After a successful 2016 season that included 12 victories, a Pac-12 championship and the school’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff, the Washington Huskies begin their 2017 spring practice schedule on Monday at Husky Stadium.
Here are five storylines to monitor as UW practices as a team for the first time since its 24-7 loss to Alabama in the Peach Bowl.
1. How is Jake Browning’s shoulder?
UW coach Chris Petersen said in February that Browning was doing fine after undergoing surgery to repair an injury to his right shoulder, but implied that the junior-to-be might not throw much during the spring.
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Browning, who finished sixth in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting, had the most statistically prolific season by a quarterback in UW history. He tied the Pac-12 single-season record with 43 touchdown passes, won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors and set single-season school records for touchdown passes, passing efficiency and yards per attempt. But he played the final few games of the season with an injured shoulder, which Petersen said required “a minor procedure” to fix.
And while Petersen said he expected Browning to be ready in time for spring ball, he also said “we’ve already had a plan that — Jake is one of those guys that just loves to throw and throw and throw, so from really when he got here, we’ve been trying to back him off, just these long years, to make sure. And so he should be fine for spring ball. But we also really want to get some of these other guys some really good work in spring ball.”
Those other guys: backup quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels, now a fourth-year junior; third-stringer Tony Rodriguez, now a fifth-year senior; and redshirt freshman Daniel Bridge-Gadd, who spent last season on the scout team but could challenge for the No. 2 job if he’s given enough snaps to prove himself. Assuming Browning is limited, Carta-Samuels, Rodriguez and Bridge-Gadd should all get the chance to prove themselves.
2. No Budda, no Jones, no King. Who’s next?
History might remember last season’s UW secondary as the most talented in school history, given that Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King could all be picked in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL draft (though an Achilles injury to Jones might complicate things).
So who replaces those guys? The Huskies seem to already know what they have in safeties Taylor Rapp, Jojo McIntosh and Ezekiel Turner, but they need to find two new starting cornerbacks and figure out what to do with the nickel spot.
Jordan Miller, a junior, should have every opportunity to jump into the starting lineup. He played some as a true freshman and more in a reserve role as a sophomore, totaling seven tackles with an interception and two passes defended. Miller, a native of Oceanside, California, also clocked 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash and posted the best broad jump and vertical jump at this year’s Husky Combine. And he led the team in interceptions during fall camp.
Austin Joyner, a third-year sophomore from Marysville, should also be in the mix at corner, along with fourth-year junior Brandon Lewis and redshirt freshmen Byron Murphy, Kentrell Love and Isaiah Gilchrist.
3. How will the Huskies replace John Ross?
The simple answer: they won’t. Not with one player, anyway. Ross caught 17 touchdown passes last season, ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL combine and impacted the game in ways that not many receivers are able.
So, who emerges as Browning’s No. 1 option? Dante Pettis seems the most likely candidate. The senior from San Clemente, California, caught 15 touchdown passes last season, third-most in school history, and caught 53 passes total for 822 yards.
Chico McClatcher, a junior from Federal Way, should have the opportunity to build on last season’s 31-catch, 574-yard, 5-touchdown performance despite being slowed by injury.
It’s also fair to anticipate bigger roles for sophomores Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia, and to keep an eye on incoming freshman Ty Jones, a touted recruit who is already in Seattle and will enroll at UW in time to participate this spring.
The upperclassmen will be working with their third receivers coach in three years, as former Oregon and Baylor assistant Matt Lubick steps in to replace Bush Hamdan, who left to coach quarterbacks for the Atlanta Falcons.
4. How to split carries between Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman?
The Huskies found themselves a strong 1-2 running back punch last season with Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, who combined for 2,225 yards rushing, 17 touchdowns and 6.3 yards per rush. Both are back this season.
Coleman, now a fifth-year senior, carried the ball 114 times last season and finished second among qualified Pac-12 players in yards per rush at 7.5. But Gaskin was still the team’s primary back, carrying the ball 237 times with a per-game average of 98.1 yards.
It will be interesting to see how coaches balance each player’s workload in the spring, and which of them emerges in the fall as the lead back. Gaskin did nothing last season to make anyone believe he shouldn’t be the No. 1 guy, but Coleman was so good that it would be understandable if the coaches want to get him more touches.
Still, the spring might be more for younger players to get some reps in the backfield — consider that Gaskin didn’t do much live work during spring practices last season — so we might get a long look at redshirt freshmen Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant.
5. Two new offensive line starters — and a new o-line coach.
The Huskies return first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Trey Adams, as well as fifth-year senior center Coleman Shelton and fourth-year junior right tackle Kaleb McGary. But the graduation of first-team all-league left guard Jake Eldrenkamp and senior guard Shane Brostek leaves them in need of two new starters.
The good news there is that they already have two players with starting experience at guard: sophomore Nick Harris, who played in 12 games last season and started two games each at left guard and right guard; and fifth-year senior Andrew Kirkland, who played in every game last season and made five starts, all at right guard.
That group is also adjusting to a coaching change, as offensive line coach Chris Strausser left to join the staff of the Denver Broncos and Petersen hired Scott Huff, an old associate from Boise State, to replace him. Shelton said earlier this month that it helps having a new position coach who came from Petersen’s system, but that every coach has different verbiage and vocabulary, so it will still take some getting used to.