Caple: UW Huskies’ offense has established stars, but who else could emerge?

May 5, 2023, 2:44 PM

UW Huskies Dillon Johnson...

Dillon Johnson of the Mississippi State Bulldogs runs with the ball on Nov. 12, 2022. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

(Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Michael Penix Jr.’s decision to return for his final year of eligibility seemingly initiated a chain reaction among the UW Huskies’ top offensive players. Star wideouts Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan each chose to return to school after posting 1,000-yard seasons. So did Troy Fautanu, a second-team all-conference pick at left tackle. Cam Davis, UW’s No. 2 tailback last season, is in line for lead-back duties after scoring 13 touchdowns in 2022. Top tight ends Devin Culp and Jack Westover each are back for their senior seasons.

With so much talent returning, is it possible for other offensive players to emerge as key contributors for the Huskies in 2023? We look at five candidates coming out of the spring.

WR Germie Bernard

The UW Huskies were set to return all five receivers who played regularly in 2022, but Taj Davis recently entered the transfer portal. Bernard’s emergence might have been a big reason why. He originally signed with UW in the 2022 class, but changed his mind and enrolled at Michigan State, where he played in every game as a true freshman last season before transferring back to Washington.

The former four-star recruit had a strong first spring, showing reliable hands and impressive athleticism. With Davis moving on, Bernard seems a strong candidate to fill his spot in the rotation. The same could be said for Denzel Boston, a redshirt freshman who also made a number of plays during spring practices and could help stretch the field with his 6-foot-4 frame.

RB Dillon Johnson

Wayne Taulapapa was the new face in Washington’s backfield last season, signed as a one-year solution after transferring from Virginia. Even with Davis back — and looking like a strong candidate to begin the season as the starter — the Huskies still added two transfer tailbacks this offseason, and Johnson seems the more likely of the two to make an immediate impact. He was nursing an injury this spring and didn’t practice, so we’re still waiting for our first glimpse of him in action.

But Johnson did tally 1,198 rushing yards and 864 receiving yards the past three seasons at Mississippi State, so he’s not exactly an unknown commodity. Expect to hear his name plenty this fall.

OL Nate Kalepo

Of Washington’s three new O-line starters, Kalepo is the one whose teammates have raved about him the most — and not just this offseason. A fifth-year junior from Seattle, Kalepo was a four-star recruit in the 2019 class and has waited patiently for his turn at a starting job. This spring solidified the belief that he is firmly entrenched as UW’s next starter at right guard, and at 6-6 and 323 pounds, Kalepo seemingly has the physical tools to hold up against interior defensive linemen.

TE Josh Cuevas

The Huskies return every tight end who played significantly last season, but the offseason addition of Cuevas makes that competition even more interesting. He caught 57 passes for 622 yards as a redshirt freshman at Cal Poly last season, and showed both his receiving and blocking skills during spring practices. Coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb seemed pleasantly surprised by his physical nature. Cuevas will continue battling Quentin Moore for snaps behind Culp and Westover.

RB Will Nixon

Even as Davis established himself as RB1 for now, Nixon impressed coaches with his spring performance. In fact, DeBoer said after UW’s spring preview that Nixon, who transferred from Nebraska prior to the 2022 season, might have been the Huskies’ most improved offensive player.

He added muscle, too, bulking up to 200 pounds from 192 last season. Nixon finished last year with 21 carries for 89 and two touchdowns. With Davis and Johnson a likely strong 1-2 atop the running back depth chart — and Daniyel Ngata and Sam Adams II pushing for touches, too — it remains to be seen what kind of role Nixon might have. But it’s certainly worth noting that coaches were high on him coming out of the spring.

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.

More from UW Huskies insider Christian Caple

• 5 players who will be crucial to UW Huskies’ defensive fortunes
• 7 questions to ponder after UW Huskies’ spring practices
• Have UW Huskies found new O-line starters?
• Should Huskies move Voi Tunuufi over with Sav’ell Smalls moving on?
• Ranking UW’S 2023 schedule from least to most challenging

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Caple: UW Huskies’ offense has established stars, but who else could emerge?