Every bit of excitement generated when the University of Washington announced its hire of Chris Petersen in December 2013 was validated last season when the Huskies won their first Pac-12 football championship in 16 years.
Washington won 12 games for the first time since the 1991 national championship season, while earning a spot in the third edition of the College Football Playoff. Preparations for an encore kick off with the beginning of spring practices.
And how exactly do the Dawgs follow up a breakthrough season? Expectations will certainly be high on Montlake with two possible Heisman Trophy contenders back in the fold: quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.
The terrific twosome have plenty of new faces around them, however.
5 Storylines to Watch During Washington's Spring Practice
1. Replacing Ross
NFL Draft fanatics are learning what Pac-12 football followers have known for quite some time: John Ross is explosive.
As the NFL Scouting Combine show-stopper Ross climbs up mock drafts, he leaves behind some difficult shoes to fill in Seattle. His 2016 running mate, Dante Pettis, proved every bit as valuable to Washington's success as Ross. The tandem proved especially dangerous because both were home-run threats. Having a similar dynamic this season gives Washington a proven formula for success.
Chico McClatcher may be the man to complement Pettis in the manner Pettis functioned with Ross. McClatcher averaged better than 18 yards per reception a season ago. Co-offensive coordinator Matt Lubick also may be able to make more use of speedster Jomon Dotson in the slot. Dotson was Washington's change-of-pace running back behind Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman a season ago, though his skill set may be a boon to the Husky receiving corps.
2. More Emphasis on the Blitz?
The Washington defense flourished in the offensively potent Pac-12 by employing a look that produced results with little risk. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski rarely called blitzes, yet Washington accumulated the 14th-most sacks in college football. That's an indication of uncanny talent in the front seven – talent the Huskies are largely replacing in 2017.
Gone are dynamic pass rushers Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines bring plenty of proven experience on the line, but the defensive front moves on without space-eating tackle Elijah Qualls. Qualls' presence up the middle commanded blocking attention, leaving the edges vulnerable to attacks on the backfield without use of blitz packages.
3. Changes in the Secondary
The versatility of the Washington defense a season ago fed largely off the vast skill set of safety Budda Baker. Baker defended ball carriers, would-be pass catchers and broke into the backfield all with equal expertise.
Replacing Baker's difficult enough on its own, but Washington loses plenty more from its secondary with the graduation of cornerback Kevin King; Sidney Jones' early exit for the NFL Draft; and Darren Gardenhire's unexpected transfer.
Freshman phenom Taylor Rapp moves into a role of heightened importance in his sophomore campaign. JoJo McIntosh also is a proven commodity, so the cupboard's far from bare. It will just look a bit different in the 2017 Husky secondary.
4. Double-Dynamite in the Backfield
Washington's ability to roll with two running backs last season and lose nothing made the Huskies' offense particularly dangerous. Both of its primary ball carriers – Gaskin and Coleman – return for another season of dual-threat domination.
With more touches, Gaskin could be a Heisman Trophy contender. He toted the ball 237 times in 2016 as is, but could have scored more than 10 touchdowns. Coleman provided backup to the tune of 114 carries and seven scores.
The distribution of carries between the two in 2017 will be an interesting storyline, but last season seemingly found a sweet spot that showcased both prominently.
5. Jake Browning's Next Step
Browning surprised some by winning the starting quarterback job in 2015 as a true freshman. He performed admirably, too. In 2016, he garnered not-insiginificant Heisman talk for much of the season, but a lackluster final month dinged his chances.
Browning will likely headline most preseason Heisman lists, and deservedly so. He passed for 43 touchdowns and rushed for four more while captaining the Huskies to the Pac-12 championship. But the next phase in his career evolution will be determined by two facets.
One: improved accuracy. Browning completed a little more than 62 percent of his attempts as a sophomore, down from 63.1 percent as a freshman. Two: quick decision-making under pressure. Alabama and USC accounted for Washington's only two losses a season ago, and both defenses effectively pressured Browning into mutiple turnovers. He also struggled in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Colorado under similar circumstances, but the stellar play of Washington's defense compensated for a sub-par offensive night.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Washington in the Pac-12
While Washington certainly faces its question marks heading into the offseason, the Huskies are worthy wearers of the proverbial Pac-12 championship belt. This team returns enough on both sides of the ball to be considered the favorite in the Pac-12 North.
More than just what's on the field for Washington, having head coach Chris Petersen and his staff on the sidelines and in the booth makes a huge difference. Petersen's a proven winner who maximizes the potential of most players. These early steps in the spring are crucial on a much longer road to have Washington back to championship stride once September arrives.