Rose Bowl is both reward, launch pad for UW

USA Today photo
Dan Raley

Familiar for so long, the Washington football team will enter the Rose Bowl and have Jake Browning systematically clap his hands as if he’s listening to his favorite pop song, Myles Gaskin downshift gears like he’s a sports car, Ben Burr-Kirven make crunching sounds like a coupling railcar and Kaleb McGary bear-wrestle all comers.

Once they’ve played Ohio State in Pasadena, the Huskies will begin an overhaul like no other in the Chris Petersen era. They’ll welcome back seven starters on offense, but likely just four on defense in 2019. Half the lineup should require a careful makeover. Similar to the Don James era, they’ll treat portions of these Rose Bowl workouts as early spring practice for next season.

“We have to take in what’s been done in the past,” said Benning Potoa’e, junior defensive end and linebacker, “and be able to change our weaknesses that kept us from winning.”

Chances are, the next UW team will stretch the field more with a new pro-style passer and take added chances with its pass rushers after the secondary loses nearly every one of its talented pieces. The strength of the 2019 team, anchored by senior left tackle Trey Adams, will be the offensive line.

Petersen is expected to put his sixth Huskies team in the hands of Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, a towering and talented quarterback. Eason already has dealt with the weighty demands of the Southeastern Conference and unreal expectations. He’ll probably be criticized for a lack of mobility. Yet after missing most of two seasons, as a transfer and injured player, he should be more than ready to play again.

Defensively, there will be much work to be done. For the first time at Washington, Petersen won’t have a disruptive force up front on the order of Danny Shelton, Vita Vea or Greg Gaines, a player who draws the automatic double-team. Petersen will need to unearth a true playmaker to replace the overachieving Burr-Kirven, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, which means getting junior D.J. Beavers healthy once and for all. And the Huskies likely will have to replace four of five secondary starters anticipating that lockdown sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy and all-everything junior safety Taylor Rapp leave early for the NFL.

“We’ll see, yes sir,” Murphy said when reminded that the Rose Bowl could be his last Huskies game. “We’ll see.”

As the UW football program prepares to say good bye to a generation of players that have enabled three consecutive 10-win seasons and trips to the Rose, Fiesta and Peach bowls, with the latter doubling as a College Football Playoff berth, the following is an early look at what 2019 could bring:

QB: Browning put his name all over the record books and has held onto the job far longer than any other quarterback in school history, but that became the problem for much of the UW fan base—it grew weary of him.

Enter Eason, who at 6-foot-6 is four inches taller than Browning, will stand tall in the pocket and showcase a much stronger arm. If he’s as good as advertised, the offense will carry this team and run up a lot of points—and the fans will begin grousing over the possibility that they could lose Eason a season early to the pros.

RB: Husky fans will never get enough of Gaskin, who became the school’s all-time leading rusher and scorer with 5,202 yards and 60 touchdowns. He has showed extraordinary patience in picking out running lanes.

People might grow impatient with the successor, sophomore Salvon Ahmed. While faster than Gaskin in open space, Ahmed was hugely indecisive in choosing running lanes against Utah in the Pac-12 championship game. He needs to be more committed. Either way, he probably won’t receive the 18 carries per game that Gaskin averages.

WR: Will a No. 1 passing target please step up? This season, that urgent request became only more muddled as things played out. Junior Aaron Fuller and sophomore Ty Jones had their moments and started most of the time. Yet neither player was in the opening lineup for the league championship tilt—junior Andre Baccellia and sophomore Jordan Chin replaced them.

The Huskies have a lot of pieces that look the same. Jones has the most upside. Fuller has dependable hands. Senior Chico McClatcher, if he comes back, could become a viable deep threat again. Eason will be looking for a receiver he can trust.

TE: If only every Husky position area was as well-stocked as this one, year in and year out. Will Dissly left for the pros and senior Drew Sample and redshirt freshman Cade Otton stepped up to provide high-quality play this season. Sample will exit soon and sophomore Hunter Bryant and Otton will take over. Everyone’s an NFL prospect in this wide-ranging group.

Bryant, if he can stay healthy, might become the best tight end to play at the UW. He makes the Huskies a different offensive team. He’s a hybrid receiver—part wideout, part tight end—who gets open. He could become that No. 1 target for Eason.

