The Washington Huskies are coming off their most successful season in the last 10 years with Steve Sarkisian finally breaking through the seven win barrier. The team survived a three-game slide in the middle of the year (against arguably the three best teams on their schedule) to show some excellent mental toughness down the stretch. They finished the year winning five of their last six games, including a strong 31-16 victory over the BYU Cougars in the Fight Hunger Bowl to finish the year 9-4.
This season, the team will try and build off that success with a new head coach in Chris Petersen who faces the prospect of replacing a three-year starter at quarterback along with the team’s leading rusher and the top tight end in college football last season. It could be a daunting challenge but the pieces are there at UW for the Huskies to be a serious contender for the Pac-12 title this season. Will Petersen get the pieces in place to make a run in 2014?
The quarterback position took on a lot more intrigue than it probably needed this offseason after Cyler Miles, the heir apparent to Keith Price, was suspended from the team following an incident on Super Bowl Sunday. Miles is the only quarterback on the roster to attempt a pass at the college level and while he’s been reinstated to the team, he’ll still miss the season opener. Despite all of that, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams haven’t been able to definitively take control of the position and will likely fall into backup roles in 2014 once Miles returns to the field in Week 2.
At running back, there is a similar sense of uncertainty about who will fill the role of Bishop Sankey. Sophomore Dwayne Washington appears to be the most explosive option in the backfield after rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns during his freshman season, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Fumbling issues early on kept Washington from being a real impact player last season but the 6-foot-2, 221-pound mauler’s upside seems like it will give him in edge in the pecking order above seniors Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper.
The receiving corps will be led at the top by junior Jaydon Mickens who led the team in 2013 with 65 receptions for 688 yards and five touchdowns. After that, things get a little murky as the team tries to replace Kevin Smith and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end who combined for 1,215 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013. Senior Kasen Williams (29 receptions, 421 yards, 1 touchdown) is working his way back from a broken leg, which opens the door for a pretty fluid receiver rotation early on. Look for junior John Ross and senior DiAndre Campbell to see significant playing time this fall with junior Joshua Perkins stepping into the tight end position.
The Washington defense has taken great strides over the last two seasons and is poised to really be a strength of this team in 2014. It starts up front with the return of the Pac-12’s leading returning pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha who recorded 13 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013. Big Danny Shelton is back in the defensive interior to hold things down after he finished last season with 47.5 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks from his defensive tackle position.
At linebacker, the team loses their leading tackler from 2013 in Princeton Fuimaono but return three impact players who could be one of the best linebacker corps in the country next season. Shaq Thompson is as athletic as they come at the outside linebacker spot and will be building on a strong sophomore season where he recorded 64 tackles with four tackles for loss, an interception and four pass breakups. Opposite him will be Travis Feeney playing the other OLB position and John Timu will man the middle linebacker spot. Together, the trio makes up one of the most complete and athletic linebacker groups in the Pac-12.
In the secondary, Washington loses a ton of talent to graduation. The teams top three safeties are gone and two of the top three corners. Only one player on the 2014 depth chart in the secondary recorded an interception last season. Luckily for UW, though, he might just be the best corner in the conference this fall in Marcus Peters. As a sophomore in 2013, Peters broke out as an elite cover-corner, recording a team-high five interceptions with nine pass breakups. He’ll need to lead an inexperienced group to keep the Husky pass defense strong this season.
Washington has a similarly tough schedule this season that peaks in the middle just like it did in 2013. How well the Huskies handle this stretch will determine whether or not they break through as a conference contender this season. In the span of six games in the heart of their schedule, Washington will play the Stanford Cardinal, Oregon Ducks, Arizona State Sun Devils, and UCLA Bruins (which accounted for all four of the team’s losses in 2013). There’s every possibility for another mid-season lull that knocks the Dawgs out of title contention by November.
But there’s also plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances. This season, three of those four tough rematches take place at home (only traveling to face Oregon) and the team avoids what should be a very dangerous USC Trojans squad. If this team catches onto the new coaching staff’s system quickly, there’s no reason that the team can’t compete and win two or three of those key games in the middle of their schedule. That would put the Huskies right in the thick of the Pac-12 race.
If Cyler Miles picks up the offense in a hurry and keeps his nose clean off the field and if the Huskies find another workhorse back to carry the running game, there’s no reason Washington won’t be in the mix for a conference title in 2014. Look for Petersen to find quick success at UW thanks to inheriting a ton of talent on the roster and possibly posting the Huskies’ first double digit win season since 2000.