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College Football Preview 2021: 23. Washington Huskies

Richard Newton, Washington

23. Washington Huskies

Jimmy Lake gets a true "Year One" at the helm, but are the offensive pieces enough to overcome Oregon in the Pac-12 North?

2020 Review
It's hard to take anything away from Washington - or really any Pac-12 team - during the 2020 "season". The Huskies ended up playing just four games and were forced to forfeit their spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game due to COVID issues. UW did go 3-1 in the abbreviated campaign, although every single game was at home due to strange scheduling quirks. There were plenty of positives to take away from the campaign for head coach Jimmy Lake, who now gets his first full off-season leading the program. Lake served as long-time co-defensive coordinator before being handed the head coaching job prior to 2020, after Chris Petersen's shocking retirement. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: The first, most important decision Lake and OC John Donovan will have to make entering 2021 is who their quarterback will be. Although incumbent starter Dylan Morris remains in town, he will almost surely be pushed by highly touted newcomer Sam Huard.

Morris put up solid numbers across the board, throwing for 897 and four touchdowns with a 61% completion percentage. However, he never really jumped out the screen at you and his arm strength appeared rather limited. Meanwhile Huard, who is the son of former NFL QB Damon, is a gunslinger at the position rated as the top pro-style QB in the 2021 Class. Certainly Morris' grasp of the playbook gives them the early edge, but this is a position battle to keep an eye on in fall camp and the early portions of the season.

Running back is another spot with several players vying for the feature role. Senior Sean McGrew led the team in rushing in 2020, totaling 227 yards and four scores. But, don't be surprised if he is pushed by senior Kamari Pleasant or junior Richard Newton, both who saw action last fall. Pleasant is the "big-play" option in the offense and can catch the ball out of the backfield, but his 4.2 YPC in '20 don't inspire a ton of confidence.

It will be interesting to see who is able to take over the reigns as the true, No. 1 receiver. Youngster Puka Nacua was extremely talented and hauled in nine catches for 151 yards in 2020, but he transferred out to BYU. That leaves senior Terrell Bynum as the top returner at receiver, a guy who has waited his turn in Seattle. He's flashed big-play potential, but whether he's able to take it up a notch and be the No. 1 guy remains to be seen. Don't be surprised if a younger guy really steps up and asserts himself as the real go-to guy in this offense. My money would be on dynamic redshirt freshman Jalen McMillan, who has all the tools and played in three games last year. A pair of former transfers, Ja'Lynn Polk and Giles Jackson, may also be ready to make an impact. Polk comes up from Texas Tech, while Jackson played in a similar offense during his time with Michigan.

Although UW may be slightly thin at receiver, at least for the time being, they might have one of the best tight end rooms in the entire country. Veteran Cade Otton flirted with the idea of going pro but instead decided to return, following a season in which he went for 18 receptions, 258 yards and three touchdowns. Otton might not be the most athletic tight end in the country, but he's a crisp route runner who is excellent at working in traffic. Junior Devin Culp operates as a backup and while he hasn't seen a ton of action so far in his Husky career, he has potential to be a real red zone threat.

The strength of this entire offense is unquestionably in the trenches, where all five Washington starting linemen return for the first time since 1960. Those starters run from left to right: Jaxson Kirkland, Ulumoo Ale, Luke Wattenberg, Henry Bainivalu, and Victor Curne. Kirkland and Wattennberg, both redshirt seniors, operate as the headliners and the All-League talents, but Ale and Bainivalu play a huge role opening up running lanes. With all this proven experience back, there's no reason why this shouldn't be one of the best offensive lines anywhere in the nation.

The list of proven stars on this offense are slim, but there's still enough pieces here for this group to be good enough to get Washington where they want to go. The quarterback situation is fascinating, but having such a strong O-Line should put them in a good spot. 

Defense: The real reason for Washington's consistent success near the top of the Pac-12 over the last half-decade has been their defense, and I suspect that to be the case again in 2021. Although defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski moves on to the same role at Texas, new DC Bob Gregory has enough pieces in place to keep this group humming.

It was hard to get a read on Washington's defensive line during the four-game 2020 season. Star Levi Onwuzurike opted out before the season began and the group dealt with injuries and inexperience when they did play. In the Huskies' defense, that often resembled a 2-4-5 under Kwiatkowski, defensive linemen were often invisible, but still played crucial roles. We will see if that changes under Gregory, whose likely to keep most of the systems in place that his predecessor ran. The likely starters are a pair of juniors, Sam Taimani and Tuli Letuligasenoa, although they may be pushed by redshirt sophomore Jacob Bandes. Bandes saw a slight uptick in playing time last fall and the staff has long been excited about his long-term potential on the line.

