2016 season preview: Washington Huskies
Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen is quickly building a very strong program in Seattle. The Huskies return an all-freshman quarterback, one of the better running backs in the country and NFL-caliber talent at all three levels of their defense. They are a favorite to take the next step this season and win the Pac-12 North.
Let’s take a look at the Huskies’ offense and defense, along with their best player and breakout candidate, as we examine whether this team has the pieces to win the Pac-12 title this season.
The Huskies’ offense is led by Jake Browning, who was the starting quarterback on the PFF All-freshmen team. Last season Browning didn’t play like a freshman, but rather a seasoned FBS quarterback — his 66.7 adjusted completion percentage when under pressure ranks No. 2 among returning FBS quarterbacks, and he showed an affinity for the deep ball as well. Executing those type of difficult throws at such a high level is uncommon for a true freshman passer.
Sophomore running back Myles Gaskin is one of the best at his position in the country, ranking fourth among returning backs in PFF rushing grade last year. John Ross will provide a spark to the offense once again as he shifts back to wide receiver. Tight end Darrell Daniels’ 2.14 yards per route run ranks No. 5 among returning Power-5 tight ends.
Last year’s 54th-ranked offensive line will need to step up its game a bit to create space and time for the Huskies’ skill players to operate, but overall this is a very strong unit.
This is possibly the best returning defense in the Pac-12. Elijah Qualls is an NFL-caliber nose tackle, and his 2015 grade ranks No. 10 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles. Fellow defensive tackle Greg Gaines’ run-defense grade ranks No. 10 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles, giving the Huskies a formidable duo up front.
Azeem Victor is one of the better and more well-rounded linebackers in all of FBS. He graded positively as a run-stopper, in coverage, and his pass-rushing grade of ranks No. 2 among returning Power-5 linebackers. The secondary is loaded, with cornerback Sidney Jones’ coverage grade ranking No. 2 among returning Pac-12 cornerbacks. Kevin King has tremendous length and can play safety or cornerback. Safety Budda Baker is undersized (5-foot-10, 173 pounds) but he is versatile, physical, instinctive and graded positively in coverage, run support and pass rush a year ago. If anyone at the college level reminds me of Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu’s style of play, it is Baker.
Gaskin is a shifty runner who forced 61 missed tackles as a runner last season, and his elusive rating ranks No. 9 among returning FBS running backs. Although Gaskin isn’t a big back, he also racked up an impressive 3.9 yards after contact per attempt last season, showing his ability to absorb contact and finish runs.
Breakout player to watch
The electric and versatile John Ross is moving to wide receiver full-time in 2016 after splitting time as a defensive back and then also missing the 2015 season with an injury. Ross is a threat to score every time he touches the ball (he scored four touchdowns on 18 receptions in 2014) and should instantly be one of the top playmaking wide receivers in the Pac-12 — and a lot of fun to watch.
The Huskies have arguably the best defense in the Pac-12 and young, talented offensive skill players. Sophomores Browning and Gaskin form a young and potent backfield combination that should be one of the better groups in the Pac-12 for the next two seasons. The Huskies look poised to take the next step this season by finally beating Oregon and becoming legitimate Pac-12 North contenders.