University of Washington

As new season begins, old offensive questions linger for Huskies

Chris Petersen speaks ahead of fall camp

Washington head coach Chris Petersen holds a press conference ahead of the start of fall camp.
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Washington head coach Chris Petersen holds a press conference ahead of the start of fall camp.

The scene looked a little different as Washington head coach Chris Petersen sat down to meet with the media on Thursday.

The backdrop for Petersen’s pre-fall camp press conference was brand new, and the peppering of Adidas logos served as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Huskies’ switch from Nike.

New sponsorship for a new season. Some might call it a blank slate. Still, even with the change of decor and a different collection of players preparing to take the field for the first fall practice on Friday, some of the questions from last season remain.

One of the major ones? Those red-zone issues.

The Huskies’ struggles in the red zone started early in 2018. In the season-opening loss to Auburn, they reached the red zone six times but managed just a single touchdown. It was a trend that continued throughout the year. On 62 trips to the red zone, UW scored 35 touchdowns.

Petersen addressed the situation on Thursday, saying it was one of the areas he evaluated during the offseason alongside offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan. Here’s what they came up with: The issue isn’t simple or singular.

“We would’ve fixed the problem last year if it was one thing,” Petersen said. “Sometimes while you’re doing really well and having success, it’s hard to put your finger on what is the problem when you’re not having success. It’s not any one thing. It’s a combination. That’s what the issue was last year. And I say it again, we were close.”

But close doesn’t put points on the board. Two seasons ago, UW scored on 83 percent of its red-zone trips and scored a touchdown 67 percent of the time. Those numbers fell to 79 and 56 percent, respectively, last season. The differential affected the Huskies’ scoring average. After putting up 36.2 points per game in 2017, the Huskies dipped to 26.4 in 2018.

When pressed, Petersen laid out a few of the factors creating UW’s red-zone struggles. He started with penalties, which played a big role in pushing the offense back and stalling drives. The Huskies were called for 69 penalties totaling 619 yards last season. That’s up from 54 penalties for 445 yards in 2017.

Petersen noticed another issue while looking at UW’s explosive plays. It wasn’t just a lack of big-yardage plays creating the problem. It was also those pickups ending short of the end zone, which put the Huskies’ offense in a difficult position.

“We’re driving, getting into that red zone, that lower red zone where things get tougher and we’re not playing as exact football as we need to,” Petersen said. “We were making some conflicting moves, negative plays and those type of things. We just didn’t execute like we need to.

“But it’s one of the tougher areas to even operate in. We can keep going down the list. It’s even more complicated than you think. That’s what we study. It’s not as easy as going, we’re going to do this one thing and the magic wand has been waved. But we think we have a plan moving forward to try and fix it.”

As part of that plan, Petersen and Hamdan spent a significant amount of time this offseason analyzing the passing game. The wide receivers can make plays downfield, Petersen said, but the offense has to take more chances to provide those opportunities.

“I think in college football now a lot of these colleges are lining up and playing man coverage,” Petersen said. “You got to beat that guy down the field. But we have to give them as coaches a chance to go make a play.

“We also understand some of those percentages will be lower the further you throw it down the field. So you probably need to call a few more of those to equal out the percentage. You don’t have to hit them all, but you got to hit a couple. It starts with us as coaches again.”

Injury updates

Three Huskies won’t be practicing at the start of fall camp. Offensive lineman Troy Fautanu is recovering from foot surgery. Tight end Jacob Kizer is dealing from a back injury that Petersen doesn’t believe will keep him out long term. Offensive lineman Cole Norgaard is recovering from an ankle injury. With Norgaard unavailable, Petersen said Matteo Mele and Henry Roberts will work at center.

Extra points

Petersen confirmed what appeared on UW’s online roster this week: Corey Luciano is moving to tight end — at least for now. Petersen said Luciano, recruited as an offensive lineman, had the athleticism to make the switch. “It wasn’t like we didn’t think he could play (offensive line),” Petersen said. “We do. With (Norgaard) being out, we’re like that’s another little twist there but we had already decided. We’re going to be flexible with him and see what happens.” ...

Although several true freshmen saw playing time last season, all of them redshirted. Petersen said that’s not the plan for the Class of 2019, which was ranked No. 15 in the country and No. 2 in the Pac-12. “We like to play the young guys, we really do,” Petersen said. “There’s benefits to both sides of it. … But we have some good young players, and certainly on this team, we’re going to need to play them.” ... Petersen also offered his opinion on 9 a.m. starts, an idea that the Pac-12 is exploring. He has experience in the area: Boise State played a 9 a.m. game against San Jose State in 2004. It’s safe to say that Petersen isn’t a fan. “It was miserable,” Petersen said. “You get your players up at 4 a.m. to get ready to play. I get what we’re trying to do. I do. But it’s hard on the guys.” ...

UW was ranked 12th in the preseason coaches poll, the top-ranked team in the Pac-12. The other ranked Pac-12 teams were Oregon (13th), Utah (15th), Washington State (21st) and Stanford (23rd).