Here are five things to watch as the Washington Huskies begin their 2016 football season on Saturday against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Husky Stadium:
1. How good can the Huskies’ defense be?
Washington led the Pac-12 in scoring defense last season and allowed only 11 passing touchdowns all season. Seven starters return — including first-team All-Pac-12 performers Budda Baker and Sidney Jones — and there didn’t appear to be any drop-off during fall camp practices.
Baker and Jones highlight the deepest, most talented secondary UW has had in years. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria were both standouts at linebacker last season. And the defensive front of Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea should be difficult for opponents to run against.
Rutgers returns its starting quarterback (Chris Laviano) and its top two tailbacks, and has transitioned to the spread offense under first-year coordinator Drew Mehringer. So while the Scarlet Knights might experience growing pains under first-year coach Chris Ash, they do have enough offensive firepower to provide some kind of test for the Huskies’ defense.
One player to watch: new starting strong-side linebacker Psalm Wooching, a fifth-year senior who played in a reserve role behind Travis Feeney last season. UW needs Wooching and his backup, sophomore Tevis Bartlett, to help replace Feeney’s production as a pass rusher.
2. Running back rotation
You already know about Myles Gaskin, Washington’s sophomore tailback who set school records last season for most rushing yards (1,302) and touchdowns (14) by a freshman. He is the Huskies’ No. 1 tailback and one of their most important players.
But the Huskies will use other backs, too, and this relatively weak nonconference slate presents an opportunity to establish some kind of pecking order in the backfield.
One player to watch: third-year sophomore tailback Jomon Dotson, who is listed as the No. 2 tailback behind Gaskin on the depth chart. Dotson rushed 18 times for 42 yards last season, so he hasn’t really had much opportunity to prove himself yet.
Running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said Dotson has improved his pass protection, and he’s shown good enough hands to be a weapon in the passing game.
He can also run.
“I don’t think people understand how fast that dude is,” Gaskin said. “He can go. He’s tough. He’s hungry. He’s ready to go. He’s good at pass pro. I think he’s a real good back.”
Dotson said he hopes to show “just my speed. Everybody hasn’t really seen or really heard about me, so I just want to go out there and show them who I am, and put my name out there.”
Fourth-year junior Lavon Coleman is also competing for carries.
“It’s that time of the year where you have to make decisions and have to figure out who’s going to play, so you can kind of get those guys the work,” Bhonapha said. “I can’t tell you ‘OK, it’s this close.’ I don’t know what answer you’re looking for there. I think all those guys have gotten better, and as the season goes on, we have to keep progressing as a group.”
3. More freedom for Jake Browning
UW’s sophomore quarterback posted decent numbers last season as a freshman: 2,955 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 63.3 completion percentage. He is one of five returning starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and is expected to be one of the top throwers in the league this season.
And UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said Browning should have a little more freedom at the line of scrimmage this season.
“We’re definitely having some more flexibility for the quarterback to change some things, adding some to Jake’s plate there,” Smith said. “And there’s a larger variety of scheme that we’re going to try.”
Like Browning, the rest of UW’s offense is more capable than it was a year ago, too.
“We’re ahead of schedule compared to last year, there’s no question,” Smith said. “Whatever position … across the board, there is a comfort level that’s much further ahead than last year.”
4. Offensive line progress
Unlike last season, the Huskies will start five offensive linemen who have each previously started at least one college football game.
That said, it was difficult to gauge their progress during fall camp, when most 11-on-11 action is non-contact. The line struggled at times last season to protect Browning, one of the reasons the Huskies’ passing game was stagnant at times.
“I think we’ve been pleased with their attention to detail,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “I think they’re playing better as a group than they have. But it’ll be a good first test. I think one of the strengths that Rutgers has, one of their strengths is their D-line. So again, they’re going to be tested right out of the gate, and it’s time for that.”
UW reported season ticket sales just slightly higher than last year’s total — 39,867 as of Aug. 22, not counting students — so Husky Stadium won’t come close to selling out on Saturday. And with the beginning of fall quarter still three-plus weeks away, most students aren’t on campus yet, either.
That could make for a tepid atmosphere, despite the hype and expectations surrounding the Huskies this season. Petersen seems aware of this issue, given his Monday plea for fans to come to the game.
“When that place is packed up and our fans are there with passion and energy, it changes everything,” Petersen said. “And we don’t have our students here yet. So for everybody who has season tickets or game tickets, even if they can’t make it, pass them on to their neighbor. It’s just really important to this program.”
WASHINGTON VS. RUTGERS
11 a.m., Husky Stadium, Seattle
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
The series: First meeting.
The pick: Washington 42, Rutgers 13.
1 — John Ross, WR (5-9, 190, jr.): First game since missing 2015 season with ACL tear.
14 — JoJo McIntosh, SS (6-1, 209, so.): One of four new defensive starters.
79 — Coleman Shelton, OL (6-4, 293, jr.): Already a 20-game starter, he shifted to center this season.
50 — Vita Vea, DL (6-5, 332, so.): Could be primed for breakout year.
5 — Chris Laviano, QB (6-2, 221, sr.): Won job in camp after starting 11 games in 2015.
7 — Robert Martin, RB (5-11, 210, jr.): Led team last season with 763 rushing yards.
91 — Darius Hamilton, DL (6-3, 286, sr.): Has 10.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss in his career.
31 — Anthony Cioffi, DB (6-1, 203, sr.): Intercepted four passes last season.
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