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College Football Preview 2023: 11. Washington Huskies

Michael Penix, Washington

11. Washington Huskies

Fueled by one of the nation's top passing games, Washington could build on last year's 11 wins

2022 Review
Kalen DeBoer inherited a talent Washington roster coming into 2022, but one fresh off an absolutely disastrous campaign that led to the ousting of Jimmy Lake. DeBoer had all the ingredients in place for a turnaround, but I'm not sure even the most optimistic Husky fan expected last fall. Washington raced out to a 4-0 start, that included a victory over then-No. 11 Michigan State, before temporarily falling back to Earth with a pair of road losses. Instead, those two losses seemed to ignite a second wind in the sails of the Huskies, as they would win their final six games, which included road wins over Cal, Oregon, and Washington State in the Apple Cup. They entered the Alamo Bowl against Texas as slight underdogs, but ran past the Longhorns en route to a 27-20 victory. Those 11 wins were the most in Seattle since they made their lone CFB Playoff appearance in 2016, an unbelievable debut for DeBoer and the new staff. But for a program that has serious aspirations on the national scale, they're hoping it was merely the beginning. Even facing down a tough schedule, the Huskies have a Pac-12 Title and potential Playoff berth in their sights entering 2023.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Washington fans had to suffer through one of the most horrendous offenses in program history in 2021, as the Huskies scraped together just 21.5 PPG. The addition of DeBoer and staff was focused on reversing that miserable unit, and they did just that, averaging nearly 40 points and over 500 yards per contest.

One of the major reasons for the quick turnaround in 2022 was the play of quarterback Michael Penix, who traveled to the Pacific Northwest from Indiana. Penix has had a fascinating career; he suffered through injury-plagued 2018 and 2019 seasons before a huge 2020 under the tutelage of DeBoer, then Indiana's offensive coordinator. After a horrendous 2021 in which he finished with a 4-7 TD-INT ratio, Penix reacquainted with his old play-caller and proceeded to torch Pac-12 defenses to the tune of 4,641 yards and 31 touchdowns.

Penix has always had a huge arm, but DeBoer has been the coach most successful in catering to his strengths and allowing him to flourish. He still has to improve his decision-making and reel in the turnovers, but Penix has always been a gunslinger, willing to take shots down the field and live with the consequences. Injuries have also been a concern throughout his long-winded college career, but the return of veteran Dylan Morris as backup should be a huge relief for Huskies fans, providing a player who has started 15 games in his career.

Penix deserves all the credit in the world for his turnaround a season ago, but it also helped that he was gifted one of the best receiver corps in the country. This is a receiver room punctuated not only by two players who surpassed 1,000 yards in 2022, but impressive depth throughout.

Juniors Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan were the ones who went over the 1,000-yard mark, and earning a long list of accolades in the process. Odunze is the headliner, a 6'3" specimen who earned All-American recognition last fall, while McMillan operates underneath more frequently and has proven to be incredibly reliable at moving the chains. Beyond those two, sophomore Ja'Lynn Polk notched 694 yards himself last fall and has proven he can take the top off of defenses, while former transfers Giles Jackson and Germie Bernard offer provide loads of potential. Bernard in particular is a player with an incredibly high ceiling who flashed during his lone season at Michigan State.

Along with those loaded receiver room, Washington can also hurt defenses with a pair of capable tight ends in Jack Westover and Devin Culp. Both are established veterans who should be able to take advantage of defenses focusing on all the weapons on the perimeter. 

With so much back, the aerial attack will once again rule the day in Seattle, but the ground game was an under-appreciated element of this team in 2022. Former Virginia transfer Wayne Taulapapa quietly ran for 887 yards and 11 touchdowns, but now departs, leaving the door open for junior Cameron Davis. Davis wasn't able to bust open big runs the way Taulapapa was last season, but he was a consistent short-yardage threat, with 13 touchdowns. He has more wiggle to him than people may realize, so I envision much more from the veteran in 2023. Add in transfers Daniyel Ngata (Arizona State) and Dillon Johnson (Mississippi State) don't discount this backfield this fall.

For all the ups-and-downs the Washington offenses has gone through the last several seasons, the offensive line has been a consistent backbone. However, this is a group that will be breaking in some fresh faces in 2023, as three starters depart.

Tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten will be the leaders of the O-Line this fall, particularly Fautanu, who can play multiple spots and earned All-Pac-12 recognition last year. The primary concerns are at both guard spots, as Jaxson Kirkland and Henry Bainivalu were proven, steady blockers who will be sorely missed. Fortunately, senior Matteo Mele looks ready to take over at center after seeing a healthy dose of game action in a reserve role the last few years.

If you're in the mood for points, Washington's offense is the fit for you. The Huskies are going to play at a relentless pace, but remain efficient and in control, leading to a highly productive and fun-to-watch group. Considering how quickly they gelled under DeBoer and staff last fall, I have a feeling the encore is going to be something special.

Defense: Washington has become an NFL factory on the defensive side of the ball, one of the best programs in the country at identifying and developed underrated talent coming out of high school. That has resulted in this defense being productive year-in, year-out, and the prognosis is encouraging for this fall again.

Up front, the Washington defensive line had a resurgent 2022 after several down seasons. They must replace departed end Jeremiah Martin, but this should remain a strength heading into the new season. Junior edge Bralen Trice broke out last fall and is one of the Pac-12's premier pass rushers, while veterans Faatui Tuitele and Tuli Letuligasenoa eat up rushing lanes on the interior. The wild card of the group is senior Zion Tupuola-Fetui, one of the Pac-12's best when healthy, but a player who has experienced unfortunate injury luck. He's an absolute nightmare for opposing blockers when 100 percent and paired with Trice, he has a chance to create absolute havoc this year.

Much like "ZTF", injuries have impacted the career of Edefuan Ulofoshio, who has missed a big chunk of the last two seasons. Ulofoshio is supposed to be full-go for 2023 and will lead a capable linebacker corps, which also includes juniors Alphonzo Tuputala and "Husky" Mishael Powell. Tuputala is a sure-tackler who will act as the quarterback of this defense, while Powell emerged last fall and offers excellent positional versatility. Add in USC transfer Ralen Goforth, who made 16 starts during his time at Southern Cal, the entire front seven is deep and experienced.

Defensive backs were Jimmy Lake's specialty, but the secondary has slipped as of late. Last season in particular was a struggle, as the Huskies finished 100th in the FBS in total pass defense. Although, that was to be expected considering the rash of injuries they dealt with, forcing younger pieces to step into larger roles than initially planned. 

Senior safeties Asa Turner and Dominique Hampton will be the unquestioned leaders of the defensive backfield this fall. Both are big, disruptive defenders who love to come down and make plays in rush defense. I'm particularly high on Turner, a player with the build to play all over the field and make a major impact. 

While Turner and Hampton are a great starting point, it's fair to have some concerns about this cornerback situation. Sophomore Elijah Jackson got some starts last fall and could lock down a starting role, while as did Jaivion Banks. However, it may end up being a transfer that ends up being the best corner on the team, as Oklahoma State transfer Jabar Muhammed is their most proven commodity at the position. Muhammed made 13 starts over three seasons in Stillwater, but it will be interesting to see if there's another level he can reach with the Huskies.

Washington put up solid defensive numbers across the board last season, even with a leaky pass defense. Assuming the secondary can stay healthy this year, there's a fair chance for improvement and for this unit to be among the better groups in the Pac-12. That's no easy feat, considering how much time this unit will spend on the field, with the offense they have going the other way.

Special Teams: Longtime kicker Peyton Henry moves on after an amazingly consistent career in Washington, leaving the Huskies scrambling for a new placekicker. Those duties are likely to fall to sophomore Grady Gross, who primarily worked kickoffs last fall, although fellow sophomore Addison Shrock remains on the roster. At punter, Jack McCallister has proven to be capable, but will hope for even more after decent numbers throughout the 2022 campaign. The return game is in a good spot, as Jalen McMillan is likely to handle punts once more, with Giles Jackson on kickoffs.

