As the season opener against #7 Washington is just two days away, Rutgers remains heavy underdogs in a rematch from last season. The Huskies, a College Football Playoff team from a year ago, come to Piscataway with equally high expectations for the 2017 season. While several key players are gone from last year’s team, a strong nucleus of talent and experience returns. Rutgers fans should remember quarterback Jake Browning, likely from having nightmares of him throwing three touchdown passes of 38 yards or longer in the first quarter of last season’s game.
I was fortunate to speak with John Sayler at SB Nation’s Washington site, UW Dawg Pound, about this year’s team and what we can expect for Friday’s game. Here is what John had to say about this year’s Huskies squad.
Year three of the Chris Petersen era paid off in a big way with a PAC-12 title and a trip to the College Football Playoff. Washington obliterated recent conference powers in Stanford and Oregon by a combined 87 points and also blew out in-state rival Washington State, as well. Aside from the disappointment of not making it to the national championship game, how satisfying was it for you and the fan base to experience that type of season?
John: It was an absolute thrill. Fans were cautiously optimistic heading into last season after hearing tons of preseason hype and talk of contending for a conference championship. Most of us took a “wait and see” approach, needing some proof that this team could really be as good as some were predicting. Handling Rutgers was a great start, but then the talk was “Well, how good is Rutgers?” Then they took care of Idaho and Portland St. in dominating fashion and there was still optimism, but nothing concrete that said this Husky team was anything special. UW escaped with a tough overtime win in week four versus Arizona, which generated some mixed feelings. The Huskies have mightily struggled in the state of Arizona in recent years, so getting any kind of win in what many thought was a “trap game” was good.On the other hand, Arizona wasn’t good last year, so the close score was underwhelming.
Week 5 brought a colossal game against Stanford on national TV featuring a pair of top 10 teams. As you mentioned, UW destroyed the Cardinal. The following week was at rival Oregon and the Huskies dropped 70 points on a team they had not beaten in their last 12 meetings. That was so fun I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a week. Honestly, the whole season was fun. Losing to USC sucked. Losing to Alabama sucked. But neither loss could keep us down for very long. The goal for most fans was a Pac-12 title; mission accomplished.
Although Washington returns a little more than half of their starters from last season on both sides of the ball, there are several key players gone. Can they replicate their success from a year ago and what are the expectations for this season from the fan base?
John: The expectations are sky high this year. Every good team in college football loses talented players each season, that’s just the nature of college sports. There is great faith in Chris Petersen’s recruiting, and he has given fans every reason to believe he can replace talent that moves on to the NFL because he has done it for three years in a row. Several of the guys who are returning are legitimate CFB superstars, so I don’t think many fans feel this team can’t be just as good as the one Petersen fielded in 2016.
Jake Browning took a big step forward last season and is only entering his junior year. How much better can he get and do you anticipate him making a serious run at the Heisman Trophy this season?
John: Browning showed the country what kind of player he is last season, and as he elevated his game he brought the Husky football team with him. I don’t know that he can be better than he was early in the season last year. He was damn near perfect. Where he can improve is in his toughness and ability to play at the same level when he is not healthy. I’m not saying he should have been able to throw the ball just as well with a torn labrum as he did with a healthy arm, but as the season drags into November, no one out there is 100%. He bulked up in the offseason with just that in mind, and Husky fans are hopeful that it pays off in great play for 12 games (and beyond).
Heisman Trophy? Nah. If he plays well he will be in the discussion since he throws a ton of TD passes (43 last year, 229 in high school), but he just isn’t flashy enough to win that award. You have to make spinning, twirling, hurdling highlight plays to win the Heisman, and Browning is pretty boring. A Jake Browning highlight for me is when he looks at the defense, kills the called play, and checks the Huskies into a power run that attacks a weakness he sees in the defensive alignment. YAWN.
Although John Ross caught 17 touchdowns last season and is a big loss for the offense, returning receiver Dante Pettis actually was right behind him with 15 receiving touchdowns. How important is his connection with Browning and who else should Rutgers fans worry about in the Washington passing game?
John: Browning will look for Pettis first, there is little doubt about that. They have a really good connection, but there is still room for improvement. I don’t feel that they were always seeing the same thing when they read the defense last year, but they still managed to hook up plenty of times. The loss of John Ross is huge, and no one player will be able to replace his production. 4.22 speed does not grow on trees; in fact, until the NFL combine this past spring, it didn’t exist at all in an NFL prospect. Chico McClatcher came to UW as a running back, but now in his third season he is looking like he is ready to be a #2 receiver in Petersen’s offense. McClatcher is really quick, and after spending his freshman year as almost strictly a bubble screen and fly-sweep threat, then maturing into a better downfield WR last season, this could be a big year for Chico.
The depth is better this season, with three freshmen who played supporting roles in 2016 ready to put their names into the boxscore each and every week. Quinten Pounds, Andre Baccellia and Aaron Fuller are all smaller-type wideouts who are good route runners with sure hands. UW also has something they lacked last year in big targets at the wide receiver position. Junior Brayden Lenius (6’5”, 230) showed promise in his first two seasons, but was suspended by the team early last year and ended up taking a redshirt. True Freshman Ty Jones (6’4” 206) is a talented pass catcher who I think will contribute more as we get further into the season.
