It was not surprising to hear Washington’s wide receivers classified as a strength this spring.
The same can’t be said about the offensive line.
On Monday, head coach Kalen DeBoer, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Grubb, and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell met the media — two days before the trio’s UW practice debut. And, among the inevitable litany of quarterback questions, Grubb made time to express optimism for an immediate turnaround up front.
“I think there’s as much talent in that room as anywhere on the football team,” Grubb said of UW’s offensive line. “I know there was a lot of talk about that going into last season and a lot of expectations put on that room. But just looking at the guys move around and watching them in workouts and things like that, I feel very confident that those guys are going to be able to get it done.”
Like Grubb alluded to, former head coach Jimmy Lake said the same last offseason … only for UW to rank fifth in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed per game (1.92), sixth in opponent tackles for loss per game (5.17), 11th in rushing offense (98.42 yards per game) and last in yards per carry (3.21).
Of course, it would help if All-Pac-12 left tackle Jaxson Kirkland returns for a sixth season in Seattle. The 6-foot-7, 310-pounder from Portland removed his name from the NFL draft after undergoing ankle surgery and is currently enrolled at UW while awaiting word on an NCAA waiver that would reinstate his eligibility, DeBoer said Monday.
When asked for an ideal timeline to learn Kirkland’s college football fate, DeBoer said “I was hoping that would already be something we would know.”
Regardless, Grubb believes UW’s scheme should allow an embattled offensive line to realize its considerable potential.
“One of the things this offense does just by concept is stretch the field,” he said. “We’re hoping to maybe alleviate some of the pressure those guys had up front and maybe utilize the weapons on the outside a little bit more.”
Speaking of those weapons, Grubb listed five players—wide receivers Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk, and tight ends Devin Culp and Jack Westover—who emerged on film and may warrant meaty roles in the Husky offense.
But UW’s wide receiver depth transcends expected starters.
“Based on film, I think the receivers fit our system,” Grubb said. “I think we’ve got the right kind of guys and there’s a good balance in that room, as far as guys that can take the top end off of coverage — a guy like Rome. Jalen McMillan can play inside and outside, then (you have) a real refined route-runner like Polk.
“I think Giles (Jackson) is one guy who has really impressed me through workouts on some of his versatility and his ability to change direction. I came in thinking maybe he was more of a kick returner guy, but I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen with him so far. So I think there’s a lot of ways you can use a guy like that.”
UW’s running back depth may be deceptive.
Though the Huskies enter April with seven scholarship tailbacks, three of them — junior Richard Newton, sophomore Cameron Davis and redshirt freshman Emeka Megwa — will miss the spring with injuries, while redshirt freshman Sam Adams II is expected to be limited as well.
That leaves a lot of available reps for sophomore New Mexico transfer Aaron Dumas and redshirt freshmen Jay’Veon Sunday and Caleb Berry … as well as walk-on Camden Sirmon, who is switching from quarterback to running back.
On Monday, Grubb called Sirmon “a guy that’s really bright, tough, physical, over 200 pounds. So he’s a guy who maybe can give it a go during spring and see how he looks at tailback full-time.”
Even so, UW’s tailback depth suddenly leaves much to be desired.
“I thought we’d have more depth at the running back position, honestly,” Grubb admitted. “I know they graduated two seniors last year. I just thought that would be a little stronger at this point. With (Davis) and Richard (Newton) out with injuries right now, probably part of it is those are your two most experienced guys.”
As for other injury issues, standout linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio “will miss some games” — DeBoer’s words — with an unspecified injury suffered this winter, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Jabez Tinae is also limited.
ZTF’s fluctuating frame
One player who won’t appear on Wednesday’s injury list is junior pass-rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who missed the first five games last fall after tearing his Achilles tendon in April. Still, it’s worth noting that “ZTF” is currently listed at 6-foot-4 and 241 pounds — nearly 40 pounds lighter than the player who nabbed seven sacks in four games in 2020.
From a frame standpoint, it’s unclear which weight will allow Tupuola-Fetui to rush the passer with the most sustained effectiveness and ferocity.
But throughout winter conditioning, Morrell has liked what he’s seen.
“The recovery process, especially with his type of injury, is something that’s always a concern,” Morrell said. “That’s one of those injuries that takes a long time to come back from. Just seeing him in winter conditioning, he looks great. He’s got great twitch to him. He’s become explosive (post-injury), and sometimes being explosive after that type of an injury is certainly an issue. So far I think he’s doing a great job for us.”
- Grubb lauded the culture of a group that isn’t satisfied with a 4-8 season. “I think the best part for us — what I’ve recognized since I’ve been here — is that the guys want the culture to be great,” he said. “I’m not saying that because I’m in an interview. I truly believe that. My impression of the guys very early on was they’re proud about what this place is and what it’s done in the past and the type of program and the expectations that are put on this program. So they want to rectify that situation as quickly as possible. I don’t think, I know that’s one of the specialties Kalen has; building culture is a non-negotiable for what we have to do.”
- When asked if it’s important that his players receive name, image and likeness opportunities, DeBoer didn’t shy away from the subject. “I think it’s really important,” he said. “That’s the age we’re in right now. That’s where we’re at. So it’s a really big deal, and it’s going to continue to evolve. It’s continuing to change. What it is now is probably not what it’s going to be a year from now.”