Bottom Line
Kalen DeBoer had arguably the most impressive debut campaign of any FBS head coach a season ago, but it still feels like Washington is being a bit overlooked nationally entering 2023. There's little reason to assume a drop-off is in store; Penix may be inconsistent but he's comfortable in this system and has a star-studded receiver corps to work with. And on defense, although corner is a slight concern, there's a chance the unit could actually be improved, with a healthier lineup and more depth throughout. The schedule is tricky, with two tough non-conference games to go along with grueling Pac-12 play, so matching last season's 11 victories won't be easy. But, this team has all the makings of a legitimate College Football Playoff contender and overall, the programs feels like it could be ready for something special under DeBoer, even with the Pac-12's uncertain future.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
He's still not quite a national name just yet, but all Kalen DeBoer does is win. He went 67-3 at Sioux Falls of the NAIA before successful stints as OC at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and Indiana. DeBoer returned to Fresno in 2020 and after a down COVID year, went 9-3 in 2021. Bringing a proven offensive mind like him to Washington seemed like the right move after the disastrous Jimmy Lake era, and his 11-2 debut showed that he was ready for the Power Five ranks. His offensive coordinator is Ryan Grubb, a longtime DeBoer assistant who is a rising name in collegiate coaching circles. Grubb interviewed for the Alabama OC job over the offseason and will be a name to watch moving forward. Defensively, the Huskies run a co-DC scheme with Chuck Morrell and William Inge. Inge coached with DeBoer at Indiana and followed him to Fresno, while Morrell has had a longtime relationship with him. Morrell served as head coach at NAIA Montana Tech and was successful, with three Frontier Coach of the Year Awards, before joining back up with DeBoer.

Recruiting Breakdown
DeBoer and staff's first full recruiting class was a solid one, landing 26th nationally. Eight four-star prospects dot the group, made up mostly of kids from Washington and California. Cornerbacks Curley Reed and Caleb Presley are two in particular that could have an early impact, as both come in at need positions. Reed, who is from Louisiana, had SEC interest but instead decided to head for the Pacific Northwest, indicating that Washington does have a national brand to pull from. Wide out Taeshaun Lyons is another talented young prospect who has a bright future in this offense, although 2023 could be a redshirt year for him. At 6'3", 165 pounds, he'll need to bulk up, but has the type of physique to be a long-term problem for Husky opponents. Fellow four-star wide out Rashid Williams is also worth keeping an eye on, as the ultra-athletic California product is versatile to help out in a multitude of ways.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Washington has a sneaky tough non-conference slate, which begins when they welcome Boise State to Husky Stadium on September 2nd. The Broncos not only remain as one of the Group of Five's premier programs, with the way they ended last fall, it's a worthy test for an opener. Tulsa should be an easy win for Washington, as the Golden Hurricane break in a new coaching staff, before the Huskies travel all the way to Michigan to battle Michigan State. Washington rolled in this home-and-home last fall, but going all the way to East Lansing is no easy trek and the Spartans could be improved this fall. Pac-12 play opens a week later at home at California, and there's a road matchup with Arizona before the bye. The bye does come at a nice time, right before the annual rivalry game with Oregon, but you almost wish it would have been later on, as their final seven are difficult. Along with Oregon, Washington also gets Utah and Washington State at home, as well as road trips to USC and Oregon State. That's a tough stretch with no breaks, and even the "easy" games during that run have reasons to be concerned. The Stanford game is on the road and Arizona State, who is a complete wild card as we stand today, is coming off a bye ahead of their October 21st date.

2023 X-Factor: Jabbar Muhammed, CB
It's not getting enough national attention as it deserves, but the Pac-12 has the best collection of quarterbacks in America. In addition to the reigning Heisman winner, there's Michael Penix, Bo Nix, Cam Rising, Cam Ward, and a pair of intriguing newcomers in D.J. Uiagalelei and Dante Moore. Simply put, pass defense is going to be at a premium this year on the West Coast. Unfortunately, that was a notable weak spot for the Huskies a season ago and the cornerback room entering 2023 leaves something to be desired. There's some talented youngsters and a few freshmen that could make an immediate impact, but the position group is short on proven experience. That's where Jabbar Muhammed will come in, a transfer from Oklahoma State who started 13 games total for the Cowboys. Muhammed wasn't a star in Stillwater, but he's at least proven he can be a capable defender at the Power Five level, something not much at this position can say. Now, Muhammed will be tasked with not only bringing leadership, but stepping up and defending opponent's best receiver each and every night. It's quite a lot to ask for a newcomer, and how he's able to handle it will be a major factor in just how successful this defense is in 2023.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: QB Michael Penix
Defensive MVP: LB Alphonzo Tuputala
Impact Freshman: CB Caleb Presley
Impact Transfer: CB Jabbar Muhammed
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Cameron Davis

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