Caple: Could UW Huskies offense be even better in ’23? Three keys

Apr 7, 2023, 9:10 AM

Apple Cup Michael Penix Jr....

UW Huskies QB Michael Penix Jr. throws during the Apple Cup against WSU on Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

The UW Huskies scored 39.7 points per game last season, good for second in the Pac-12 and seventh nationally.

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Their starting quarterback led the nation in passing yards per game. They had two receivers eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in the same season for the first time in program history. They led all of FBS in third-down conversion percentage and punted fewer times than any FBS team since 2007 (excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season).

So of course it is perfectly reasonable to wonder: could they actually be better in 2023?

It’s not the most far-fetched thought. Star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is back as a sixth-year senior. Offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb remains on staff despite receiving strong interest from Texas A&M and Alabama. Those 1,000-yard receivers — Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan — are back, too, along with every other pass-catching contributor from last season. Starting tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten return to provide experience protecting the edges.

What will it take for the Huskies to produce an offense better than the one that tore through the Pac-12 in 2022? Here are three keys to consider.

1. Protect Penix like UW Huskies did last season – or close to it

It’s probably unreasonable to expect the Huskies to duplicate their pass protection efforts of 2022 considering they allowed fewer sacks — just seven in 13 games — than all but two FBS teams (Oregon allowed five, and Georgia Southern also allowed only seven). In fact, only 17 FBS teams since 2009 (again excluding 2020) have gone a full season allowing seven or fewer sacks, and several of those were schools like Army and Air Force that hardly throw the ball.

Plus, the Huskies lost their interior offensive line — guards Jaxson Kirkland and Henry Bainivalu and center Corey Luciano — to expiring eligibility, and are using this spring to sort out which players will replace those three in the starting lineup. Sixth-year senior Matteo Mele seems the sure starter at center, and fifth-year juniors Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow appear the frontrunners to start at right and left guard, respectively, though fourth-year sophomore Geirean Hatchett will get a look, too.

Grubb predicted prior to last season that UW’s offensive line — maligned for its performance throughout the miserable 2021 campaign — could become an elite pass-protection group. He was right. If their re-made O-line can come even close to achieving similar status in 2023 — and Fautanu and Rosengarten should lead those efforts — then Penix and Co. should be in business once again.

2. Break more tackles and make more plays in space

This has been a priority for Grubb since last season, and is something he pointed out even as his offense moved the ball and scored on pace with the nation’s best. It’s most often applied to Washington’s running backs, who proved to be a steady, productive group last season but lacked a dynamic playmaker capable of creating their own yards in the open field.

Do they have such a player in 2023? One-year transfer Wayne Taulapapa is gone after leading the team in rushing last season and totaling more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, but the Huskies do return second-leading rusher Cam Davis (522 yards, 13 touchdowns in 2022) and every other scholarship tailback from last year’s roster, and have added Power 5 transfers Dillon Johnson (Mississippi State) and Daniyel Ngata (Arizona State).

While Davis currently projects as the No. 1 back, per Grubb, the hope is that Johnson (for his strength and tackle-breaking ability) and Ngata (for his elusivity and speed) help satisfy Grubb’s desire for more dynamic playmakers in space.

That edict also applies to the receivers, excellent as they were last season. Odunze himself said one of his goals is to make more plays after the catch, pointing to some nagging injuries last year that limited his explosiveness.

3. Run the ball better in short-yardage situations

This was among the Huskies’ few offensive issues last season. It’s not as if they were terrible on short-yardage plays, but their lack of efficiency in those situations was a contributing factor to their so-so red-zone touchdown percentage of 66.18, which ranked 42nd nationally. Everyone remembers Washington’s domination of Michigan State in Week 3 … but that score could have been even more lopsided if the Huskies had managed to punch in a touchdown on two separate goal-line series that yielded zero points.

Short-yardage woes also popped up on some fourth downs, which UW converted at a clip of 57.14%. That mark still tied for 42nd nationally, which is far from terrible. But if we’re identifying areas of improvement for what already was one of the nation’s top offenses, that is certainly one of them, and most of those attempts come in short-yardage situations.

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

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