Eight takeaways from UW Huskies fall camp

In just 15 days, the Huskies open the 2016 season at Husky Stadium against Rutgers, kicking off a season of great anticipation for the Washington program.

On Friday night, the Huskies will host an invitation-only scrimmage for season-ticket holders, a game-like practice that will go a long way toward settling the two-deep, among other things.

Nine of the Huskies’ first 10 practices were open to the media. Here are 10 takeaways from what we saw:

1. Believe it or not, this defense might be even better than it was in 2015.

For the first four days of camp, the defense pitched four consecutive shutouts — shutting down the offense in virtually every way. To be fair, the offense was installing quite a few new plays and needed time to learn them and rep them, and they didn’t do any red-zone drills in those first practices. All that said, it was still an impressive showing for a defense that returns its nucleus intact.

The defensive secondary, in particular, has yielded very little, and the veteran defensive backs are open about their desire to be the best secondary in the nation. Junior safety Budda Baker, senior cornerback Kevin King and junior cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Darren Gardenhire are all returning starters; add in the big-hitting abilities of Jojo McIntosh — dubbed one of the “Smash Brothers,” alongside fellow strong safety Ezekiel Turner — and a secondary that allowed just 11 touchdowns last season has greater depth and versatility this season.

Redshirt freshman Austin Joyner, coming back from a torn ACL, and true freshman Byron Murphy have emerged as the two outside corners in UW’s nickel package, with sophomore Jordan Miller as the nickelback and veterans Brandon Beaver and Trevor Walker at safety. Miller had a great first week with the No. 1 defense while filling in for the banged up Jones, who appears back to full strength this week. Across the board, the secondary is deepest and most talented unit on a deep and talented defense.

2. The mad middle men

Azeem Victor might be the best middle linebacker in the Pac-12, and Keishawn Bierria is certainly one of the most underappreciated. The close friends complement each other well in the heart of UW’s defense, and they enter their second year as starters confident and motivated.

Add in sophomore Ben Burr-Kirven, emerging redshirt freshman DJ Beavers and the steady Sean Constantine, and the middle linebackers will surely be a strength for this defense again.

“We can be as great as we want to be, we just have to go out there and do it,” Victor said. “We have to show everybody that we are the best defense. Really, that’s it.”

3. Depth remains a concern on the offensive line.

The left side of the line appears settled, with second-year sophomore Trey Adams at left tackle, senior Jake Eldrenkamp at left guard and junior Coleman Shelton at center. The right side saw a shakeup over the past week, with sophomore Kaleb McGary taking over as the No. 1 right tackle and sophomore Matt James as the No. 1 right guard. Tackle Andrew Kirkland and guard Shane Brostek remain in the mix. That veteran nucleus is good enough to compete in the Pac-12. It’s probably not going to be one of the better lines in the conference, but if that group can stay healthy and develop some stability, they’ll be just fine.

Keeping linemen healthy, however, is never a sure thing — and behind that front line is a lot of youth and inexperience. Late in Wednesday’s practice, Chris Petersen threw his hands up in disgust after several defenders easily broke through the second-string line for a touch sack of backup QB K.J. Carta-Samuels. That has happened far too often in camp, and fixing those kinds of leaks should be a top priority for this coaching staff.

4. Depth remains a concern at wide receiver.

Yes, a couple of young receivers have flashed some potential in camp. That’s a good thing, certainly. But it’s only reasonable to expect modest contributions from freshmen in the Pac-12. For UW’s beleaguered receivers, its up to the veterans to show they can consistently make plays and be more aggressive. Those “50-50 balls” that new receivers coach Bush Hamdan continues to talk about should be caught, well, at least half the time, right?

Junior John Ross III won’t the be cure-all for this offense, but defenses will have to respect for his speed, which should give Gaskin and everyone else a little more room to roam. Junior Dante Pettis might be offense’s No. 1 wild card. He’s a talented athlete and a terrific punt returner, but he must take that proverbial next step as a reliable pass-catcher for this offense to realize its full potential.

5. The hype, they insist, has stopped at the front door

As the expectations and projections reached a crescendo this month — capped by Sports Illustrated’s preseason No. 7 ranking for these Dawgs — the team’s message has been reiterated from Petersen on down throughout the offseason: Block out the noise. Worry about the present.

