CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: 7 questions to ponder after UW Huskies’ spring practices

Apr 26, 2023, 11:03 AM

UW Huskies Kalen DeBoer...

UW Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer watches players warm up before the 2022 Alamo Bowl. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

(Tim Warner/Getty Images)

With a veteran roster and several returning all-conference candidates, it seems the UW Huskies finished spring practices with more answers than questions.

But there always are at least some questions, right?

We examine seven as the UW Huskies head into The Offseason, Pt. 2.

1. How set are the starting lineups?

Certain players might develop throughout the summer. Injuries are sure to pop up, too. For now, though, it appears the Huskies might actually have their No. 1 units mostly established on both sides of the ball, which is not something I’d have anticipated pre-spring.

Offensively, the UW Huskies already were set at quarterback, receiver, tight end and both tackle spots. They needed to figure out who would take over at center and both guard spots, and also sort out the deep but unsettled running-back room. Through 15 practices, fifth-year junior Cam Davis emerged as a pretty clear No. 1 among available tailbacks — offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said as much. Sixth-year senior Matteo Mele became the unquestioned No. 1 center, and fifth-year juniors Julius Buelow (left guard) and Nate Kalepo (right guard) took nearly all of the No. 1 snaps next to Mele.

Coaches also more or less stayed with the same guys on the No. 1 defense, at least once everyone was healthy (and of course backups shuttled in and out during 11-on-11 periods). Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui are locked in at edge rusher. Tuli Letuligasenoa and Faatui Tuitele each needed some time to work back from injury, but they’re both returning starters on the interior defensive line. Edefuan Ulofoshio and Alphonzo Tuputala will share snaps in some way with senior USC transfer Ralen Goforth and junior Carson Bruener, but the starting linebacker duo hasn’t changed. Asa Turner and Dom Hampton are both seniors and returning starters working at safety (albeit Hampton moved from husky). Mishael Powell moved from cornerback to husky and has stuck there. And though the personnel has changed at cornerback, Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad and fourth-year sophomore Elijah Jackson ended spring as the regular starters.

There still are a few areas of intrigue, and we’ll get to those. And, of course, you never know who might earn a job with a stellar preseason camp. But I will be interested to look back and see how many of UW’s spring starters wing up running out first against Boise State. It could be nearly all of them.

2. Have the Huskies upgraded their playmaking ability in the secondary?

The smart bet would be yes, but partially because of how few plays they made last season. It’s not as if we didn’t see UW’s defensive backs getting their hands on passes during spring practices — Thaddeus Dixon, in particular, seems adept at that, with co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell describing him as possessing “the ‘it’ in terms of being around the ball.” Cornerbacks Jaivion Green and Elijah Jackson each intercepted passes in the spring preview.

There certainly were signs of progress. On the whole, coverage seemed tighter this spring. Muhammad’s veteran presence should help, and Jackson seemed to take a big step. Washington’s receivers, though, still made a lot of plays. There are a couple ways to look at that — either it means UW’s cornerbacks still have a ways to go, or it’s good news that UW’s cornerbacks are practicing against a more talented group of receivers than nearly any they’ll face in 2023.

Washington’s offense excelled last season despite the Huskies’ defense tying for 117th in FBS in takeaways with only 12 (and only seven interceptions). A stingier secondary would create even more ideal circumstances for Michael Penix Jr. and Co.

3. Who fills out the rotation at edge rusher?

The departure of former five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls does create a serious experience gap between the top duo of Trice and Tupuola-Fetui and everybody else. University of Sioux Falls transfer Zach Durfee had the kind of spring that suggests he will see his name on the second line of the depth chart. Who will join him?

Should UW Huskies move Voi Tunuufi over with Sav’ell Smalls moving on?

It could be Maurice Heims, a third-year sophomore from Germany who only began playing football as a junior in high school but has desirable athletic traits. Or Sekai Asoau-Afoa, a senior who arrived last season as a JUCO transfer and played sparingly. Or maybe Lance Holtzclaw, a speedy redshirt freshman who has put on some weight and is trying to gain more. It’s possible that Voi Tunuufi, an undersized d-lineman, could play on the outside, too. Walk-on Milton Hopkins Jr. saw some reps with the No. 2 defense and also could be an option.

The transfer portal could come into play, too. Regardless, you’re going to see some new faces rotating in behind Trice and ZTF.

4. What will Dillon Johnson’s role be?

The running back transfer from Mississippi State certainly looks the part, but he spent the spring nursing an injury and hasn’t had the chance to compete directly with Davis yet. Grubb used the term “lead back” in describing Davis’ progress this spring, but UW recruited Johnson for a reason. He’s going to play. The question is how open the competition might be for No. 1 duties, with Davis using a healthy spring to continue impressing coaches.

We probably roughly know what the target distributions will be at receiver, but how will carries be distributed at running back? Davis and Johnson seem the likely top two, and preseason camp should tell us more about how coaches view the pecking order. There’s also the matter of where Daniyel Ngata, Will Nixon, Sam Adams II, Richard Newton and Tybo Rogers might factor in.

5. Next men up at safety?

Assuming Turner and Hampton are indeed the starting duo, the Huskies still need to develop some depth behind them. Fifth-year junior Kam Fabiculanan took some reps with the No. 1 defense this spring and seems like the likely No. 3 safety right now. Vincent Nunley, a third-year sophomore, returned to health this spring and played a lot with the No. 2 defense. Morrell has been a fan of his for a while. Fourth-year sophomore Makell Esteen could compete for a spot on the depth chart, too, and while redshirt freshman Tristan Dunn is listed as a safety, he took more reps at husky this spring.

Last season’s rash of injuries showed the cost of lacking depth, even if you feel OK about your starters. Coach Kalen DeBoer and Morrell spoke at length about developing more than just the top of the depth chart.

As linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio put it: “You just don’t know who’s going to be in the game, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re 45 guys deep in terms of knowing our job, knowing our responsibilities.”

6. What about kicker?

Competition remains open between walk-ons Grady Gross and Addison Shrock to replace five-year starter Peyton Henry. Gross, a right-footer from Scottsdale, Ariz., has the edge in experience, by virtue of handling kickoff duties as a true freshman last season. Shrock, a left-footer from Bellingham, did get on the field for one PAT in 2022.

“It’s really open competition right now,” DeBoer said. “Grady and Addison are both doing a great job. Lefty and a righty. We chart every kick all spring and (will) continue to do that in fall camp, and that’s what we did last year. We do the same thing with our punter position.”

7. Can any true freshmen break through?

Rogers, at running back, is surely the best bet, considering the praise he earned from DeBoer and Grubb this spring. Another early enrollee, Caleb Presley, saw some reps at cornerback with the No. 2 defense, but there appears to be at least four players currently ahead of him in the depth. The situation is similar at linebacker, where early enrollee Deven Bryant showed some promise in his first spring, but a solid top four sits atop the depth chart. Receiver and offensive line are stacked with veterans. Same with the defensive line. Edge rusher lacks experience beyond the starters, but freshmen Anthony James and Jacob Lane might be a year from contributing.

Of the incoming freshmen this summer, cornerbacks Leroy Bryant and Curley Reed will be interesting to watch, as will Vincent Holmes at safety (though another 2023 signee, Diesel Gordon, already is on campus and went through spring practices).

If anyone in this class doesn’t redshirt, my guess would be Rogers, with center Landen Hatchett as a darkhorse pick. One of the cornerbacks could exceed the four-game limit, too, through a combination of special teams and injuries to players ahead of him.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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