2014 Record: 8-6 (4-5 Pac-12 North)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: outside linebacker Travis Freeney, wide receiver Jaydon Mickens, running back Dwayne Washington
So many things seemed right when Washington’s athletic director Scott Woodward hired Chris Peterson to be the Huskies new coach during the 2014 off-season. As a coach with 20 years of experience coaching football teams on the west coach, he was also one of the most successful, winning 92 games in his 8 years in charge at Boise State.
The 50-year-old coach was also able to convince his entire staff of assistants (six of which came from Boise State) to stay on for a second season at Washington, a rare occurrence at the school. In fact, a coaching staff had only stayed intact for two or more seasons only twice before in school history. The coaching continuity might provide a huge shot in the arm with so little returning in terms of upperclassmen and returning starters.
Former Washington head coach Jim Lambright said at the time of the Peterson hire “he will bring a great foundation to this program, and he will win.” The fastest active FBS coach to reach 100 career wins was able to piece together enough talent in his first year at the school to get his team into the TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Last years eight wins were due in part to a coaching masterpiece as much as it was the four standouts on the Huskies defense who would soon hear their named called in late April’s NFL Draft. Especially when you consider the team’s struggles offensively to move the football consistently through the passing game, and the lack of consistency on defense even with the likes of three All-Americans in Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, and Hau’oli Kikaha (all selected within the first 44 picks of the three-day draft).
But building the foundation that includes just 35 returning upperclassmen and a 14 member senior class should be a bit tougher to watch in 2015 than it was in 2014 as Peterson erects the roster in his image. Especially when you think back to a point last season when this team was actually ranked 13th in the country.
What to look for from the Huskies on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 26.0 (83rd in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 6
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 82% (27th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 15 (126th in FBS)
If the personnel losses on defense were tough to swallow, the ones that took place on the other side of the ball weren’t much better. With quarterback Cyler Miles retiring from the team, you could look at it from two points of view. The Huskies weren’t in a position from a talent standpoint to accept the loss of the athletic quarterback in stride. However, it just didn’t seem a good fit between the freelancing Miles and an offensive system that paces itself on accuracy, timing, and deception.
The options to replace Miles are positive, yet none of the players proven. Four-star junior Jeff Lindquist played in four games last year, starting one of them, the season opener on the road against Hawaii where he completed less than 40-percent of his passes against the 84th-ranked pass defense in the FBS last season. Joining him are two freshmen, Jake Browning and K.J. Carta-Samuels. Browning an early-enrollee in January set the California prep scene on fire during his record breaking career at Folsom High.
Whomever is unveiled as the starter before the team’s season opener at Boise State won’t have the luxury of throwing to the best offensive weapon on the team in John Ross III who was lost for the season during the spring due to a knee injury. On a team devout of play-makers, the loss of Ross puts the league’s second worst passing offense in question once again.
They’ll be leaning on a trio of pass catchers lead by senior Jaydon Mickens. Standing a mere 5-foot-10, he hopes to build off his 60-catch season where he finished off a 100-yard all-purpose game on offense against Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl. The slot receiver heads into his final campaign ranked sixth in school history with 145 career receptions. He’s joined at receiver by sophomore Dante Pettis, and senior tight end Joshua Perkins, a break-out candidate in a conference lacking star power at the position heading into 2015.
When you look over the offensive two-deep, you see a lot of “OR” on the sheet. The running back position included in the jumble of players for starting spots with all three of the Huskies top rushers returning in the fall.
Dwayne Washington, a converted wide receiver, scored nine times to lead the group, recording three straight 100+ yard rushing performances to end the season against the likes of Arizona, Oregon, and Washington State. He also carried the ball like a receiver, fumbling four times on just 132 carries. But he averaged nearly eight yards per carry during the stretch. Look for him to be spelled by fellow junior Lavon Coleman and senior Deontae Cooper.
Peterson will want to establish the run to protect whomever he decides to give the go under center. Especially to make things easier on an offensive line that returns just 15 career starts going into the season. A startling transition from the team that entered 2014 with 124 career starts under their belt. In fact half of the offensive linemen on the roster have yet to see a college snap. Not good when you’re trying to break in a new quarterback.
What to look for from the Huskies on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 27.2 (56th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.162 (54th in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 50% (108th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 4
Second year defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski knows Petersen well, serving on his Boise State staff during his time as the head coach, the last four as his defensive coordinator. But he has to roll up his sleeves and figure out how to improve a defense that returns without its best pass rusher (Kikaha), best run stopper (Shelton), best coverage linebacker (Thompson), and until he was thrown off the team in November, his best cover corner (Marcus Peters). Even with these players the wheels fell off down the stretch as the Huskies finished tenth in the league in pass defense.
It’s tough to replace two first picks and your leading tackler on your defense unless you are a perennial top-5 recruiting program like Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, and USC. As bad as this team was outside of Peters in defending the pass, it was stout against the run (second inthe Pac-12). And while the Huskies have four former four-star recruits within their front-seven two-deep, it looks like there will be more growing pains.
To combat the change, Kwiatkowski will switch to a 3-4 look as he moves on from all but one of his starters in the front seven. But that one, senior Travis Feeney, has a chance to be all-conference if he gets back to being the player he was as a redshirt freshman season.
Feeney will have the luxury of a very athletic secondary filling in behind him. Do-it-all safety Budda Baker took his lumps starting as a freshman in the air-it-out Pac-12 last season. He and corner Sidney Jones were two of six underclassmen to receive playing time in this secondary last season. Junior Kelvin King joins Baker to form a very strong backbone for the Huskies.
This will be a fast playing back end to the defense that should begin to learn from its mistakes due to over-aggressiveness. How fast they forge a better pass defense though against the likes of a high-flying ASU passing attack at home late in November will help to determine how close the game will be against the Sun Devils. Until then, it’s boom-or-bust for sure, as expected with such a young position group.
2015 will be tough to swallow for Peterson as he looks to solidify his quarterback position while conducting a full rebuild of both the offensive and defensive lines. If they finally receive some sort of stability at the quarterback position, Peterson’s offense could be lethal. But it’s hard to see at this time how all the individual pieces match-up to recreate the well-oiled machine that was the Boise State offenses beating BCS schools before Peterson got to Seattle.
Todd Graham’s team will be returning from Pullman to play the Huskies on Homecoming night at Sun Devil Stadium with seemingly much more to play for than their counterparts. Bad weather conditions at Husky Stadium and a still motivated Washington defense kept the Devils at bay back in late October. Baring any major injuries, it’s hard to see how the Devils aren’t at least two score favorites against their tenth opponent of 2015.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Report.