Here’s five key figures who will figure heavily in Washington’s football season that — finally — will get underway Saturday at 8 p.m. against Oregon State at Husky Stadium.
This could have been a fairly powerful University of Washington football team. Then the pandemic hit, spring practice was scrubbed, everything shut down for a while and the regular season now begins rather than ends in November.
Oh, yeah, 10 players with eligibility remaining have left the Husky program once the 2019 Apple Cup went into the books.
The exodus counted five starters, including NFL-bound QB Jacob Eason, second-team All-America TE selection Hunter Bryant, leading rusher Salvon Ahmed, and a pair of preseason All-America picks in DT Levi Onwuzurike and OLB Joe Tryon. That’s a lot of firepower to hand over prematurely. Twenty-three percent of the lineup, in fact.
Coach Chris Petersen turned in his playbook, too, which makes you wonder why Huskyville all of a sudden turned so unattractive to so many who were not retainable. Petersen went out the door with offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan and tight-ends coach and Jordan Paopao, though the latter two were urged to move on.
What’s left is a good, not great, team patched together to usher in the Jimmy Lake coaching era.
A clear indicator of how unsettled things remain for these next-up Huskies is the situation at starting quarterback, which won’t be unfurled publicly until the offense takes the field at Husky Stadium to play 0-1 Oregon State (8 p.m., FS1), the fourth attempt at a season opener amid the disruptions of Covid-19.
Such secrecy can only mean you’re trying to hide or protect something, rather than celebrate it.
Lake would like you to think the four quarterback candidates are still pushing and shoving, trying to cut in front of each other in line, leading up to the national anthem.
While dodging questions about his emotions tied to his program takeover, Lake continues to emphasize that this team will be more physical. His offensive line, running backs and linebackers are noticeably heftier. He’s promoted toughness with his drills.
“We definitely tackled more than we ever have,” he said of practice following the re-start of a season that was initially scrubbed by the Pac-12 Conference Aug. 11, then revived. “Now it feels like we’ve got two or three games under our belt.”
Following are five guys who will have a big hand in determining whether these Huskies challenge for a short-season Pac-12 championship, or go through another development year such as 2019.
If the pandemic wasn’t a weird enough obstacle, the Huskies likely will put the ball first in the hands of a seven-year collegian and graduate transfer from Sacramento State. Even stranger, Thomson grew up and played his high school football a half hour away from Husky Stadium at Auburn’s Riverside.
Now this guy could be fairly savvy and effective as a dual-threat offensive leader. But caution abounds after Oregon (Vernon Adams, Dakota Prukop) and Washington State (Gage Gubrud) had only marginal or no success with their highly regarded Big Sky Conference QB transfers. Deer-in-the-headlights syndrome is always a major concern.
While Thomson is expected to pull the opening snaps, Lake has made it clear more than once that he isn’t against using more than one quarterback, which means pro-style passer Jacob Sirmon could take the field by the second quarter. That wouldn’t be a good sign at all.
At least there’s no question who will be the quarterback of the defense. Molden was the Huskies’ best player overall when the 2019 season ended, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors at cornerback and the Las Vegas Bowl Most Valuable Player award. It’s still his team.
He thought long and hard about leaving early for the NFL, along with Onwuzurike and Tryon, but he decided to try to increase his pro football stock by playing his senior season and show loyalty to the new leader.
“For me, I love the game so much, I couldn’t sit out any longer knowing I could have played,” Molden said. “That was my motivation for coming back, especially with a new coach in coach Lake, someone I believe in entirely.”
Molden, the son of ex-Oregon All-America and former NFL cornerback Alex Molden (1996-2004), is a smart and highly instinctive player who can keep the defense together, especially when things turn tense. He’s a big reason why the stop unit could still be sound after all the defections.
DAWG LEADERS.@e_mold3n, @jaxson_kirkland, @RyanBowman55, @CadeOtton, @peytonhenry17, @trent_mcduffie, and @LukeWattenberg have been named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team.#PurpleReign x #BowDown pic.twitter.com/2SNJWq5ndZ
— Washington Football (@UW_Football) November 5, 2020
If you’re looking for novelty, the offensive line is the place to turn. It could be a powerful and effective crew. It might give the new guy behind center more time to settle in. Maybe it makes this more of a run-first team.
For certain, this will be the heaviest collection of Huskies linemen in program history, averaging 323 pounds per man. The UW’s next biggest was the 1997 crew led by Benji Olson and Olin Kreutz, averaging 307 per man.
The headliner is Kirkland, a junior and the new left tackle. He measures 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds, down 25 from the season before, which ironically makes him the lightest of the first-teamers.
It was once said that USC’s gigantic offensive line could stand up and see Denver; this UW line should at least be able to catch a glimpse of Spokane.
The son of Dean Kirkland, a former UW line great, Jaxson has done everything he can to make himself an all-conference player and a pro football prospect. He’ll get in a stance next to left offensive guard Ulumoo Ale, a mobile 6-6, 355-pound sophomore and a former Australian rugby player. Together these two could provide a fearsome escort.
The most obvious weakness of the 2019 team was its inside linebackers. They were a pair of fifth-year seniors who hadn’t started before and whose playmaking skills were negligible. They had a handful of tackles for loss between them.
A walk-on, Ulofoshio saw opportunity and took it. Receiving extended playing time at Oregon State, he came off the bench, chalked up nine tackles and was named Pac-12 defensive player of the week. Just like that. He started the final three games and averaged nearly 10 tackles an outing.
That earned him a scholarship. He’s a smart guy, a pre-med student, who studies his position and can run, too. He’s just a sophomore, which means his fast rise could make him an honors candidate. He’s an upgrade.
“We’re making sure that we do our job on the defense and making our calls,” Ulofoshio said. “We’re doing that faster and better than we did last year.”
Petersen is gone and his protégé Lake is in charge. What does that mean? Worst case, there’s a fall-off from a proven leader handing things over to a guy who hasn’t done it before. Best case, Lake brings more energy to a program that didn’t have Petersen all in last season; the exiting coach admitted to burnout that came even before last season began.
Lake brings more of a gunslinger’s mentality, likely going for more home runs with sacks and deep throws than his predecessor, who surprisingly preferred a conservative approach when everyone thought from his Boise State days he was a gambler.
The new guy in charge is more of a player’s coach, digging deep for an emotional response from his guys, rather than handling things in a corporate fashion as his former boss. Nobody speaks about “Our Kind of Guys” anymore. The approach is saltier. But only results matter.