The strength of the defense should lie in the linebacker corps, which boasts a bonafide star in Zion Tupuola-Fetui and some intriguing young talent. Tupuola-Fetui, known widely as "ZTF" was absolutely dominant in 2020, finishing with seven sacks and making his presence felt in a big way. If you go back and just watch the Utah game, it's amazing the impact "ZTF" made, as he had six tackles, three sacks, and then forced a fumble which he recovered and nearly brought back to the house. Blockers will likely be more keyed in on him in 2021, but he's talented enough to assert himself as a household name on the West Coast.

The starter at outside linebacker opposite of "ZTF" should be senior Ryan Bowman, who isn't quite the playmaker of his OLB counterpart, but still has put together a quality Husky career. Don't be surprised if he's also pushed by a former big-name recruit in redshirt freshman Sav'ell Smalls. The Washington native was a five-star prospect and the top rated player in the state a season ago. He has an NFL future and saw a healthy dose of action as a freshman, playing in all four games. Expect this staff to find ways to get him on the field, even if Bowman still is the primary starter. 

At inside linebacker, both Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon are back. The pair led the Huskies in tackles a season ago and Ulofoshio had 47 in total. They'll be key in once again guiding what should be a very stout Washington rush defense. 

In the defensive backfield, Elijah Molden is unquestionably a major loss. Molden earned a laundry list of accolades during his three seasons in Seattle and finished off 2020 with 26 tackles and an interception, before going on to be a third-round selection. The good news is that UW continues to recruit and develop the secondary as well as anybody in the Pac-12 and one of the best nationally. Junior Trent McDuffie appears ready to step up and be the top corner on the roster, coming off a year in which he had 14 tackles and played quality football. Junior Kyler Gordon is going to start opposite him, a guy who waited his turn and impressed during his playing time in 2020 as well.

Both safety spots appear to be in a decent spot, with veterans Asa Turner and Dominique Hampton in the fold. Hampton will see a very expanded role after barely seeing the field last fall, but he's been in the system long enough you expect him to acclimate quickly. Nickelback is maybe the most interesting spot on this defense heading into 2021. The Huskies bring in a well-known transfer in Brendan Radley-Hiles, who was one of the nation's top defensive back recruits when he first arrived at Oklahoma. Radley-Hiles displayed potential while in Norman, but also had serious attitude problems that limited his success. If he can figure it out in a new location, this could be one of the top transfers of this cycle.

Washington has become an NFL factory defensively and their numbers continue to be among the most consistently strong in the Pac-12. Even with Molden gone, there's no absence of star power on this defense, nor players with proven experience. The veteran leadership in the secondary should especially be important, even in a division that is reloading at the quarterback position.

Special Teams: In limited action last year, both kicker Peyton Henry and punter Race Porter put up nice numbers. Henry heads into his senior year one of the best in the league, while Porter averaged over 42 yards per punt in '20. It's unclear who will take the lead in the return game, although Sean McGrew saw the bulk of kick returns last fall.

Bottom Line: With Stanford's recent dip and both Oregon and USC being so streaky, Washington has taken up the mantle as the West Coast's most consistent Power Five program. That should continue under Jimmy Lake, who knows this program and what it will take to succeed in the Pacific Northwest. As for Pac-12 Title contention, UW appears just a step behind Oregon in their division and likely USC and Arizona State overall. The offense just doesn't have the punch of some of the others in the league, at least right now. That doesn't mean that either McGrew or Newton develop into a 1,000-yard running back or Huard comes in right away and sets the world on fire, but that's not anything to bet on right now. Even if that doesn't happen, the Huskies can settle in nicely as a double-digit win contender who plays in a good bowl game.

Further Breakdown
Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: RB Sean McGrew
Defensive MVP: LB Zion Tupuola-Fetui
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Jalen McMillan
Impact Freshman: QB Sam Huard

Recruiting Breakdown
Outside of Huard, who was a big get, Lake's first full class as Washington head man was slightly underwhelming, ranking right in the middle of the pack in the conference. Guard Owen Prentice was a quality pickup to strength the interior offensive line, while fellow four-star Jabez Tinae has a bright future at wide receiver. If you're looking for a dark horse in the class keep an eye on three-star defensive tackle Siaosi Finau, another in-state find. He already resembles the type of D-Linemen that UW has put out in the past and should add even more bulk once he gets in the program.

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