Sports Out West

Washington Football: 5 keys for Huskies to compete for Pac-12 title

Washington head coach Chris Petersen.

Led by a dynamic new head coach, the Washington football team is inching closer to competing for a Pac-12 championship.

Chris Petersen will have some key changes to oversee, including at quarterback and running back, but has plenty of talent to play with. The UW looks to be strong in the trenches and has a number of intriguing players in the skill positions.

The Huskies are realistically less talented than Oregon and UCLA, while Stanford has proved it is going to be a consistent contender for Rose Bowls. It still is likely that a conference championship is a year or two away and the UW would do well to get to nine regular-season wins while avoiding any road blowouts.

Still, anything can happen in college football. The Huskies have a favorable schedule and will compete with anybody if a few key pieces fall into place.

A smooth transition between starting quarterbacks

A team simply cannot compete in the Pac-12 without strong play. The Huskies will need to not miss a beat making the transition from three-year starter Keith Price to redshirt sophomore Cyler Miles.

That transition got off to a rough start. Miles was involved in an altercation following the Seattle Seahawks victory in Super Bowl XLVIII and was suspended for the duration of spring practice. He was reinstated after not being charged and is the favorite to take the starting quarterback job over a host of young contenders.

Price holds multiple UW records and is impossible to fully replace, but Miles has the talent to at least minimize the drop-off. Miles filled in well for Price at times in 2013, including completing 15 of 24 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown in the UW’s destruction of Oregon State on November 23.

Miles is a great athlete and will pick up plenty of yards on the ground to go with solid arm strength. He has an unusually high release point that sometimes causes the ball to sail, but should only keep getting better with experience.

Have a clear starting running back emerge soon

The Huskies have been incredibly fortunate to have Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey, both now in the NFL, as starting running backs over the past five seasons. This season, the situation is a little less certain.

With less than two months to go until the August 30 opener at Hawaii, it is unclear who the primary running back will be. That needs to change quickly into summer practice so the UW can have a coherent offensive unit by the time conference play rolls around.

Sophomore Dwayne Washington could be the favorite, as he was Sankey’s most effective backup and has the potential to bruise opposing defenses at 221 pounds, but needs to get rid of a fumbling problem. Redshirt senior Deontae Cooper has improbably returned from three torn ACLs, running for 166 yards in the aforementioned Oregon State game and shining in spring practice. Senior Jesse Callier, who was the starter ahead of Sankey before tearing his ACL in the 2012 opener, should be healthy as a nice change-of-pace option.

Nobody is going to completely replace Sankey, arguably the best running back in the nation last season. But the UW needs someone to emerge and make the running game respectable.  

John Ross and Kasen Williams step up

Ross and Williams are the UW’s two most talented skill players heading into the 2014 season. With Austin-Seferian Jenkins departed in the NFL Draft and Damore’ea Stringfellow’s transfer to Ole Miss, the two will have to get more involved in the offense this season.

Williams put together a strong sophomore season in 2012 with 878 receiving yards and six touchdowns, but was unable to have quite the same impact in eight games last year before being injured. At 6-foot-3, 221 pounds and very athletic, Williams should be a matchup problem for anyone.

The key will be his health, as Williams suffered an ugly-looking broken leg and foot injury late last October. Petersen expects him to be at full speed by summer practice.

When Ross stepped on campus for his freshman season last year, he generated a lot of buzz due to his speed and ability in the open field. We saw flashes of that last season, as his agility and lateral movement were comparable to a young Reggie Bush.

Ross caught 16 passes for 208 yards on a touchdown a year ago, but will need to be more involved this season. The UW needs to get Ross the ball in open space whenever possible and Petersen is the perfect coach to figure out how to best utilize him.

The sophomore will also need to hone his aggression on kick returns. He gave ground far too many times last season, although Ross was finally able to break one for a touchdown in the UW’s Fight Hunger Bowl win over BYU.

Marcus Peters improves upon his outstanding 2013 season

Peters was outstanding as a sophomore in 2013, intercepting five passes while completely neutralizing top receivers such as Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints. He and Shaq Thompson will give the UW two NFL-caliber players on defense this season.

As great as he was a year ago, Peters is going to have to play even better for the Huskies to continue their upward defensive trend. The UW lost cornerback Desmond Trufant to the NFL two years ago and both starting safeties last year plus starting corner Greg Ducre last year.

That means Peters is truly going to have to be an island in an inexperienced secondary. The UW has some exciting young players like freshman Budda Baker on the way, but they will need some time to grow.

Avoid the Arizona trap

Despite an easier schedule, the UW is likely going to suffer multiple losses. The Huskies are slowly catching up to archrival Oregon, but will need something special October 18 to come out of Autzen Stadium victorious. Home contests with Stanford and UCLA are going to be intensely competitive, but the Huskies would probably be happy splitting those two games.

The key is going to be avoiding that fourth loss to a team the Huskies should beat. For the past two seasons, debacles in the desert have held back the program.

In 2012, the Huskies suffered their third straight loss with a 52-17 blowout at Arizona on October 20. Last year, the UW played Stanford and Oregon tough in home defeats before being stomped at Arizona State 53-24.

The Huskies will play at Arizona on November 15, in between critical home contests with UCLA and Oregon State. That game is a must-win and the Huskies should be able to emerge victorious, at least on paper.

Two losses might put the UW in the conversation in the north, but it must avoid the unexplained road blowout that plagued it so often under Steve Sarkisian.  

Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press

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Nathaniel Reeves

Nathaniel Reeves is a journalism student at the University of Washington, currently covering sports for The UW Daily in addition to Sports Out West. He has been closely following Seattle sports his entire life.
  • Husky in SoCal

    There were a couple of big omissions here. First, although Ross and Williams are both very talented and important, it’s hard not to mention Jaydon Mickens in the same article, considering he is the leading returning pass catcher.

    Also, you mentioned UW as having two bona-fide NFL players on the Defensive side in Shaq Thompson and Marcus Peters, but no love for Danny Shelton or Hau’oli Kikaha? Shelton is projecting as a possible 1st or 2nd round DT, and Kikaha will certainly be drafted as well.

    Certainly single out the players that you did, but don’t slight the ones you forgot.

  • Paul Forkner

    I think Miles is likely the successor, but who knows, could be one of the other guys. Different coaching staff, and Miles did miss Spring practice.