Washington is a team on the rise and one of the frontrunners to win the Pac-12 in 2016. After an 8-6 debut in Chris Petersen’s first season in Seattle (2014), all signs pointed to a rebuilding year for the Huskies in 2015. Despite returning only eight starters, Washington took a step forward last season. Sure, the Huskies only finished 7-6. However, this team matched its Pac-12 record from the previous season (4-5) and lost four games by 10 points or less. Petersen went with a youth movement on offense last season, with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin emerging as two of the Pac-12’s rising stars. With an offense expected to take a step forward, along with a standout defense in place, Washington is poised to push Stanford in the Pac-12 North.
4 Storylines to Watch in Washington’s Spring Practice
1. Jake Browning’s Development
A year after a quarterback battle dominated the spring practice headlines, the Huskies open offseason workouts with zero doubt about their starting signal-caller. Jake Browning started 12 of Washington’s 13 games as a true freshman last season and finished the year with 2,955 passing yards and 16 scores. Browning closed the year with a strong performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, completing 23 of 34 passes for 284 yards against Southern Miss. With 12 starts under his belt and another offseason to work as the starter, how far will Browning develop as a sophomore for 2016?
2. The Receiving Corps
The receiving corps is the biggest concern on offense for coach Chris Petersen. Washington generated only 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2015, which tied for ninth in the Pac-12. Adding to the concerns for Petersen is the departure of receiver Jaydon Mickens (58 catches) and tight end Darrell Daniels (36 catches). Dante Pettis (30 receptions) is the team’s top returning option, with Brayden Lenius (26 catches), Chico McClatcher (eight receptions) and Isaiah Renfro (13 grabs) also in the mix. Tight end Darrell Daniels is poised for a bigger role after Perkins’ departure, and the receiving corps should get a boost from the return of John Ross from injury. Ross was the team’s top big-play threat in 2014, averaging 21.8 yards per catch on 17 receptions. How quickly will Ross return to full strength? Can Washington develop another receiver or two to replace Mickens and give Browning more targets to stretch the field?
3. Finding the Right Mix on the Offensive Line
The development of quarterback Jake Browning and the receiving corps is essential to Washington’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 North next year, but the offensive line also has to take a step forward. The Huskies surrendered 34 sacks last season and only one player (Siosifa Tufunga) started all 13 games in the same position. Four starters return in 2016, including promising tackles Kaleb McGary and Trey Adams. Both players saw extensive playing time as freshmen last season and should take a step forward in their development. Coleman Shelton is expected to slide from guard to center to replace Tufunga. This spring is the first opportunity for Petersen and line coach Chris Strausser to find the right mix in the trenches.
4. New Faces at Linebacker
With eight starters returning in 2016, Washington’s defense is poised to be the best in the Pac-12. The Huskies led the conference in scoring defense (18.8 ppg) and limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play last season. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski shouldn’t have too many concerns about this group in spring ball, but Washington is losing two key members of its linebacking corps. Cory Littleton (65 tackles) and Travis Feeney (56 tackles) expired their eligibility and leave big shoes to fill this spring. Not only were both players near the top of the defense in tackles, but this duo also accounted for 14 sacks. Who steps up to replace that production?
Pre-Spring Washington Outlook in the Pac-12
It’s easy to pencil in Stanford as the favorite in the Pac-12 North next year. After all, the Cardinal have won at least 11 games and claimed at least share of the North title in four out of the last five seasons under coach David Shaw. However, with Stanford losing three starters on the offensive line, quarterback Kevin Hogan and only five starters back on defense, the door is open for Washington, Oregon or Washington State to push for the No. 1 spot in the North. The Huskies have a few voids to fill on defense but should remain the best in the conference next season. The offense experienced its share of growing pains with a young lineup last year and improvement is expected with Browning and Gaskin returning as sophomores. Washington should be squarely in the mix for the Pac-12 title in 2016.