deep. With both those things looking much improved entering '18, this defense should certainly be one of the elite nationally again.

Special Teams: Maybe the biggest question mark on Washington's entire team is placekicker, where they were just 13 of 22 (59%) on field goals in 2017. Sophomore Van Soderberg is the favorite to win the job, but he was just 1/3 last year and needs refinement. Punter should be in good position with junior Joel Whitford back, and the return game has a number of weapons.

Following the highs of the 2016 that included the program's first ever Playoff berth, 2017 felt a little bit disappointing in Seattle. Considering they still won ten games and played for a Fiesta Bowl, that should say something about how much Chris Petersen has elevated the program. Last year's disappointment should also serve as motivation for this 2018 squad, which could be the best Petersen has had since arriving here. There is experience at every single level throughout the offense and defense, and few clear weaknesses. The X-factor has to be Browning; if he can regain his 2016 form this Huskies team has more than enough to win the conference and seriously compete for a National Title. Yet, if Browning again has a year like 2017, this Washington team should still be good, but not yet ready to compete on a national stage. The September 1st opener against Auburn in Atlanta should give us a pretty good indication of which UW we'll see in 2018.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12, Win Pac-12 Championship)
Offensive MVP: RB Myles Gaskin
Defensive MVP: S Taylor Rapp
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Hunter Bryant

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