Young talent crucial to Washington's 2016 playoff prospects
The hype train has been building up steam for the Washington Huskies this offseason. Whether it’s featuring prominently in a too-early top 25 or being labelled as a dark horse for the playoffs, the Huskies have that offseason appeal that catches media attention. It’s not difficult to see why — they return most of their best players from 2015 and have some highly-talented young players in key positions.
Foremost among these is quarterback Jake Browning, who led all freshmen quarterbacks with a +21.6 overall grade. Thrown in at the deep end as a true freshman starter, Browning struggled initially but got better as season went on, posting a passing grade of +1.5 or better in five of his final six contests. Browning’s excellent grade is borne out by his performance in some of our advanced statistical categories.
His 75.2 adjusted accuracy percentage is 12th-best among all returning QBs, while his 50.0 accuracy percentage on deep passes (those that travel 20+ yards downfield in the air) tied for 11th-best. Most impressive of all was his performance under pressure — his 66.7 percent accuracy on plays where he was pressured was tied for sixth-best rate among returning QBs. That poise under pressure allows Browning to make plays like the one below, where he avoids the pass rush before throwing on the run into tight coverage, and still putting the ball where only his receiver has a shot at making a play on it.
Another true freshman, running back Myles Gaskin, starred alongside Browning. He was a backup initially, with 39 carries through the first four games, but made his breakthrough in Week 6 with 134 rushing yards in a +2.8 graded performance against USC and never looked back. Gaskin’s +27.6 rushing grade for the season wasn’t simply the best mark posted by a true freshman back, it was the fourth-best grade among all returning backs — in what promises to be one of the most talented position groups in college football this year. The Huskies were fielding a young offensive line and the blocking wasn’t great, but Gaskin has the ability to make tacklers miss and averaged 3.87 yards after contact.
Shifting our attention to the defense, there are a number of returning players who impressed in 2015.
Two interior defensive linemen stood out for the Huskies in 2015 in Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines. Qualls was the more balanced of the two. Strong in run defense, he also recorded five sacks and a 7.6 pass rushing productivity score (PRP) — second-best among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles. PRP measures a player’s ability to generate pressure on a per-pass rush snap basis. Gaines was a little stouter against the run, as his +15.3 run defense grade was second-best among returning interior defensive lineman in the conference. Junior linebacker Azeem Victor graded positively in run defense, in coverage and as a pass rusher on his way to a +14.4 overall grade.
Free safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones both made solid contributions when starting as true freshmen in 2014, before grading well as sophomores in 2015. Baker earned a +7.8 overall grade in 2015, third-best among returning safeties in the Pac-12. Jones held opposing QBs to a 54.0 passer rating, giving up just one touchdown while disrupting 12 passes (four of them picks).
All things considered, Washington’s dark-horse candidacy is easy to understand. However, for all their notable talent, the Huskies were still only a 7-6 team in 2015. There are several reasons for caution ahead of the 2016 season.
The offensive line remains an issue — of the nine OL to play 100 snaps in 2015, eight return, but of those who saw significant playing time only left guard Jake Eldrenkamp graded positively (+1.6). Secondly, Washington needs to replace their two leading edge rushers, Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney, who accounted for a combined 14 sacks and 77 total pressures in 2015. Lastly, young players don’t always improve, so while it’s easy to note the number of impressive young players returning and assume they all take a step forward in 2015, that may not be the case.
If Washington can live up to the hype in 2016, a number of things will have to go their way — but with Browning under center and Gaskin in the backfield there is no doubting that the Huskies are on the up.