Jimmy Lake kept his first season as the Washington football coach shrouded in mystery leading up to the opener. He didn’t reveal his new quarterback until sending redshirt freshman Dylan Morris onto the field for the Huskies’ first offensive series.
Lake wouldn’t even confirm what sort of offense he and offensive coordinator John Donovan were going to emphasize until after the first game, when he wore a hat emblazoned with the words, “Run the Damn Ball.”
However, given the returning experience, Season Two for Lake and the Huskies will be as clear as the initial, pandemic-shortened one was murky. Lake’s second team has a lot of talent and championship aspirations after a season in which the Huskies qualified for the Pac-12 Championship Game but had to back out due to the pandemic. And, oh yeah, he intends to run the ball.
Previewing Washington's Offense for 2021
Seven starters return, led by the 6'0" Morris, the shortest first-unit Husky quarterback in three and a half decades. He won a spirited four-player competition largely because he was mistake-free, guided the UW to three victories in four games and gave them a chance to win the other. He could become a four-year starter.
But a significant roster development will prevent Morris from getting comfortable — the arrival of Sam Huard. He’s a five-star recruit from Seattle, the program’s highest-rated player ever at this position, the son of Damon Huard and nephew of Brock Huard, both former Huskies and NFL QBs. Sam is a lefthander who has already been anointed by the fan base as an immediate starter.
Either way, it’s a good time to be a Husky quarterback. The protection should be highly reliable. Lake returns all five starters from the largest offensive line in school history, one that averages 6'5" and 323 pounds. Junior guard Ulumoo Ale is the biggest at 6'6", 355. Senior center Luke Wattenberg is the most experienced, back for a sixth season, his fifth as a starter. Senior offensive tackle and fourth-year starter Jaxson Kirkland is the most heralded, a returning first-team All-Pac-12 selection.
The best player on this team might be senior tight end Cade Otton. The 6'5", 240-pounder is a returning first-team All-Pac-12 pick and possibly the nation’s best blocker at his position. The wide receiver group includes Terrell Bynum, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, who each started at least one game, and adds Texas Tech transfer Ja’Lynn Polk. One of them needs to establish himself as the No. 1 target.
Running back is better stocked but more unsettled than the other offensive position areas. The Huskies use four of them with the game on the line. The best one of the bunch might be junior Richard Newton, an 11-touchdown scorer as a redshirt freshman in 2019, a Doak Walker Award nominee last season and someone who needs to establish himself. Seniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, both back for their sixth seasons, each made two starts. Situational back Cameron Davis played in all four games.
Previewing Washington's Defense for 2021
The Huskies return eight starters to a defense that will answer to a new coordinator for the first time in eight seasons. Lake promoted Bob Gregory from linebacker coach to replace Pete Kwiatkowski, who went to Texas.
Up front, the UW should be able to bring pressure. Defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa missed most of 2020 with an injury and should reclaim his full-time role as a playmaker. The Huskies lost All-Pac-12 outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui to a ruptured Achilles injury in the spring but still have capable edge rushers in Ryan Bowman, back for a sixth season; one-time five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls, who should push hard to be a starter; and Texas A&M transfer Jeremiah Martin, who was a spring standout as a 6'5", 262-pound guy who can really run.
Inside linebackers Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon are back after starting every game as sophomores. Ulofoshio is a rising star, going from walk-on to starter to second-team All-Pac-12 selection. He covers a lot of ground, posting 18 tackles against Stanford. Developing some depth behind them will be important.
The Huskies need two new cornerbacks and noted improvement in the safety play to maintain program standards. There is potential star power in Trent McDuffie, the lone returning corner and a second-team All-Pac-12 choice, and Brendan Radley-Hiles, a three-year starter from Oklahoma who was a portal pickup. Returning safeties Asa Turner and Alex Cook struggled to make plays and could be UW’s weak link coming in. Expect a lot of shuffling, with freakish athlete Kyler Gordon and touted redshirt freshman Jacobe Covington bidding for minutes.
Previewing Washington's Specialists for 2021
Washington goes two deep with scholarship players in both kicking positions. Placekicker Peyton Henry has started three seasons and is dependable. Race Porter returns for his second season as the starting punter.
The Huskies played only four times, with the pandemic forcing them to send their Pac-12 Championship Game regrets after qualifying. They have a chance to go a long way. A Week 2 road game at Michigan will set the tone early. A home game against Oregon could decide the team’s Pac-12 fate — and more.
National Ranking: 22
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(Cade Otton photo courtesy of Washington Athletics)