2021 Pac-12 Football Previews: Washington Huskies

Posted on August 15, 2021


  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Washington outlook is the 11th of 12 preseason previews to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 28th.

Each preview is comprised of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.


Overview

The Coronavirus cut Washington’s 2020 season short, preventing the Dawgs from playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game while simultaneously adding fuel to the rivalry with Oregon.

But as the technical champions of the Pac-12 North, the Huskies enter the year with an eye toward repeating.

Morris

Dylan Morris begins his second season under the helm in the Pacific Northwest, with five-star freshman quarterback Sam Huard developing behind him.

Yet once again, UW projects to rely on its defense that held opponents to 25 points per game and 346.3 yards per night in 2020.

The season starts with a bang in an early-season showdown against Michigan, a rare opportunity to make a splash before Pac-12 play begins.

But win or lose against the Wolverines, the remainder of UW’s schedule sets the table for what could be another North Division championship.


Best-Case Scenario

Morris holds steady all season, displaying an improved command of the offense in Year Two.

Otton

The confidence generated from playing with a line that returns all five starters, one of the country’s top tight ends in Cade Otton, and a triple-punch rushing attack results in a victory over Michigan.

The momentum continues the remainder of the year, as the Huskies rattle off win after win, posting a 2-1 mark against Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona State.

The regular season ends with a blowout victory over Washington State and another Pac-12 North Championship.


Worst Case Scenario

Cracks in UW’s defense come to the surface as the departure of former coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski hits home.

Leading the Husky defense for the past seven years, Kwiatkowski’s move to Texas and the transition to first-year coordinator Bob Gregory sends a shockwave through the program.

Tupuola-Fetui

The loss of All-Conference linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui for at least part of the season exposes the lack of depth on the second level, leaving Washington vulnerable in pass defense due to the decreased pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Compounded by inconsistent play from its safeties, the Huskies give up too many first downs through the air, especially over the middle of the field.

McDuffie

Although Trent McDuffie locks down his assignment, opponents gameplan around him by exploiting mismatches between the hash marks.

And after winning two of its three games in 2020 by less than seven points, the Dawgs prove unable to get it done in crunch time this time around.

The defensive struggles in pivotal moments result in losses to Michigan, Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona State.


What Should Happen

Returning 18 starters, the Huskies shouldn’t miss a beat.

Michigan is vulnerable with Jim Harbaugh on the hot seat, presenting a season-defining opportunity in Week Two. And the remainder of UW’s schedule is as favorable as could be asked.

Even with the injury to ZTE, Lake has Tuli Letuligasenoa back along the line, with former five-star prospect Sav’ell Smalls gunning for a breakout year.

Tuli Letuligasenoa | Alika Jenner/Getty Images

On top of that, Lake’s first and second-leading tacklers return in linebackers Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon.

On the edge, McDuffie presents a no-fly zone and Oklahoma transfer Brendan Radley-Hiles figures to lock down the other side of the field.

Kirkland

While on offense, Jaxson Kirkland leads what may be the strongest line in the Pac-12. The time provided to Morris should prove invaluable, as Otton projects to gash opponents over the middle.

Sprinkle in the three-pronged rushing attack of Sean McGrew, Richard Newton, and Kamari Pleasant, and Lake’s offense looks even more dangerous this season.

With so many weapons on both sides of the ball, a nine-win campaign is arguably the minimum expectation in Seattle.


What Must Happen

The first season under offensive coordinator John Donovan was a struggle at times. Putting aside the Arizona game, Donovan’s offense averaged 25.6 points per night and failed to score more than 27 points in a single game.

Year Two should be a different story, as his unit has a deeper understanding of the playbook and their assignments.

John Donovan | Washington Athletics

But stumbling against above-average defenses must be avoided. The Washington running backs are a multi-faceted threat that should be used effectively in conjunction with Otton over the middle.

Yet, the real development has to come on the edges in the passing game.

The Husky passing attack was 67th in the nation and averaged just 226.5 yards per night under Morris, a glaring problem that must be rectified. With arguably the top tight end in the Pac-12, the middle-of-the-road quarterback play must be improved.


Greatest Strength

The offensive front five in Seattle are talented and experienced.

pac-12 football washington husky
Wattenberg

The entire starting line returns, providing a cohesive unit with chemistry that should dominate opposing defenses. Kirkland leads the way, but Luke Wattenberg is not far behind. The center enters his fifth season as a starter.

At the end of the day, the lanes opened up for the UW running backs could prove to be the difference when playing with leads.

Controlling the ball in the fourth quarter by moving the sticks on the ground, particularly on third down, might be what brings the program back to the Promised Land.

And if Morris has improved as much as reports out of fall camp indicate, the extra time provided to make decisions should lead to fewer interceptions and a consistent field-position advantage.


Biggest Concern

Lake’s wide receivers are arguably his biggest cause for concern.

Jackson

After the transfer of Puka Nacua, no player outside of Otton returns who had a receiving touchdown to his name in 2020. The lack of a threat on the edge is a gaping hole in what otherwise is a well-rounded roster from top to bottom.

Michigan transfer Giles Jackson and Texas Tech transfer Ja’Lynn Polk have been brought in to address the problem. And former four-star Jalen McMillan has a golden opportunity in front of him.

But without a proven threat, Washington is arguably limited until a star emerges.


Deciding Factors

With a favorable schedule, defending Husky Stadium could be the difference between a North championship and a mid-range bowl game.

California, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, and Washington State all come to Seattle, a slate that sets the Dawgs up for a potentially historic season.

The conference road games are Oregon State, Arizona, and Stanford, matchups that UW should be favored to win.

Oregon Ducks Logo Pac-12If the Huskies take care of things on the road and handle Cal, UCLA, and WSU as expected, the battles with UO and ASU figure to define the year.

Victories in both, along with a win in the Pac-12 Championship game, could be enough to secure another appearance in the College Football Playoff.


Schedule Analysis

According to the ESPN Football Power Index, apart from the Michigan and Oregon matchups, the Huskies are favored to win the remainder of their games.

The battle with Stanford on the Farm is arguably a toss-up, and a defeat wouldn’t be a shock. And if Arizona State plays as many expect, the mid-November showdown with the Sun Devils in Seattle could be an upset alert.

Lake would also be remiss if he allowed his players to overlook the test in Boulder against Colorado.

Yet, depending on how Morris looks in Week One, the Dawgs could be a trendy pick to upset the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

In that sense, momentum—whether upwards or downwards—might be the driving force in UW’s season.

A victory against Michigan in Week Two could generate legitimate discussions for a Playoff run, while back-to-back-to-back losses against Stanford, Oregon, and ASU in the middle of the season could damage the perception of the Lake Era.

Assuming the Huskies play as expected, a nine-win year and Alamo Bowl appearance is a fair expectation.




—More from Dane Miller—