Washington's first season with former secondary coach and defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake at the helm had its share of highs and lows. The Huskies finished the pandemic-shortened campaign with the best win percentage in the Pac-12 North, but COVID-19 protocols denied them both a rivalry matchup with Oregon and, more importantly, a shot at the conference title.
With that unfortunate turn looming over it, Washington has plenty of reason to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2021. That could be a serious problem for the rest of the Pac-12. The Huskies are loaded on defense and will continue to employ the physical brand of football that buoyed the program during Chris Petersen's tenure. If the offense comes together, this might be the conference's team to beat in 2021.
5 Storylines to Watch During Washington's Spring Practice
1. Finding a quarterback
Since Jake Browning's outstanding 2016 season, quarterback play has been a consistent issue at Washington. Browning returned in 2017 and 2018 but dealt with shoulder injury issues that prevented him from reaching the same peak of his sophomore campaign. Prodigal son Jacob Eason showed flashes of brilliance in 2019, but struggled to extend them. Last season, the Huskies looked very conservative in offensive coordinator John Donovan's first year and Dylan Morris finished with modest passing numbers.
Morris returns in 2021, but went into the spring not guaranteed to be the starter again. Colorado State grad transfer Patrick O'Brien is vying for the job, while Husky legacy and 5-star recruit Sam Huard arrived on Montlake with plenty of promise.
2. Establishing offensive identity
The ongoing quarterback competition is one piece to a much larger priority for the 2021 Huskies, which is establishing its offensive identity. Washington's offensive peak in the Petersen era came with Jonathan Smith as coordinator, who has since brought his scoring acumen to reinvigorate his alma mater at Oregon State.
The Huskies have had a consistently strong rushing offense, replacing record-setting Myles Gaskin with a high-ceiling rotation that includes Kamari Pleasant, Sean McGrew and Richard Newton. Washington has also made more effective use of pass-catching tight ends than any other program in the Pac-12 year after year, including outstanding returning starter Cade Otton.
Offensive stagnation has plagued UW in each of the last four seasons, however, and finding the right balance to score more consistently and in a more varied approach might be the difference between being a solid team and a championship contender.
3. New but familiar on defense
Pete Kwiatkowski's departure as defensive coordinator for the same post at Texas — working under former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, coincidentally — prompted the promotion of Bob Gregory. Gregory oversaw linebackers and special teams since 2016, and was a part of the Huskies staff from the beginning of the Petersen era.
His familiarity with the personnel and lengthy partnership with Lake promises more of the status quo in how Washington performs on that side of the ball. Still, every coordinator tends to put their own spin on things. How the defense looks with Gregory will be an interesting development in 2021. Despite the continuity in Washington's defensive coaching ranks over the last seven years, the Huskies have tended to change things up depending on the season: In 2018, for example, the Huskies blitzed considerably less than in the seasons prior.
4. Integrating newcomers
A consistent theme throughout the Petersen-Lake years at Washington is that first-year Huskies are given the opportunity to make immediate impacts. A strong signing class in 2021 brings in a new crop of potential difference-makers, including wide receiver Jabez Tinae.
Among the early enrollees participating in spring practices, Huard is the most intriguing both for his 5-star credentials and role in the quarterback competition, but Washington also is getting an early look at defensive tackle Voi Tunuufi. The Utah product will be a name to follow once autumn arrives.
5. What's next for Zion Tupuola-Fetui?
Washington has had no shortage of defensive stars, particularly in recent years. Tupuola-Fetui racked up an incredible seven sacks in just four games in 2020 and looks poised to be the next Huskies superstar on that side of the ball. Tupuola-Fetui's evolution as a pass rusher in the coming campaign is a storyline to keep tabs on. His sack pace a year ago would be enough to break Terrell Suggs' 2002 record of 24 in a single Pac-10/12 campaign.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of @UW_Football)