“We don’t care about nothin’ like that,” Bierria said. “The only thing I know is what’s tomorrow and what I got right now and just doing the best I can right now, and hopefully all my guys are doing the same thing, because we preach that. Just work hard now and don’t worry about later — give everything you got right now.”

And when it appeared that some guys were going through the motions one day, King, a senior leader, quickly squashed it. He a team meeting at midfield midway through Monday’s practice and told teammates to their effort wasn’t good enough. “Every time we step onto this field,” King said, “we need to play and we need to play in the now.” That attitude, the Huskies hope, will help them match the hype come Sept. 3.

6. The Huskies have their man at quarterback, but now he has to win big

Unlike a year ago, sophomore Jake Browning didn’t have to look over his shoulder in training camp while engaged in a highly-scrutinized quarterback competition. He won the job last fall and captured the hearts of many UW fans after passing for 2,955 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and leading the Huskies to seven wins.

Browning enters the season with big expectations. He’s rated the No. 1 breakout quarterback for 2016 by Pro Football Focus. In contrast to his reputation, Browning ranked high among returning passers on throws under pressure and adjusted completion percentage on deep balls.

At the start of camp Browning talked about wanting to improve as a deep-ball thrower, but there hasn’t been many long-distance connections against a secondary he called “the best we saw last year.” In most every other facet, Browning appears to have made the progressions you’d expect from a budding star in the second year in the program.

Perhaps the most intriguing development has been the ascension of junior Tony Rodriguez, who is pushing sophomore K.J. Carta-Samuels for the backup job. Carta-Samuels started one game last season. However, Rodriguez, a junior-college transfer who joined UW in June 2015, has grown increasingly comfortable the past year.

7. More of the same at running back, which is a good thing for UW

As noted earlier, UW’s defense had a particularly impressive training camp – especially the first few days. However, Browning astutely pointed out earlier this week that it’s difficult for the offense to truly shine during non-tackling practices when coaches stop the play after first contact.

As such, it’s nearly impossible to accurately gauge the progress of UW’s running game and a tailback like Myles Gaskin whose many gifts include making defenders miss. He’s ripped off a couple of long runs at times, but more often than naught the coaches have been cautious not to subject Gaskin to any unwarranted punishment. The 5-foot-10 ball-carrier bulked up to 195 pounds in anticipation of being the workhorse once again. He carried 227 times last season for 1,302 yards – the most for a UW freshman.

Junior Lavon Coleman and sophomore Jomon Dotson appear to have a lock on the backup job while freshman Sean McGrew has looked good at times.

8. Plenty of options, but few notable stars at tight end

It figures to be another rotation of tight ends performing several specific roles once again. So far, no one has separated himself from the pack. Darrell Daniels, a senior who is being counted on as a vocal leader and a former receiver, is the first option in the passing game at this position. While converted defensive lineman Will Dissly, a 6-4 and 272-pound senior, has the size and strength that’s beneficial in the run game.

Converted quarterback Jeff Lindquist, Drew Sample and David Ajamu also figure in the mix.

9. Don’t look now, but the defensive line could be Washington’s best unit

More than a few times observers at UW’s practice have asked, is the interior defensive front this good or is the offensive line that bad? You have to wonder if the Huskies can maintain their defensive dominance against an unfamiliar offensive unit. However, early indications bode well for UW.

The trio of nose tackle Elijah Qualls, defensive tackle Greg Gaines and defensive end Jaylen Johnson has a chance to be the best in school history, which is saying a lot. Sophomore nose tackle Vita Vea continues to show promise and should be a more consistent performer this season. And senior Damion Turpin gives the unit quality depth.

10. Can anybody rush the quarterback

There’s no reason to believe seniors Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis won’t start at the two outside linebacker spots when the season begins. They’ve done nothing to suggest they’re not ready to step up and replace departed pass rushers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton. But until Wooching and Mathis rack up sacks like their predecessors, there’s a bit of a worry about UW’s pass rush.

Source : http://www.seattletimes.com/sports/uw-husky-football/five-takeaways-uw-huskies-fall-camp/

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