Despite a great aerial attack, Washington actually has a really strong running back duo in Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. Describe the value they add to the offense and do you expect Washington to run often in the early part of the game against the inexperienced defensive line of Rutgers?
John: I never know what the Huskies are going to do offensively, but if they find something that works, expect to see a lot of it. Rutgers fans got a dose of that last year when they respected the hell out of the UW rushing attack and used man coverage on the outside. Three long bombs for TDs later Rutgers adjusted, but it was too late.
I would love to see Browning turn and hand to Gaskin and Coleman 50 times on Friday, but if that is not what Browning sees as the best call when looks at the defense, he will drop back and air it out.
Gaskin is frustrating to watch if your team is supposed to be tackling him; he just doesn’t look like he should be so hard to get down. He doesn’t look that fast, but he runs by people. Coleman is built like a linebacker at 5’11 235, and only needs a crease to get into the secondary and start punishing tacklers. It’s a really good 1-2 punch at running back, maybe one of the best in all of college football.
The strength of the defense appears to be the interior, led by 340lb Vita Vea at tackle and Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria at inside LB. How aggressive should fans expect the defense to be in applying pressure on the Rutgers offense? Victor has been suspended for the Rutgers game. Will that change the gameplan?
John: Victor missed the final four games last season after breaking his leg, so his suspension is really disappointing as fans were excited to see their All-America linebacker return to the field. DJ Beavers filled in well for him at the end of 2016, but Beavers will miss the first month with an injury of his own. It will be interesting to see how the coaches choose to handle this; do they go with third stringer Brandon Wellington, or do they move some guys around to fill in for Victor. This game will give fans an early look at the depth on defense.
I’m not sure how aggressive the defense will be, but the Huskies were really good last season playing base defense and not taking a ton of chances. That’s a lot easier to do when you have a pair of 300 pound monsters like UW does in Vea and NT Greg Gaines. Those two guys live in opponents’ backfields.
On defense, Washington lost the majority of their starting secondary from last season's team. How much of a concern is this unit and who are players of note for Rutgers to worry about when they throw the ball?
John: I normally turn a deaf ear to the whole “this guy has looked really great in camp” narrative, but with the UW secondary I have nothing else to go on with some of the guys who will see significant playing time Friday night. The two returning starters in the secondary are Safeties JoJo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, the latter earning the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2016. Starting at one cornerback is junior Jordan Miller, a guy who has been waiting his turn behind great players who have moved on to the NFL. Miller has a ton of game experience. The other starting spot was won by redshirt freshman Byron Murphy, the most decorated recruit of the Chris Petersen era. Murphy has consistently impressed in camp, but we “talkin’ bout practice, man.” He has never played a college game and there will be growing pains. The two-deep features a senior, a redshirt freshman, a true sophomore, and a converted running back. I’ll give DB coach Jimmy Lake the benefit of the doubt as he has proven to restock the cupboard with a great secondary every year, but how the 2017 unit actually plays remains to be seen.
How do the special teams and kicking game look for Washington and who will replace Ross as a threat in the return game?
John: UW loses one of the best kickers in school history in Cameron Van Winkle who made over 80% of his kicks during his three seasons. Replacing CVW is last year’s kickoff specialist and punter Tristan Vizcaino who has attempted just one field goal in his Husky career and missed it. Vizcaino has a strong leg, but I would rate placekicker as the team’s #1 weakness heading into the season.
Punting may be an upgraded position with Vizcaino giving way to newcomer and Aussie native Joel Whitford taking the job. Whether he is better than Vizcaino, or just taking the job to put less on Tristan’s plate remains to be seen.
Ross was a spectacular kickoff returner during his UW career, but with that came less opportunity. Ross was given the chance to return barely over one kickoff per game in 2016 with teams not kicking to him. Expect McClatcher and exciting speedster Salvon Ahmed to handle kickoff returns. McClatcher returned kicks quite well his freshman season while Ross was sidelined in 2015. Ahmed is a true freshman who may be the fastest player on the Huskies’ roster. Overshadowed by Ross’ kickoff prowess was Dante Pettis as an elite punt returner. Pettis has five career punt return TDs, a school record
What is your prediction for the season opener for both teams?
John: I’m expecting an improved Rutgers team to take the field on Friday night, and the UW secondary will be tested early. The Scarlet Knights will be fired up and I imagine the environment will be a hostile one. I like a closer game than last year with Rutgers having a better gameplan to keep things interesting. Second half the Husky depth should prove to be too much for Rutgers and if the UW running game gets rolling the Huskies will likely take command. Four touchdowns is a HUGE spread for a road team in a Power-5 game. It’s possible if things get ugly at the end, but I don’t see that much of a blowout. UW 35, Rutgers 16
Thanks to John for taking the time to give us such great insight on the Washington Huskies football team. Make sure to check out UW Dawg Pound leading up to Friday’s game.
To read my answers to John’s questions on Rutgers, click here.