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College Football Preview 2019: 14. Washington Huskies

14. Washington Huskies

Winning a third Pac-12 Title in four seasons will be difficult, but the Huskies should still be very much in the hunt

Jacob Eason

Offense: The Washington offense is undergoing a stark transition as they move on from the Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin era. The two long-time backfield mates won a lot of games in Seattle and finish their careers as the leading passer and leading rusher in UW history. Despite this, the Huskies still retain plenty of offensive firepower, including an intriguing transfer quarterback.

A former five-star recruit, Jacob Eason fell out of favor in his previous stop at Georgia due to an injury in 2017. With backup Jake Fromm coming in and looking terrific, as well as the addition of Justin Fields, Eason saw the writing on the wall and headed to the Pacific Northwest. He took 2018 off, but Husky coaches were impressed with his work ethic and feel for the game in practice. While he'll need some time to adjust, the general feel around the program is that his arm talent is far superior of the departed Browning's. Considering how mediocre Washington was throwing the ball last fall, a change in scenery at the QB position might actually be an upgrade in some ways.

Unfortunately, Washington does not have a former highly touted transfer at running back in the same way. Gaskin rushed for 1,268 yards in 2018 and he was incredibly reliable, consistently making important plays for this offense. It appears that head coach Chris Petersen and the rest of this coaching staff will now turn to junior Salvon Ahmed. Ahmed ran for 608 yards and seven scores in relief of Gaskin and is even more explosive in the open field. However, he doesn't have Gaskin's patience or vision, which could be a problem against stronger defenses. Junior Sean McGrew should also be featured as the 5'7" speedster is quite the elusive playmaker himself. This position will almost definitely see a decrease in production without Gaskin, but Ahmed should still be a solid consolation for 2019.

One of the major reasons for Washington's struggles through the air was the lack of a true, go-to receiver. Dante Pettis and John Ross III were crucial in years past, but they were long gone in '18. Instead, Aaron Fuller paced the team, with 874 receiving yards and 58 catches. Fuller isn't a speed demon but he is a crisp route runner with reliable hands. There is hope he can get even better this season, and Eason's big arm should help. Also back are UW's No. 2 and 3 guys in junior Ty Jones & senior Andre Baccellia. Jones is probably the the team's best deep threat and he is quite the difficult cover as a lengthy 6'4" option. Washington is also very hopeful that redshirt freshman Marquis Spiker, who came in with a lot of fanfare last year, is able to make an impact. He has real star talent and upside if used correctly.

Just as crucial for the Washington offense will be the health of tight end Hunter Bryant. Bryant caught 11 balls for 238 yards (21.6 average) in just five games last season, but he has proven he can be terrific when fully healthy. He seems to be fully recovered from a lingering knee injury and could be a serious candidate for the John Mackey Award (nation's best TE).

The strength of this offense could lie on the line, where four starters return, including a number of All-Conference players. The biggest name has to be Trey Adams, a senior left tackle who was an All-American in 2016 but has played just 11 games in total the last two seasons due to injury. UW should also be strong on the inside, with both guards returning, as well as veteran center Nick Harris.

Even with such high-profile losses, Washington's offense seems to be in a decent spot heading into 2019. Sure, that will mean Eason is immediately able to come in and make an impact, but he'll have the benefit of a great O-Line in front of him and a number of very good wide outs. Expect this to be one of the higher-scoring groups in the Pac-12.

Defense: Co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski have done a tremendous job with this Husky defense, consistently showing they can reload at every level. They may have to do just that in some key places this season, as the secondary and linebacker corps both are replacing a number of impact players.

While the defensive line will be without All-Pac-12 performer Greg Gaines, this should still be a formidable group. Senior Benning Potoa'e is a veteran who has proven he can play at the highest level and compete. He had 5.5 tackles for loss this past season and can play inside or out. Junior Levi Onwuzurike is also likely to start as an important piece to this rush defense, totaling 34 tackles and three sacks a year ago. The other projected starter in this 3-4 look is unclear at this point, and should be figured out come fall camp. Don't be surprised if a few newcomers get a lot of snaps, considering the lack of depth in this unit. That will include Jacob Bandes, who impressed over the course of the spring.

To call linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven a tackling machine doesn't even begin to explain what he meant to this defense. Burr-Kirven truly was everywhere at once, leading FBS football with a staggering 176 tackles, breaking up six passes and managing two interceptions. His departure leaves a major hole at the heart of this UW defense that will be nearly impossible to replicate. Two seniors, Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington, seem to have the inside track at the inside 'backer spots, but that could change going forward. Wellington had 28 tackles last season and is one of their top returning true defenders. Outside linebacker seems to be more of a problem, with a real lack of experience at the position. Sophomore Joe Tryon had some moments in 2018 and seemed to end spring as a likely starter.

Jimmy Lake has done wonders with Washington's secondary the last few seasons, with six Husky defensive backs taken in the last three seasons. That list includes three this past Draft, which means there will be some significant rebuilding for Lake and Washington on the back-end. The return of senior nickelback Myles Bryant is a superb place to start, as he comes off an All-Conference campaign in which he had 61 tackles and six pass deflections. Bryant will be asked to do even more in 2019, but he seems up to the challenge. The big concern is at cornerback, where UW is replacing two shutdown players in Byron Murphy & Jordan Miller. Junior Keith Taylor has played well as a reserve, and will likely be thrust into the No. 1 CB role. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Kyler Gordon & Dominique Hampton, are also likely to compete for a starting job. The safety position will undergo a transition away from do-it-all Taylor Rapp, but junior Elijah Molden has proven he can be a key piece.

With so much departing, it would be very understandable if this defense fell a little bit from their usual standards. Yet, this was a Top 20 unit group last season and there is enough of a starting point, with Bryant and company, for Lake and Kwiatkowski to work some serious magic.

Special Teams: Even though he struggled from extra long range, Washington kicker Peyton Henry proved to be solid a year ago, knocking 16 of 22 field goals. He'll hope to improve his long of 41, as he could face an interesting challenge from newcomer Tim Horn. Former junior college transfer Joel Whitford returns as the team's punter after averaging 41.3 yards per kick last season.

Bottom Line: With 32 wins over the past three seasons along with a Playoff berth, nobody can call the Jake Browning era disappointing. However, there is a sense around this 2019 team that even brighter days could be ahead behind the rocket arm of Eason and a talented group of receivers. In order for that to take shape, the Huskies will have to figure out some of the defensive question marks that are sure to linger into fall. Yet, that side of the ball has consistently proven it can reload as well as anywhere in the country, and Petersen's efforts on the recruiting trail have loaded this roster with talent top to bottom. Things are going to be difficult in a rapidly improving Pac-12 North; not only will UW deal with their in-state rival Washington State, as well as the ever-consistent Stanford, Oregon now appears to be rising fast. The Ducks will still have to travel to Seattle to come out with the division crown, which still essentially puts Washington in the driver's sea this fall. With an improved conference, a third Pac-12 Title in four seasons might be too much to ask for this retooling team. But, the Huskies still certainly have the pieces in place to return to a New Year's Six Bowl, which has been their home the last few years.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: QB Jacob Eason
Defensive MVP: NB Myles Bryant
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Salvon Ahmed
Impact Freshman: DT Jacob Bandes

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
2015: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
2016: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
2017: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
2018: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)

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