Jonathan Smith has little interest in chiding those who doubted him.
Washington’s offensive coordinator knows how fickle fans can be, and so there is no stopping now to reflect upon what he has proven in his third season as play caller.
“This thing can change in a hurry,” Smith said this week ahead of UW’s 7:30 p.m. Saturday game at California. “If we come out and get shut out against Cal, they’ll be all over us. So I don’t put too much thought into that.”
Yet there might not be another member of UW’s program whose public approval rating has increased more than Smith’s since the beginning of this season. His credentials as a play caller were questioned and criticized repeatedly in the past two years as the Huskies struggled to move the ball and score points. No other assistant coach bore as much public blame, warranted or not.
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And even while coach Chris Petersen supported Smith publicly, the fact remains that Smith was the only UW assistant to receive a one-year contract extension at the end of last season; every other member of the Huskies coaching staff signed a two-year deal.
Asked in July to explain that decision, Petersen said again that he believes Smith to be a good coach, “but at the end of the day, everybody’s got their area of responsibility, and there’s nobody out there who doesn’t know, hey, one of the things we have to do to take the next step is score more points. We’ve got to get better on offense. And we will. I have every bit of confidence that we’re going to.”
He was right. And it’s time to acknowledge Smith’s role in the resurrection of a UW offense that ranks among the nation’s best in every significant statistical category.
The Huskies (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) entered this week ranked fourth nationally in points per game (46.1), fifth in yards per play (7.4), first in passing efficiency, tied for seventh in yards per pass attempt (9.8), third in touchdown passes (31), tied for eighth in yards per rush (5.84), second in turnover margin (plus-1.63 per game) and 24th in third-down conversion percentage (46.51 percent).
Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin leads the Pac-12 in rushing. Junior receiver John Ross has moved into a tie for third place on UW’s single-season touchdown receptions list with 11. And the older, more experienced offensive line allows only 1.75 sacks per game, a marked improvement from last season’s average of 2.62.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the Huskies’ efficiency. They have run 512 offensive plays in eight games (307 rushes and 205 passes), tied for 116th out of 128 FBS teams, yet score more than nearly anyone else.
Smith’s play-calling, Petersen said, has been “excellent.” And Smith and UW players say it hasn’t really changed a whole lot since last season, an indication that perhaps the Huskies simply needed their young roster to mature before they were fully capable of executing the full scope of the offense.
(This is probably a good time to note that UW did hire former California coach Jeff Tedford this season as an offensive consultant. He can’t coach players, but he does participate in UW’s staff meetings and travels with the team to road games. It’s difficult to know exactly how much impact he has on what the Huskies do offensively, but Petersen and Smith have said they enjoy having him around in an advisory role.)
“Like I said last year, there’s always some guys who are going to take arrows, maybe undeservedly so,” Petersen said, while crediting UW’s players for putting in the requisite effort to get better. “And I thought that last year, because we had so many young guys at so many critical positions, that at times we were explosive, and at times we were inconsistent. … He’s (Smith) a good coach. He’s a good play caller. I think everybody’s seeing that now.”
Browning’s evolution has certainly helped. Coaches didn’t want to overburden him with too many pre-snap responsibilities during his freshman season. But as a sophomore, Browning has far more autonomy to change plays at the line of scrimmage, and such freedom has added a new element to UW’s offense.
Junior receiver Dante Pettis, another of the team’s most improved players, said Browning can check pretty much whenever he wants.
“There’s a lot of plays where we’ll have a big-shot play, we’ll be trying to take a shot, and they’re not in the right defense or whatever,” Pettis said. “They have guys deep or something. So instead of just wasting a play, (Browning will say) ‘Hey, it’s not a good look, check to this run play or we’ll go to this other pass play.’ It definitely does help to not waste plays and get into something that works.”
Petersen agreed that Browning’s progression is a big reason why the Huskies are so much better offensively this season, but credited Smith, who is also the team’s quarterbacks coach, for preparing him.
“I will tell you, it’s a lot,” Petersen said of Browning’s increased responsibilities. “There’s certain things where it’s like, we push it right to the edge of how much we can do with these guys without slowing them down. And I think (Smith’s) got a good balance there of how much he gives him.”
Pettis said it bothered him last season to hear fans boo after an unsuccessful offensive series, because “we just weren’t getting it done. It wasn’t the play-calling. It wasn’t the quarterback, the whoever — we just weren’t getting it done. That’s really all it was.”
“I think the fans and everyone have seen that this year, it wasn’t the play-calling or anything,” Pettis said. “Because the play-calling has been great. We’re pretty much running the same plays we have been for the last two years. We’re just getting it done now.”
Auburn in 2018
The Huskies added some heft to their future schedule.
UW will begin the 2018 season by facing the Auburn Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the Peach Bowl announced Thursday.
It will be the first time the Huskies have played Auburn, a Southeastern Conference team. The game is scheduled for Sept. 1 on ESPN, and a kickoff time will be announced later.
UW’s previously scheduled home game against North Dakota on that date will be played the following week (Sept. 8, 2018), and the Huskies’ previously scheduled home game against Nevada will be played in another year.
The Huskies also are scheduled to host Brigham Young on Sept. 29, 2018.
Washington has not played a team from the SEC since visiting LSU in 2012. Auburn is 6-2 this season and ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Huskies are undefeated and debuted at No. 5 in the CFP rankings.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is under construction at a cost of $1.5 billion. Its capacity will be 71,250, though it can expand to 75,000 for larger football events.
“It’s awesome,” Petersen said Thursday. “We get to play a team from the SEC, and worry about that down the road. But it’s great to get it on the schedule.”