There is little the Washington Huskies can prove during the first three weeks of this season. They have played Rutgers and Idaho, and on Saturday will play Portland State. Victory in each game seems preordained, the final score merely a formality.
Such contests are not entirely devoid of meaning, though. Not for UW’s second-, third- and fourth-string players, many of whom are seeing what could be their most significant playing time of this season.
Take fourth-year junior Connor O’Brien, for example. He’ll see the field plenty this year — as the No. 2 buck linebacker behind Joe Mathis, O’Brien is very much in UW’s regular defensive rotation — but blowout victories over Rutgers and Idaho afforded him the kind of valuable repetitions that will help him feel more comfortable during bigger games in the future.
So there O’Brien was in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 59-14 romp over Idaho. Another reserve, sophomore cornerback Jordan Miller, told him to watch for a slant pass because the Vandals had been throwing them all game.
O’Brien dropped into coverage, and sure enough, Idaho quarterback Gunnar Amos threw a slant. O’Brien intercepted the ball and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown, a play that elicited uproar from his defensive teammates on the UW sideline.
Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski likes to rotate his personnel more than most. That’s always been a staple of coach Chris Petersen’s philosophy. So these early-season beatdowns provide coaches an extended glimpse of the backups they will have to rely on later this year.
“I’m just really grateful that Coach Pete and Coach (Kwiatkowski) are giving me the opportunity to go out there and play,” O’Brien said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a couple years now, so it feels good to be out there.”
Much has changed within the Huskies’ program since O’Brien signed his letter of intent in February 2013. He redshirted that season, then watched as coach Steve Sarkisian left for USC. When UW hired Petersen, O’Brien said, he was excited.
“I know he’s a very good coach, a good Christian guy, and he can win,” said O’Brien, a native of Trabuco Canyon, California. “He knows how to win. That’s what we like to do here, for sure.”
After playing sparingly as an inside linebacker in 2014 — he appeared in five games and recorded one tackle — coaches moved O’Brien to buck linebacker in 2015. He was third-string behind Travis Feeney and Psalm Wooching, appearing in seven games and making three tackles for loss, including two sacks.
Kwiatkowski said O’Brien has taken “huge strides” at the position, “just where his eyes are, knowing what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s night and day, for sure.”
O’Brien said he lost about 15 pounds since the end of last season — he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds — and he thinks that has made him quicker and more flexible. To better understand the buck position, he watches film of former UW players Hau’oli Kikaha and Feeney, both of whom thrived as edge rushers.
“I’m starting to feel more comfortable each week,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot more work to do to get to where I want to be.”
Asked which other backups have stood out so far, Kwiatkowski mentioned safety Taylor Rapp, one of five true freshmen who played in the Huskies’ first two games.
Rapp, a 6-foot, 202-pound Bellingham native, enrolled at UW in January and participated in spring practices. He had four tackles against Rutgers and another four against Idaho.
“Some guys just have that ‘it factor’ as far as understanding leverage and body control, and he’s got that,” Kwiatkowski said. “He’s a really good tackler. As he gets to know the defense better, he’s only going to play faster and (be) more efficient at making plays.”
Another true freshman, walk-on defensive back Myles Bryant, made his collegiate debut against Idaho. Bryant made four tackles in that game, surprising some by becoming the only true freshman to play so far in UW’s talented secondary.
The Huskies signed three sought-after cornerback prospects — Kentrell Love, Isaiah Gilchrist and Byron Murphy — but Bryant used what defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake called “an unbelievable training camp” to play his way into a reserve role.
“He led us in interceptions in training camp,” Lake said, “and he played so well for us, we wanted to see him out there and perform on special teams and also on defense when he got a chance. Fortunately, this last game, he got a chance to go out there and play some nickel for us and run down on special teams, and hopefully moving forward here we’re going to get his feet wet a little bit more.”
To that end, UW’s weak nonconference schedule is at least good for something.