Two straight years. Two straight College Football Playoff and/or New Year’s Six bowl games for the Washington Huskies.
There’s no denying Chris Petersen and the Huskies are enjoying one of the most prosperous runs in program history.
It’s also looking like UW’s good fortune could extend into 2018. The Huskies won’t play again for another eight months but here’s an early look at why UW could be a CFP front runner for next year.
WHAT WILL UW LOOK LIKE ON OFFENSE?
Familiarity should benefit the Huskies in 2018 when it comes to replacing key figures in certain spots.
The primary example of this would be incoming offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan, a former Huskies assistant. He replaces Jonathan Smith. Smith left UW to become the head coach at his alma mater, Oregon State.
Hamdan, the currently Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach, checks several boxes. He played quarterback for Petersen at Boise State. He has coordinator experience at smaller programs and served as UW’s offensive quality control assistant and later became the team’s receivers coach and passing game coordinator in his first stint.
All this gives UW a coach who knows the system and already has relationships with players like quarterback Jake Browning, who will be a four-year starter.
UW will lose four starters in tight end Will Dissly, left guard Andrew Kirkland, receiver Dante Pettis and center Coleman Shelton. That number could rise to five if junior tailback Myles Gaskin departs for the NFL.
Dissly will be replaced by Hunter Bryant, who, before a leg injury, was the team’s No. 2 receiver. UW loses Pettis but returns receivers Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds, who also missed a good bit of 2017 with long-term injuries.
Those injuries also opened the door for players like Andrew Baccellia, Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones to receive playing time. All three will return in 2018.
Kirkland and Shelton are gone but the offensive line could potentially have four returners with starting experience. Star left tackle Trey Adams, who suffered a season-ending knee injury, returns. So does Luke Wattenberg, who filled in for Adams at left tackle. UW also returns right guard Nick Harris and right tackle Kaleb McGary.
Should Gaskin stay, it gives the Huskies a 1-2 punch they can use with him and Salvon Ahmed. If Gaskin departs, the move means Ahmed is the No. 1 option going forward.
Before the Fiesta Bowl Petersen said the Huskies could have a few players from its prized recruiting class contribute early. UW’s class is ranked 12th by 247 Sports and features prospects such as four-star receivers Austin Osborne and Marquis Spiker.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
They only lose two starters from the Fiesta Bowl team and have a ton of depth built at certain positions. But here’s where it gets tricky.
UW loses the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in defensive tackle Vita Vea. The Huskies also lose linebacker Keishawn Bierria, a three-year starter, who became the emotional leader of the defense.
Replacing Bierria and Vea are the most pressing issues this defense will have from a personnel standpoint. It appears Jared Pulu, the former Federal Way High star, could be Vea’s heir apparent. He backed up Vea throughout the season and has played in 15 games.
Brandon Wellington was Bierria’s understudy and has more than 25 games of experience over the last two seasons. His development path is similar to that of Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven, who’ve become starters.
A few players could be in line for Bierria’s spot going into spring camp. UW should have 15 scholarship or non-scholarship linebackers on its roster next season.
The Huskies also signed four linebackers in December including four-star prospect Brandon Kaho, who opted for UW over Alabama.
Outside of Ezekiel Turner, the secondary returns its key members and should continue to be a strength.
AND THE SPECIAL TEAMS?
UW will have to replace Pettis, the NCAA record holder for most punts returned for touchdowns. The Huskies also say goodbye to senior kicker Tristan Vizcaino.
Fuller, who was Pettis’ backup on punt returns, does comeback and UW does have a few players on its roster who returned punts in high school. Vizcaino will be replaced by Olympia native Van Soderberg.
Beyond that, UW returns all its starts at key spots like kickoff returner, long snapper, holder and punter.
Ryan Clark: @ryan_s_clark