OL: The Huskies are in superb shape up front, especially for breaking in a new quarterback. They have four starters returning, if not all five counting Adams—and three of these guys have put in time at the glamour position of left tackle. Junior center Nick Harris and Adams have been first-team All-Pac-12 selections, though the latter was singled out for that honor way back in 2016. The five linemen bring a collective 106 starts to the table. Talent abounds.

Adams, regarded as the league’s top NFL prospect and an All-America candidate before he got hurt this season, will take his massive 6-foot-8 and 316-pound frame and presumably resume his dominant ways at left tackle. His replacement for 11 games, 6-7, 314-pound Jared Hilbers, should move to right tackle and replace the graduating McGary. Sophomore Luke Wattenberg, Adams’ left tackle sub for five games in 2017 after the incumbent suffered a season-ending knee injury, and redshirt freshman Jaxson Kirkland became irreplaceable starting guards this season and could play two more seasons together.

“I’m excited he’s coming back,” Wattenberg said of Adams, “just so I can play next to him for another year.”

Finally, there is Harris, who took on a new position at center after starting at each guard spot, and he was so productive he became a first-team, all-conference snapper.

With all of these experienced and dependable big guys around him, Eason couldn’t find a more comfortable offensive situation to step into.

DL: Gaines, an All-Pac-12 player at defensive tackle, has given the Huskies a big push and the NFL eagerly awaits him. So what’s next? The Huskies might not experience much falloff as they’ve worked sophomore defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike and redshirt freshman defensive end Joe Tryon into the starting lineup coming down the stretch. Onwuzurike has pulled five opening assignments, Tryon two, and each has shown the ability to push their way into an opposing backfield. Tryon, at 6-foot-5 and 267 pounds, collected a pair of tackles for loss in the Apple Cup and could be the next breakout player up front. Freshman Tuli Letuligasenoa, with his 6-1 and 336-pound bowling-ball body, could be a tough one to block. The Huskies need someone to step up and take over.

LB: The UW have held this position area together this season on the sheer guts of Burr-Kirven, the flexibility of Tevis Bartlett moving inside and a roll of tape. This could be the most worrisome rebuild position for the Huskies in 2019. Recruiting has failed to find adequate linebacker replacements. Five-star recruit Ale Kaho drew his scholarship release last fall and joined Alabama, and four-star signee Camilo Eilfer earlier transferred to Illinois.

The Huskies could go with the oft-injured Beavers, a junior who this season has started only the opener against Auburn; junior Brandon Wellington, who made his first career start against Utah in the Pac-12 title game; and Potoa’e, a two-year starter. Petersen needs a playmaker to step up here, too or he’ll have big problems in stopping opposing offenses.

DB: From the Huskies’ superlative secondary, only junior nickel back Myles Bryant is expected to return. JoJo McIntosh and Jordan Miller are graduating. Rapp and Murphy, both second-team AP All-America picks, should turn pro early. Bryant could go from the fifth wheel to the leader of the UW pass defense.

Yet unlike the depleted linebacker ranks, the Huskies have plenty of talented defensive backs waiting in the wings. Sophomores Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden have been groomed to become the new corners, with Taylor pulling a couple of midseason starts for an injured Miller. Highly regarded freshmen Kyler Gordon and Julius Irvin aren’t far behind them on the depth chart. Sophomores Brandon McKinney and Isaiah Gilchrest are set to take over as safeties.

P/PK: Redshirt freshman Peyton Henry and junior Joel Whitford return as kicker and punter. The Huskies will ask for more consistency out of them, particularly Henry, who needs to show he can convert a modest field goal with the game on the line. Or replace him.

2019 OUTLOOK: As the Eason era kicks in and guys like Browning and Gaskin leave and become memories, the Huskies will be a talked-about team again but they won’t be a national playoff contender right off. They’ll be ranked, but likely not in the top 10. They’ll be entertaining on offense, but likely far less stout defensively. They’ll be capable of another 10-win season, but hardly unbeatable.

USC and Arizona return to the UW schedule in 2019, while Arizona State and UCLA drop off, and the Huskies always have trouble beating the Trojans. Nonconference games against BYU, Hawaii and Eastern Washington are lightweight offerings.

Eason should be as good as advertised in leading the redrawn offense and Adams might finally collect on all of those individual accolades pushed his way, such as All-America honors and a No. 1 draft status, before injuries set in. Yet defensive questions will linger well into the season and could force the Huskies to scramble and outscore teams rather than stop them. Nine or 10 wins and a high-profile bowl game might be asking a lot. Or maybe not. Depends on the new quarterback.