Know Your Enemies is a series where AllSunDevils interviews reporters from across the conference to gain insight on their respective teams. On deck first are the reigning Pac-12 North champion Washington Huskies.
Team: Washington Huskies
Division: Pac-12 North
2020 Record: 3-1
Although COVID-19 took nearly every team in college football for a twist in one fashion or another, the ending to the Washington Huskies' 2020 campaign was nothing short of spectacular for the wrong reasons.
Despite having games against the likes of Cal, Washington State, Oregon and USC cancelled, the Huskies won three of their four games played, holding a better win percentage than anybody in the north. The Huskies were set to play in the Pac-12 title game, only to have a COVID-19 outbreak within their team, forcing them to withdraw and have Oregon take their place.
This time around, with an overwhelming majority of its starters back for 2021, Washington looks to replicate the same success but with a different ending.
2021 Brings Expectations and Pressure
Husky Maven's Dan Raley believes this could be a make-or-break season for head coach Jimmy Lake, who took over duties for Chris Petersen following his departure prior to last season.
"Lake has 18 starters returning, most of whom are remnants of the Chris Petersen era, and four of five portal transfers on board, who have been starters elsewhere," said Raley.
"The pieces are there for another conference championship run. Four players, tackle Jaxson Kirkland, cornerback Trent McDuffie, tight end Cade Otton and inside linebacker Eddie Ulofoshio, have been singled out as preseason first-team All-Americans or as first-round NFL draft picks, or both.
The pressure is on Lake to bring it together. It’s his make-or-break moment."
Two Quarterbacks, One Starting Position
A hot topic of discussion surrounding Washington is at the quarterback position, with two potential candidates in freshman Sam Huard and returning starter Dylan Morris. With a stellar defense and mammoth offensive linemen (all five starters return with the largest average body in school history at 6-foot-5 and 323 pounds), the Huskies simply need stellar game management from whoever is under center.
Raley believes that it's Morris' job until proven otherwise.
"The No. 1 quarterback job belongs to Morris until he loses it," Raley said. "He’s a mistake-free quarterback with a lot of poise, though he comes with average passing skills. Huard, while he’s the man with the golden arm and all the hype, isn’t ready."
"Now if Washington loses its second game to Michigan, we’ll see how the coaching staff responds and whether it chooses to accelerate Huard’s progress."
Defense Wins Championships
Historically, the Huskies always seem to have tremendous defensive play to their advantage, with at least a handful of pro-ready prospects donning a "W" on their helmet each season.
The 2021 squad appears to be no different, although there were a few curveballs thrown in Washington's way. The Huskies will be playing under new defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, who replaced Pete Kwiatkowski. Washington will also be without all-conference linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui after he ruptured his Achilles in spring ball.
Can Washington maintain an elite defense? Raley believes so, with a handful of players needing to pull their weight to make that happen:
"Washington has its typical veteran defense with some real game-breakers in Ulofoshio and McDuffie at linebacker and cornerback, plus another potential standout at nickel back in three-year Oklahoma starter Bookie Radley-Hiles.
"They have ample replacements for the injured ZTF. The key to this unit is the return of sophomore defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa, who missed all but one game as a starter in 2020 with an injury. Opponents ran up big chunks of yards in his absence. He is the difference between a good and a great defense."
When asked what Washington's greatest strength and weakness was, Raley offered both sides of the ball in his answer:
"The greatest strength of this UW team is an offensive line that returns all five starters, which last happened for the Huskies in 1960, and is the biggest in school history, averaging 6-5 and 323 pounds per man. Kirkland, at 6-7 and a trim 317 pounds, is incredibly motivated to be great, has unusually low body fat for an O-lineman and might be the first tackle drafted in April. At center, Luke Wattenberg is a sixth-year player and amazingly a fifth-year starter. Left guard Ulumoo Ale is 6-6 and 365 pounds and can run, which is scary. This is why Lake wears a hat that says, 'Run the damn ball.'
"The team weakness is how unsettled the two safeties are entering fall camp. The Huskies return three players who have started, but none of them firmly established himself in the spring. Arizona native Dominique Hampton, a converted cornerback who has not started before, appeared to win one of the safety jobs this spring."
Circle the Calendar
The Huskies have two notable games on their schedule for 2021: A Week-2 road trip to play the Michigan Wolverines and a home date in Week 10 against the Oregon Ducks.
Every game is big when a team is positioning itself to make a potential College Football Playoff run, yet the matchups mentioned carry a tad more weight than normal.
Raley on which game he's circling as a "must-win" for the Huskies this season:
"The Michigan game in Week 2, at night on national television in Ann Arbor, will set the tone for everything for the Huskies. With such a huge platform to show what they’re all about, the Huskies could establish themselves as a team with a chance to run the table all the way to the postseason. Lose that game in the Midwest, and they likely slink back to a 2-3 loss team."
What the Magic Crystal Ball Says
Washington is undoubtedly in line for another strong season. However, the debate of exactly how far the Huskies can push themselves into a potential conference championship/playoff berth rests in the hands of public opinion.
In Raley's opinion, the Huskies are in line to possibly slip up down the stretch:
"I covered the 1991 UW national championship team and this group doesn’t meet that level of success. The Huskies 30 years ago had only two games that were in question all season and they willed those wins to finish unbeaten. This team is good, but I see it going 10-2 at best. It might beat Michigan and Oregon, but the UW will squander those inroads to someone that gets hot against it, like an Arizona State and a WSU. I don’t see a national title contender anywhere in the Pac-12."
As always, Washington appears to be a strong contender for the Pac-12 North title, with hopes of stopping Oregon from three-peating as conference champions. With most of their squad back from a season ago, the Huskies look to use their experience to make some noise.
How much noise? That's yet to be determined. Washington possess a team that could win the conference with zero or one loss on their record, while also falling short on multiple occasions throughout the year to lesser teams.
Obviously, time will only tell if the Huskies' potential on the field is realized. The coaching staff is there, along with the players and overall culture of the team. We'll find out if Washington can perform at the levels many think they can reach.
The Sun Devils are currently slated to play in Washington on Nov. 13.
You May Also Like
Donnie Druin is a Deputy Editor with AllSunDevils. Follow Donnie on Twitter @DonnieDruin, and AllSunDevils @AllSunDevils. Like and follow AllSunDevils on Facebook, and for more ASU news visit https://www.si.com/college/arizonastate/