An offseason of unchecked optimism is just about over, as the Washington Huskies finally take the practice field on Monday morning for the first day of training camp.
Here are five questions, concerns and storylines to consider as the Huskies prepare for what many believe could be their best season in the last 15 years.
1. Do the Huskies have enough playmakers at receiver?
Receiver is, by far, the Huskies’ area of least depth and greatest concern. They return only two players who caught more than 20 passes last season — juniors Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius — and only three players who caught more than 10. The return of speedy junior John Ross should help — Ross, who doubles as a kick returner, missed last season with a torn ACL — but there is little proven talent on the roster. And last year’s group was so inconsistent that at season’s end, Petersen fired receivers coach Brent Pease and promoted quality control assistant Bush Hamdan to replace him.
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The Huskies did add former Oklahoma receiver K.J. Young to their roster on Sunday, and his presence should give that group a boost. Young caught 19 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown for the Sooners in 2014, but was dismissed from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules following the season.
Petersen said UW did “a lot of research” on Young and his background, and came away satisfied that the problems that precipitated his dismissal from Oklahoma — Petersen did not say what they were — are behind him. At 6 foot 1 and 180 pounds — and with a season of experience under his belt — Young should compete for immediate playing time.
Pettis, Lenius, Ross and sophomore Chico McClatcher will be players to watch, too.
“I think our receiving corps is an area where we’re continually trying to build depth,” Petersen said Sunday. “So to get another player in there that has played at this level and has played a lot of football over the last few years (Young) is a really good thing. I don’t think you’re ever there depth-wise on your football team, when I look at it. As the head coach there’s always going to be a group that’s like, OK, we’ve got to continue to build depth there. For us, it’s that wide receiver position.”
2. The offensive line has a little more experience, but not a ton.
Petersen said he’s “antsy” to see how the Huskies’ offensive linemen have progressed since spring, noting that “I think they’re going to be better. I think they will improve.”
They do have more experience than a year ago, when the five linemen who took the field for the season opener had a combined 15 career starts among them.
Coleman Shelton, a fourth-year junior, has moved to center after playing each of the other four offensive line positions in his first two seasons. Trey Adams, a sophomore, returns at left tackle after starting nine games there as a true freshman. Fifth-year senior Jake Eldrenkamp brings 11 games’ worth of starting experience to left guard, fifth-year senior Shane Brostek spent most of the spring at right guard, and third-year sophomore Kaleb McGary and fourth-year junior Andrew Kirkland will likely compete at right tackle.
A few others with some game experience, such as Jesse Sosebee and Matt James, will be in the mix, too.
“It is a handful of guys that all have game experience now, so that’s a group that can really know what Coach (Chris) Strausser’s talking about in different situations, whether it’s mentality-wise or technique-wise or fundamentals,” Petersen said. “And I think for our offense to take the next step, it probably starts right there. … So I’m antsy and anxious to get those guys out there and watch them slowly take this thing to the next step.”
3. Who’s going to rush the passer?
Want to talk about how great the Huskies’ defense is going to be? Petersen doesn’t. Any assertion that this year will be just like last year — when UW led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and allowed only 11 touchdown passes in 13 games — is met by the same counter:
Yes, the Huskies return seven defensive starters. But they lost two quality pass-rushers — Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, who combined for 14 sacks last season — and that’s where Petersen chooses to focus.
“We’re going back to scratch tomorrow,” Petersen said. “It’s Day One. It’s like, we’ve done nothing. That defense has done nothing. We lost four really good players off that defense, two of the best pass rushers that we had in the league last year, so it’s just back to square one.”
And what did he notice about UW’s pass rushers in the spring, when they practiced for the first time without Feeney and Littleton?
“That we don’t have the pass rushers that we had last year,” Petersen said. “That’s what I saw. Now, I think we have some guys that can do some good things up front, but we are not where we were coming off the edge, certainly, than when we ended the season.”
Senior Joe Mathis, a defensive end for the first three seasons of his career, practiced at buck linebacker — Feeney’s old position — in the spring, and is one of the most promising pass rushers on UW’s roster. He had two sacks in each of the last two seasons in limited playing time.
Psalm Wooching, a fifth-year senior linebacker, is another option on the outside, though UW’s returning sack leader is nose tackle Elijah Qualls (4.5 sacks in 2015), followed by inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria (3.5).
4. Jake Browning’s progression.
After he threw for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a true freshman last season, quarterback Jake Browning is expected to develop into one of the top arms in the Pac-12 — in part because he’s one of just five returning starting quarterbacks in the conference this year.
Petersen will be looking for progress, too, not just from Browning, but from backups K.J. Carta-Samuels and Tony Rodriguez, both of whom are competing for the No. 2 quarterback job.
“It’s all very subtle things,” he said. “We’ve talked about this a lot. I think just the familiarity with the system, with the speed of the game, with all these little nuances, we break it down into whatever the elements of quarterback play are, and talk about those, which we have. But it’s not anything specifically. It’s just all this experience that I think they’ve been through and the growth they’ve done since the end of last season.”
5. Hype. Hype. Hype.
You can’t write — or talk, or type, or tweet — about the Huskies this season without acknowledging the lofty expectations placed upon them by various pundits and preseason preview magazines.
They debuted at No. 18 in the USA Today coaches poll. They were picked by media to finish second in the Pac-12 North. Phil Steele, whose College Football Preview magazine qualifies as a must-read for many fans, thinks UW could be a dark horse national championship contender.
They also went 7-6 last season.
“We’re 7-6, played no football games, and now we’re ready to win the Super Bowl,” Petersen said, mockingly, on Monday. “I mean, it’s like, really?
“…We’ve got to go play games. Let’s talk after game six. And then it’s like, yeah, OK, one way or another. But until then, there’s just so much unknown.”