Washington is a program on the rise under third-year coach Chris Petersen, and the Huskies have the necessary pieces in place to challenge Stanford for the Pac-12 North title. Leading the way for the offense is a pair of sophomores – quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Additionally, the Huskies return three starters on the offensive line, and big-play threat John Ross is back at receiver after missing all of 2015 due to injury. The defense limited opponents to just 18.8 points a game last season and returns eight starters, including one of the nation’s top safeties in Budda Baker. With Stanford visiting Seattle on Sept. 30, the road to the Pac-12 North title should run through Petersen’s team in 2016.
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Previewing Washington’s Offense
Last season, the Huskies started true freshmen at quarterback, tailback and left tackle and a redshirt freshman at right tackle, and scored 52, 45 and 44 points in three closing outings, all lopsided victories. The offense has considerable momentum heading into Chris Petersen’s third season as UW coach, and it all begins with Jake Browning. He defied the odds and did something no other Huskies quarterback has accomplished: He won the job outright as a true freshman, starting 12 of 13 games. Browning made his share of rookie mistakes, but he put his stamp on the team, has decent arm strength and will only get better.
Most surprising in Petersen’s second year was the emergence of true freshman tailback Myles Gaskin. He started just six games, but once he got going, no one could stop him. The Seattle-area product rolled up 1,302 yards and 14 TDs rushing.
Browning didn’t have a go-to-guy among his receivers, but junior John Ross might have filled that role had he not missed all of 2015 with a knee injury. Those two should get well acquainted this fall. The versatile Ross has been a starting wide receiver, cornerback and kick returner and already has come up with eight scores from 55 yards out or more in his career, making him a threat to go the distance at any time.
The Huskies did a masterful job last season of replacing four-fifths of their front line. They rebuilt around a pair of nimble yet extra-large tackles, Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, now sophomores. The 6'8", 306-pound Adams might be the team’s best pro prospect.
Previewing Washington’s Defense
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The UW gave its defensive front a complete makeover in 2015, which could have been disastrous but proved to be amazingly effective. Using a 3-4 set, the Huskies ranked as the Pac-12’s top defense statistically: They led the league in points per game (18.8), yards per play (4.9), yards per game (351.8) and ranked third in third-down conversion rate (36.8 percent). Junior nose tackle Elijah Qualls is a budding star with strength and quickness that make him difficult to block, as is his one-time backup, sophomore Greg Gaines, now the starting defensive tackle.
The Huskies have their most work to do in restocking their linebacking corps, where both outside starters moved on. Back are juniors Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, who excelled at the inside spots as big and fast players who cover a lot of ground. Top signee Camilo Eifler also will be given every chance to get on the field early.
The UW secondary, as talented as any in the conference, is centered around junior free safety Budda Baker and junior cornerback Sidney Jones, both first-team All-Pac-12 selections and two-year starters. Opponents don’t often go in Baker’s direction. They might consider avoiding Jones, too, after he returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in 2015. A third returning starter is senior cornerback Kevin King, who was named honorable mention All-Pac-12.
Previewing Washington’s Specialists
The Huskies potentially have the most dangerous return game in the league, if not the nation. In just two seasons each, junior punt returner Dante Pettis has scored three times on electrifying runbacks covering 89, 87 and 76 yards, and the equally elusive Ross has provided three TDs on kickoff returns, racing 100, 100 and 96 yards.
Petersen patiently has recruited well and rebuilt the Huskies, unafraid to use true freshmen as starters. After foundational 7–6 and 8–6 seasons, he has 17 starters back, plus speedster Ross, and everyone’s attention. His next move will be to return the UW to the Pac-12’s upper echelon and start beating the Oregons and Stanfords of the conference. It might not be long now.