Washington Huskies football has been on a steady climb for the duration of Chris Petersen's tenure as head coach. After a conference championship in 2016 and a second straight New Year's Six bowl game appearance, the best yet may be ahead for ‘18.
A bevy of returning talent leads a roster with intriguing youngsters to shape what should be the preseason front-runner to win the Pac-12 title this fall.
While Washington can expect to be the hunted in next fall's Pac-12 race, the Huskies are not without some question marks to address this offseason. Talented stars like Vita Vea and Dante Pettis have headed to the NFL, leaving some sizable gaps in all three phases.
5 Storylines to Watch During Washington's Spring Practice
1. Jake Browning back to form
Midway through Washington's 2016 season, which included the program's first conference championship since 2000 and a berth in the College Football Playoff, Browning (above, right) looked primed for Heisman Trophy consideration. The Huskies’ quarterback concluded his sophomore campaign with 43 touchdown passes against just nine interceptions and 3,430 yards through the air; however, the individual attention died down as Browning slumped down the stretch.
His struggles in the latter portion of Washington's resurgent 2016 were later revealed to be the result of an injured shoulder. However, he returned and never quite regained the same form from the first half of that spectacular sophomore season. Browning finished his junior campaign with a career-low 2,719 passing yards; and while he threw just five interceptions, he also connected on 24 fewer touchdowns (19) than the season prior.
The 2018 campaign is a pivotal one for Browning. As quarterback of a legitimate national championship contender, he can hop into the driver's seat for the Heisman Trophy. Browning also will jockey for NFL draft position. This coming autumn is big for Browning, and it starts with the spring.
2. A new-look group of pass catchers
Dante Pettis' departure leaves Washington looking to replace a uniquely explosive wide receiver for the second time in as many times. Last year, it was John Ross. Now, with Pettis headed to the NFL, Aaron Fuller will get an opportunity to establish himself as the next No. 1 target in the Huskies’ offense.
Washington also has Andre Baccellia in the mix, as well as reliable tight end Hunter Bryant -- though finding a second tight end that can operate in red-zone situations, like Will Dissly did a season ago, should be a priority.
The Washington wide receiving corps also turns the page from a brutal season filled with injuries. Chico McClatcher went down early in 2017, and promising speedster Quinten Pounds was scratched in the final month of the regular season.
3. A fearsome front seven
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has had some impressive talent in his front seven throughout his tenure at Washington. Never has he had the kind of depth as he should in 2018, however.
Washington returns Jaylen Johnson and Greg Gaines up front, anchoring the line with Vita Vea likely to be a first-round draft pick in late April. The rotation behind them at linebacker looks like one of the best in the country, returning Tevis Bartlett, Benning Potoa'e, Ryan Bowman and Amandre Williams. Replacing Azeem Victor, who missed eight games combined in the past two seasons, should not be as difficult as filling the void left by Keishawn Bierria.
However, Kwiatkowski's defense has enough potential playmakers at linebacker that the unit should continue to produce at a clip comparable to 2017 -- and that production made the Washington defense fourth nationally against the run.
4. Stepping up in the secondary
A considerable share of the 2016 conference championship was owed to the outstanding performance of a veteran secondary. Washington featured defensive backs Kevin Kelly, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones in prominent roles; all three left at the end of the season.
Breakout freshman star Taylor Rapp was a super sophomore in 2017, and will again anchor the back line. But of all the units on the Washington roster, this one looks like it could make the most dramatic uptick in production from a season ago. With an additional offseason under their belts, Austin Joyner, Byron Murphy and Myles Bryant will give opposing passing attacks headaches.
Also look for talented youngsters Elijah Molden and Brandon McKinney to become bigger contributors starting with spring practices.
5. Avoiding logging too many Myles
Star running back Myles Gaskin, a three-year starter at the conclusion of 2017, opted to return to Washington for his final season. With Gaskin returning to the backfield, the Huskies have a proven workhorse who quietly put up some of the best rushing numbers in the Pac-12 a season ago (222 carries for 1,380 yards and 21 touchdowns).
Gaskin's a known commodity and an NFL draft prospect, however, so he won't need to prove himself in spring ball. Instead, these practices present a prime opportunity for Salvon Ahmed to establish himself as the clear secondary option in the ground game.
Ahmed rushed for 388 yards backing up both Gaskin and Lavon Coleman a season ago, and his 6.36 yards per carry slightly outpaced Gaskin. Ahmed has the potential to be more than just a change-of-pace back, which would make the Huskies’ offense all the more dangerous, and spare Gaskin some wear ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft.