Hitting a higher gear: After 2016 playoff run, Washington aims to finish the job in 2017

2:05 | College Football
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Thursday April 20th, 2017

SEATTLE — Jonathan Smith only had to hear the words “Myles Gaskin” for his eyes to light up and a smile to flash across his face. As evidenced by his reaction, Washington’s offensive coordinator is rather happy with his junior running back.

“I think he looks really good,” Smith said of Gaskin, the Huskies returning leading rushing who surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season. “He’s a difference maker, he’s in great shape. We’re asking him to do some more things in protection in the pass game, and he’s picked that up great. We really like where he’s at.”

One of the best returning playmakers on an upstart Huskies team that made last season’s College Football Playoff, Gaskin understands that people inside and out of the locker room will be counting on him to do even more in 2017. And while he appreciates the compliment from his coach, Gaskin says he’s not, by any stretch, a completely different player; he just continues to get more and more comfortable within college football.

“When I first came here things were going so fast, I had to watch film in slow motion,” Gaskin laughs. “I’d watch film and be like, wait, what just happened? How did I miss that? Now, I know what I’m looking for. It doesn’t feel like everything is racing by me.”

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Gaskin racing by other people is a different story though. This off-season, as the Huskies regrouped from a 24–7 loss to Alabama in the Peach Bowl semifinal and bid adieu to a handful of stars bound for the NFL, Gaskin made his own to-do list. First, he wanted to get noticeably faster. That much he’s already done and the proof is in the numbers. In Washington’s annual Husky Combine for its current players, Gaskin improved his 40-yard dash time from 4.5 seconds in 2016 to 4.4 this spring.

Second, he wanted to better identify when and how to pick up blitzing linebackers. Smith and Huskies quarterback Jake Browning have both noted an improvement in that department in the handful of live practices Washington has gone through this spring. (There will be another opportunity to show off this skill Saturday during the Huskies’ spring game.)

Finally, Gaskin wanted to work on changing direction without losing speed. “When you make a move, you don’t want to slow down at all,” he says. “It should be quick—you put your foot in the ground, he misses but you’re still going 100 miles per hour. Sometimes I get in my own head and think about chopping my feet instead of just reacting. In this league, you can’t slow down and think about stuff because when you think you see open grass, that’s when a guy comes from behind and tackles you.”

Fine tune all of those areas, and Gaskin is likely to become an even better playmaker in the fall. That bodes well for the Huskies, as they set their sights on becoming a perennial playoff contender, not a one hit wonder.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Wednesday in Husky Stadium, as Washington wrapped up its 13th spring practice, the only game players wanted to talk about was Rutgers. As in, Washington’s first opponent in the 2017 season. Gaskin, Browning and their teammates say it’s important to stick with the “one game at a time” mantra, even if it sounds cliché.

And yet they also acknowledged that they understand the expectations that come after one of the most successful seasons in school history. What’s more, they say those expectations are nothing new to them.

“I think we set the standard before we won the Pac-12 championship and went to the playoffs,” tight end David Ajamu says. “That’s always been the standard, to win the Pac-12 championship, to go to the Rose Bowl, and to do those things with class and excellence. Now that we’ve finally tasted that, it needs to stay that way.”

The way to ensure that happens, Ajamu says, is to adopt the BYOE philosophy: Bring Your Own Energy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the current defending national champions, Clemson, have a similar saying that was popularized long before Ajamu’s quip. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney went viral in 2015 when he told reporters after Clemson’s 24–22 win over Notre Dame that the key to the victory—which came in hurricane conditions—was BYOG: Bring Your Own Guts.

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And speaking of Clemson, yes, Browning sees the parallels that can be drawn between 2016 Clemson and 2017 Washington. In Clemson’s case, the Tigers reached the title game in the 2015 season before falling to Alabama, the same team that ended the Huskies’ 2016 campaign. That season taught Clemson what it takes to get to the big moment, and in 2016, the Tigers were able to capitalize. Washington would be O.K. with following that same path.

“One thing I hear is that you look at Clemson and Michigan State. Michigan State made the playoff [in the 2015 season], then had a bad year—well, they lose their quarterback. Clemson [still] had theirs,” Browning said, referencing the return of Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson.

Browning already knows the question that’s coming next: Does this mean the pressure is mostly on him, the returning quarterback also expected to get Heisman hype?

“No, no,” said the junior signal-caller, who was voted the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and threw a school-record 43 touchdown passes. “This is a new team with a new identity … I think we’re still trying to figure out who we are. We’re a little quieter, and we lose a lot of guys that had a lot of experience.”

What matters, Browning says, is that when their identity is set, the Huskies need to consistently be the best version of that identity. It’ll start with returners like him and Gaskin and trickle down to new faces. The system won’t change. Neither will the expectations.

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