University of Washington

How can the 12th-ranked Huskies be better in the second half of 2017?

The Huskies, despite losing their game last week at Arizona State, have had plenty to cheer about after going 6-1.
The Huskies, despite losing their game last week at Arizona State, have had plenty to cheer about after going 6-1. AP

At their bye-week break, the 12th-ranked Washington Huskies are 6-1, and in position to repeat as the Pac-12 North Division champions.

They have arguably the best defense in the conference, ranked No. 1 in points allowed (10.6), fewest yards (236.9), rushing defense (73.0) and opponents’ first downs (14.4). They are right behind league-leading Washington State University in pass defense (163.9, to Cougars’ 162.4).

Jake Browning is guiding the Pac-12’s most efficiently-run offense (155.4 rating), and Dante Pettis is the reason the Huskies are tops in punt return yardage (23.1).

And yet, one terrible loss — last week’s 13-7 defeat to Arizona State — has folks wondering if the UW should truly be regarded as one of the nation’s elite programs.

This UW midseason review isn’t going to suggest any drastic personnel moves. But there are tweaks that I wouldn’t mind seeing unfold before the Huskies open the second half of their schedule Oct. 28 against UCLA.

THINGS THAT ARE GOOD

1. Multiple tight end sets: UW coach Chris Petersen has always used tight ends creatively in the past, even if that meant they were not prominently highlighted in the passing game.

But seniors Drew Sample and Will Dissly and true freshman Hunter Bryant need to play more together.

Why? For starters, wide receiver Chico McClatcher’s season-ending injury and Andre Baccellia’s extended absence has essentially opened the door for the talented Bryant to seize the No. 2 pass-catching role behind Pettis.

And the Huskies can line Bryant up in a number of spots, and have in their first seven games: In the backfield, split out wide and even in near the line.

But Browning also has confidence in Sample and Dissly as safety-valve options.

To open the second half last week against the Sun Devils, the Huskies had all three tight ends on the field. Their first play was a bootleg rollout pass by Browning to Dissly in the right flat for a 12-yard gain. That seemed to give the UW offense more rhythm moving the football than it had earlier in the game.

Another reason to go with three tight ends? Left tackle Trey Adams (knee) was lost for the season in the ASU game, and Sample and Dissly, both good blockers, might be needed more often in pass protection.

2. Keep Pettis involved: When asked before the season if Pettis could challenge Reggie Williams’ single-season UW records for receptions (94) and yards (1,454), Petersen scoffed at the notion one receiver would hog all the targets in his offense.

Well, what about now?

With 44 receptions for 472 yards and six touchdowns, Pettis isn’t going to touch Williams’ yardage mark. But he could make a run at 90-something catches.

Three weeks ago, Pettis had a career-high 12 receptions for 105 and three touchdowns in the 42-7 win at Oregon State.

On Oct. 7, he backed that up with a 10-reception, 48-yard effort in the UW’s 38-7 victory over California.

And last week at ASU, the senior was targeted a whopping 15 times by Browning, catching seven passes for 56 yards.

Petersen would rather see Browning’s passes spread around. But Pettis is the only proven commodity the Huskies have on the perimeter that defenses fear. Feeding him the ball gives this offense a chance to make big plays.

3. Get Bowman on the field: Perhaps the biggest question mark surround the Huskies defense entering the season was, “Where is the pressure on the quarterback going to come from?”

Well, so far the best source has been a walk-on outside linebacker — redshirt freshman Ryan Bowman.

The 6-foot, 262-pounder was part of a number of Class 3A state championship-winning squads at Bellevue High School before finishing his senior season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Bowman has seen action from the first game at Rutgers on with the second-string defense behind starter Benning Potoa’e.

Slowly, Bowman has been eating into Potoae’s snaps, and has responded with a team-high 3 1/2 sacks. The Huskies’ 23 sacks are tied for second in the Pac 12 behind Oregon’s 24.

Bowman’s strength, lateral quickness and ability to read the play have really paid dividends. At worst, he and Potoa’e should be in a 50-50 split the rest of the way for playing time.

THINGS THAT ARE CURIOUS

1. Ahmed’s minimal usage: What happened to Salvon Ahmed?

Ahmed broke a 50-yard touchdown run that was negated by a ticky-tack holding penalty but then hardly played the rest of the game against Arizona State. Expect his role to be examined during the bye week by the staff.

“We have to continue to look at ways to get him the ball and get him on the field,” Petersen said. “You can see when he does it, he can be different.”

Being stuck behind running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, it is easy to understand how the true freshman from Juanita High School can get lost in the shuffle.

But what about lining Ahmed up more often at slot receiver as a McClatcher replacement?

What about having Ahmed back there as the primary kickoff returner ahead of Sean McGrew?

There is just no excuse to limit Ahmed to five meaningful offensive snaps a game. He can be a difference-maker at the same level as Bryant.

2. Pick a kicker and stay with him: It is no secret the Huskies are in the midst of a kicker-confidence crisis. Tristan Vizcaino (4-of-9) and Van Soderberg (1-of-3) have combined to go a conference-worst 5-of-12 on field goal attempts.

This run of kicker musical chairs has not benefited anybody. That is why Petersen should just recommit to the guy with whom he began the season with — Vizcaino.

Vizcaino easily has the strongest leg of the two UW kickers. He has the most talent. Sooner or later, he is the guy who should be called upon to starting making field goals again — from 45 yards and in.

3. Give Jones a chance: In fall camp, even with the receiving corps at full strength, there was something about true freshman Ty Jones.

A big part was his frame: The Utah product is 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds.

The other part was that, for a big man, Jones had a knack for making athletic plays.

Know anybody’s passing offense that could use that?

Before the ASU loss, Jones had played in every game since debuting against Fresno State. He has seen one pass thrown in his direction, by Carta-Samuels in mop-up time against Cal.

Last week, 10 of Browning’s 13 incompletions were intended for wide receivers. A few of them were on drops, including two by Brayden Lenius, the team’s other big receiver (6-5, 230).

This offense could benefit from the presence of a bigger receiver, one capable of not only bigger plays down the field, but also in the red zone. Jones could be that guy.

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