CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: 6 UW Huskies who could make noise in spring football

Mar 22, 2023, 8:34 AM

This is the debut Seattle Sports article from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple. It was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Caple’s full Husky football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

The Washington Huskies held their first three spring practices earlier this month, but blocked out the next 2 1/2 weeks for final exams and spring break. They resume their spring schedule a week from today (March 29), and will practice each Monday, Wednesday and Friday until their April 22 spring preview.

Those first three practices provided a brief glimpse at early standouts and position battles — important context for previewing the 12 practices that remain. Based on what we’ve seen so far, here are six players I’ll be interested to watch over the next four weeks.

CB Elijah Jackson

Jackson’s most significant action last season came in Washington’s loss to Arizona State, against whom he played 40 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and was not targeted a single time. Injuries prevented the 2020 signee from playing more — especially in light of injuries to players ahead of him on the depth chart, such as Jordan Perryman and Mishael Powell — but Jackson entered this spring healthy and taking reps with the starters.

So long as he stays healthy, Jackson is a solid bet to start the Huskies’ Sept. 2 opener against Boise State. He posted a 40-inch vertical leap this winter, but was most proud of his 10-foot, 11-inch broad jump.

“It was frustrating,” Jackson said of his injury-plagued 2022 season. “It takes away your momentum when you get hurt. But just keeping a good mentality, trusting in God, trusting the process … I just stuck with that. It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. It taught me to take care of my body.”

How?

“Ice bath, ice bath, ice bath, ice batch, ice bath,” Jackson said. “I feel like a lot of people think that’s old school, and they try to get into cryotherapy and this and that, but I feel like an old-school ice bath definitely takes the soreness away, so I feel like that was one big thing I changed.”

CB Jabbar Muhammad

Muhammad was limited during the Huskies’ first three practices as he recovers from what coach Kalen DeBoer termed a minor injury sustained during workouts. Muhammad did step onto the field for some reps during an 11-on-11 period at Washington’s third practice, so I’m expecting to see a lot more of the Oklahoma State transfer once practices resume. At a position thin on experience — and with Powell moving over to play the “husky” (nickel) spot and some safety — Muhammad is an obvious candidate to step into a starting job. He was Oklahoma State’s top-rated defensive back last season, per PFF, both overall and in coverage, and led the Cowboys with nine pass breakups.

I’m also curious to see how Muhammad stacks up against Washington’s receivers. If he can hold his own against Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, that should bode well for a secondary that finished dead last nationally last season in passes defended per game. When the Huskies had nationally elite defensive backs under Chris Petersen and Jimmy Lake, they dominated practices against Washington’s so-so receiving corps. Now, the Huskies’ largely unproven DBs are trying to stand out against one of the top receiver duos in school history.

DL Voi Tunuufi

I’m curious to see where Tunuufi lines up. He’s still listed as a defensive lineman but told reporters after UW’s first practice that he’s focusing more on the edge, and his listed size of 6-foot-1 and 249 pounds — down from 275 pounds as a freshman and 258 a year ago — suggests coaches plan to utilize his speed as a pass rusher rather than rely on him to plug the interior.

Tunuufi has undoubtedly been the most successful member of Washington’s 2021 recruiting class, tying for the team lead in sacks as a true freshman with three before adding another five as a sophomore last season in a reserve role. Think he might have been limited to drills during the first three practices, so we’ll see if these final 12 provide more of a glimpse into how coaches plan to deploy him. Tunuufi played the 14th-most defensive snaps on the team last season, per PFF, but if he really does move to edge rusher, he’s going to have to carve out playing time behind starters Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui by battling against Sav’ell Smalls, University of Sioux Falls transfer Zach Durfee and potentially Maurice Heims.

RB Dillon Johnson

One of four spring-quarter enrollees who weren’t on campus yet for the first three practices, Johnson is a newcomer who should make an immediate impact this season. The Mississippi State transfer arrives at Washington with 1,198 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 35 career games, plus — crucially — 149 receptions for 864 yards playing in the late Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme.

UW coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb ask a lot of their running backs, and the ability to catch the ball is an absolute must. The Huskies are set at quarterback, receiver and tight end, but they do need to replace the production of tailback Wayne Taulapapa, who transferred to UW from Virginia for his senior season and accounted for 1,112 yards from scrimmage in 2022. It says a lot about Johnson that UW pushed for him — with other schools in heavy pursuit, too — even after receiving a commitment from Arizona State transfer Daniyel Ngata, who also should be a factor.

Cam Davis, the top returning back from last season, saw the bulk of the carries with the No. 1 offense during the first three practices, with Will Nixon, Ngata and 2023 signee Tybo Rogers mixing in, too. Richard Newton and Sam Adams II also could get involved at some point. Johnson, though, brings a blend of experience and pass-catching ability that should help him stand apart and compete for lead-back duties.

OL Geirean Hatchett

Which position does Hatchett settle at? And does he push either Nate Kalepo or Julius Buelow for one of the starting guard spots? So far, it’s mostly been Buelow at left guard and Kalepo at right guard with the No. 1 offensive line, with Hatchett taking snaps with the No. 2 offense at right guard, center and even right tackle. The former four-star recruit in the 2020 class spent last season as a backup guard, and considering that’s where the primary competition is this season — with sixth-year senior Matteo Mele likely entrenched as the starting center, and Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten holding down the tackle spots — I’m guessing that’s where Hatchett will wind up.

The question is whether he winds up a starter. Kalepo and Buelow have the edge in game experience, but Hatchett’s athleticism and football IQ should make him a strong competitor to be one of UW’s top five linemen. We’ll see how O-line coach Scott Huff divides the reps throughout these next four weeks.

WR Denzel Boston

A rare 2022 recruit who committed to former coach Jimmy Lake and signed under DeBoer, Boston appeared in four games last season while maintaining his redshirt. He made the most of his limited action, catching two passes for 15 yards and scoring his first career touchdown on an end-around against Portland State.

DeBoer has said he thinks Boston has great potential, and at his listed size of 6-4 and 185 pounds, he does possess some physical traits that could help him win against Pac-12 defensive backs.

What will his role be this season? Hard to say. The Huskies return every receiver who played significantly in 2022 — a five-man rotation — and the addition of Michigan State transfer Germie Bernard only dilutes the potential target pool further. Boston, though, already made a couple big plays during UW’s first three practices, and should continue to see opportunities to stretch the field this spring.

“Denzel has been really impressive,” DeBoer said. “He’s made some big plays down the field. He’s just got that ability to go up and high-point a ball. You love that size that he brings. He’s out there competing, and really (has been) flawless as far as not making mistakes, just really executing and falling in line with the quarterbacks and being in sync with them.”

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