CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Most exciting non-QB offensive players on UW Huskies’ schedule

Mar 31, 2023, 10:13 AM

You will hear much about the star Pac-12 quarterbacks the UW Huskies are scheduled to face in 2023.

State of competition: What will UW Huskies’ spring position battles look like?

The QBs will get their due. Today, we’re focusing on the most exciting non-quarterbacks who appear on UW’s schedule this season — the guys who will most stress Washington’s defense when the ball is in their hands. (Note: Washington does not play Colorado or UCLA in 2023.)

WR Jeremiah Hunter, California (Sept. 24)

I might have picked receiver J.Michael Sturdivant here if he hadn’t transferred to UCLA. That’s a big loss for the Golden Bears. Still, it was Hunter who led Cal with 965 receiving yards last season — it could have been 1,000 if he hadn’t missed a game due to injury, against UW — and he’s back as Cal’s WR1.

Of course, tailback Jadyn Ott had a nice freshman year, carrying 170 times — third-most in the conference — for 897 yards on a team that was, uh, not known for its offense. Oregon transfer Byron Cardwell gives the Bears another option in the backfield, along with their new coordinator (Jake Spavital) and a new starting quarterback (probably Sam Jackson V). Hunter should get a lot of opportunities to catch the ball.

WR Tetairoa McMillan, at Arizona (Sept. 30)

You could just as easily name McMillan’s teammate, senior Jacob Cowing, considering Cowing led the conference in receptions last season (85) and was one of only four 1,000-yard receivers in the league. McMillan, though, caught 39 passes for 702 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman — no Pac-12 team had a No. 3 receiving option with better numbers — and at 6 foot 5 is a daunting matchup for any defensive back.

Plus, another 1,000-yard receiver for the Wildcats, Dorian Singer, transferred to USC, clearing the way for McMillan to see even more targets as a sophomore. With quarterback Jayden de Laura returning after throwing for 3,685 yards last season, there’s no reason McMillan can’t join the 1,000-yard club, too. Few conference opponents will be better equipped to test the UW Huskies’ re-made secondary.

RB Bucky Irving, Oregon (Oct. 14)

The Pac-12’s top returning rusher, Irving was one of only three backs in the conference to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark last season, and he did it while averaging nearly 6.8 yards per rush. He also caught 31 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Irving’s vision and balance allow him to pick up a lot of yards after contact and turn sure TFLs into long gains. Few in the Pac-12 are more fun to watch.

With Irving, Nix and wideout Troy Franklin all back in 2023, the Ducks have a talented, experienced returning offensive core for new coordinator Will Stein to work with.

WR Elijhah Badger, Arizona State (Oct. 21)

For a team that fired its head coach, played two different starting quarterbacks and won only three games, Badger still managed to snag 70 receptions for 866 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Whether it’s Drew Pyne, Trenton Bourguet or Jaden Rashada throwing him the ball, Badger looks like the toughest matchup on ASU’s roster.

New ASU coach Kenny Dillingham helped revitalize Oregon’s offense in his one year calling the plays. Badger should be at the center of any similar turnaround in Tempe this season.

TE Benjamin Yurosek, at Stanford (Oct. 28)

One could argue that running back E.J. Smith is the more exciting player when healthy, and that’s certainly possible. But this being Stanford, it’s only fitting to shout out a tight end, and Yurosek was among the few bright spots for the reeling Cardinal last season.

He was a second-team all-conference pick after catching 49 passes for 445 yards and a touchdown. Utah’s Dalton Kincaid was the only Pac-12 tight end with more catches last year. With top receiver Elijah Higgins gone to the NFL, you could see the ball thrown Yurosek’s way even more.

ATH Raleek Brown, at USC (Nov. 4)

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what Brown’s role will be as a sophomore, with the Trojans adding South Carolina transfer running back MarShawn Lloyd and Brown reportedly taking some reps at receiver this spring.

Regardless, it speaks to the former top-50 prospect’s athletic ability that USC is doing whatever it can to get him on the field, and you can expect Brown to touch the ball a bunch — and probably in a bunch of different ways — this season. Even while slowed by injury as a true freshman — and playing within one of the nation’s most efficient, explosive offenses — Brown gained 402 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns. He also returns kickoffs.

This is certainly no slight to Lloyd, or talented receivers like Tahj Washington, Mario Williams or Dorian Singer. There’s just something different about Brown with the ball in his hands

RB Ja’Quinden Jackson, Utah (Nov. 11)

A former top-100 prospect as a quarterback, Jackson emerged as one of the Pac-12’s most intriguing young running backs last season, rushing for 531 yards and eight touchdowns on only 78 carries — an average of 6.8 per rush. His final three games, in particular, might present as a harbinger for 2023: 36 carries, 303 yards and six touchdowns in wins over Colorado and then USC in the Pac-12 title game, and a Rose Bowl loss to Penn State.

Jackson is listed at 6-2 and 226 pounds. Not sure the Huskies will see many other running backs quite like him.

RB Damien Martinez, at Oregon State (Nov. 18)

There was a lot of buzz around Martinez during his first spring and preseason camp with the Beavers, despite his three-star ranking as a 2022 signee out of Lewisville, Texas. Once he took over as OSU’s lead back about halfway through the season, there was little doubt the Beavers had found a gem.

Martinez finished his true freshman season with 982 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, and eclipsed the 100-yard mark in each of OSU’s final six regular-season games. He made first-team all-conference and was named to a bevy of Freshman All-America teams.

For as much attention as the Beavers’ quarterback situation will receive — and rightfully so — Martinez could still be the star of the offense.

RB Nakia Watson, WSU (Nov. 25)

The Cougars brought in a trio of interesting receivers via the transfer portal, but Watson might be their top playmaker. He rushed for 769 yards and nine touchdowns on 144 carries last season, and caught 30 passes for 295 yards and four touchdowns — that’s more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 13 scores.

Fellow running back Jaylen Jenkins might have a different explosive capability, and UNLV transfer Kyle Williams could put up big numbers catching passes from Cam Ward. But Watson has the combination of veteran experience and playmaking ability to help Ward and the offense take another step in coach Jake Dickert’s second full season.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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