Caple: Why Huskies believe offense has ‘much more left in the tank’

Aug 10, 2023, 2:24 PM | Updated: Aug 22, 2023, 3:21 pm

UW Huskies Jalen McMillan Rome Odinze...

Jalen McMillan of the UW Huskies celebrates a touchdown on Sept. 30, 2022. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — You likely know the key figures by now. That Michael Penix Jr. led FBS in passing yards per game and set the UW Huskies single-season passing record. That Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan became the first duo in school history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. That UW’s seven sacks allowed tied for second-fewest in FBS, and their 25 punts were the fewest by an FBS team in a full season (2020 excluded) since Navy in 2007.

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The Huskies scored 39.7 points per game during their 2022 offensive renaissance, good for No. 7 nationally and nearly double their 2021 output.

They fared even better in several advanced metrics. UW ranked No. 2 nationally in points per drive (3.76), per, and led the country in available yards percentage (69.3). It also led FBS in offensive expected points added (EPA) per game and per play, per, and ranked No. 2 nationally in both EPA per rush and per pass.

By season’s end, the school had doubled the salary of offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb (to $2 million annually), whom Texas A&M and Alabama each pursued aggressively.

He’s back. Penix is back. Odunze, McMillan and the perhaps underrated Ja’Lynn Polk are all back, too, as are top tight ends Jack Westover and Devin Culp, and double-digit touchdown scorer Cam Davis at running back.

And it is becoming apparent that UW Huskies players and coaches do not believe last season was any kind of gold standard.

Among other things, McMillan told Pro Football Focus during a July interview: “We have so much more in the tank. Last year, we didn’t even scratch the surface.”

That remark stood out to me. Whether or not you believe the Huskies’ offensive ceiling in 2023 really is significantly higher than what they established last season, McMillan’s comment should tell you that UW’s players and coaches certainly believe it is, and saw enough in the spring and summer to reinforce that notion.

I asked McMillan on Wednesday to expand.

“Last year was brand new for us. 2021 was kind of like a pro-style offense, and you know how that went,” McMillan said. “When this offense came around, it was kind of like, ‘whoa, we get to do this, and we get to do that, and we get to do this.’ It was kind of a lot, but at the end of the day, we were able to focus on the plays and execute. Now we’ve just got to do more. As you can see, we’re doing a lot more, adding more plays, just working hard together.”

That was the crux of Penix’s response when I asked him the same question at Pac-12 Media Day: that last season was the first in this offensive system for everyone except Penix, who had essentially played in a version of it each year since 2019, when Kalen DeBoer was his offensive coordinator at Indiana. Penix’s teammates have closed that knowledge gap throughout the past year. He can see it in his connection with UW’s receivers.

Is there a simple way to describe how Washington’s offense has grown since fans saw it last?

“It’s the same offense. I do feel like we’re more explosive,” McMillan said. “I feel like we all got stronger, smarter. There really isn’t a simple way to put it, because this offense is complex.”

Odunze responded similarly.

“I think there’s so much more left in the tank, just because last season, we were figuring everything out still, whether it was install or figuring out the playbook and all those things, or building that connection with Mike,” Odunze said.

Of course, the Huskies are replacing last year’s interior offensive line — left guard Jaxson Kirkland, center Corey Luciano and right guard Henry Bainivalu — with three new starters. Through the first six days of preseason camp, those positions looked the same as in the spring, an indication o-line coach Scott Huff likely has settled on his starting five. With Troy Fautanu returning at left tackle and Roger Rosengarten back at right tackle, the Huskies will rely on sixth-year senior Matteo Mele to take over center duties, with a pair of fifth-year juniors — Julius Buelow (left) and Nate Kalepo (right) — at the guard spots beside him.

And if you’re looking for areas of needed improvement, there were at least a few categories that left fans wanting last season— relatively speaking — such as red-zone touchdown percentage (66.18, 43rd nationally) and fourth-down conversion rate (57.14, tied for 42nd).

The personnel is a bit different at running back, too, though UW might actually be in a better place, on the whole. Wayne Taulapapa totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage as UW’s No. 1 running back last season. He’s gone, but the Huskies do return fifth-year junior Cam Davis, who appears established as the primary tailback after piling up 13 rushing touchdowns last year. Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson is still working back from injury, but should be a factor — both as a strong, bruising runner and an adept pass-catcher, in accordance with his experience at MSU —  once healthy. Will Nixon and Richard Newton have taken most of the No. 2 carries with Johnson out — Sam Adams II has been limited recently by injury — and another transfer, Daniyel Ngata from Arizona State, provides more experience and depth.

And there have been few personnel developments more encouraging this spring and summer than the emergence of redshirt freshman receiver Denzel Boston and Michigan State transfer Germie Bernard, each of whom appears set to contribute meaningfully in 2023. Coaches rave about Boston’s progress, in particular. At 6-4, he’s up to 207 pounds from 193 as a freshman, and continues to show the ability to snare deep passes away from smaller defenders.

“I’m super excited and fired up right now for him,” receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard said. “He’s been doing a lot of things really well. He seems like he’s dove into the playbook and really come out this fall camp to show that he can be a viable piece of this offense.”

Shephard said that last year, Boston “didn’t understand any of the nuances of playing the position, let alone how to be a good receiver using the tools that he had.” Boston tried to play the way UW’s other receivers might play, which prompted Shephard to administer a dose of reality — and encouragement.

“You can’t be J-Mac. I’m sorry, Denzel. You don’t have the ability to be J-Mac in every single situation,” Shephard said. “But you can be Denzel, and Denzel can be a high-level player. He’s embodied that recently.”

Being Denzel means being a “tough, big, strong, physical kid,” Shephard said.

Boston, too, notes the potential for offensive progress, regardless of last season’s turnaround.

“We got stuff cooking this year,” he said. “We’ve got different plays in the playbook. We’ve got different stuff moving around. We got stuff cooking.

“This year, we can have it way more detailed, and way more just how we want it, and how we want to run the offense to a certain standard.”

The very fact that Boston is just beginning his career arc is what makes him one of UW’s more intriguing offensive players. Penix, Westover and Culp are seniors. So is Mele. Odunze and McMillan will almost certainly be off to the NFL. Ditto for Fautanu, and perhaps Rosengarten. Grubb wants to be a head coach, and his stock has never been higher.

There was a lot of talk, upon UW securing so many draft-eligible players for another year, about running it back in 2023.

But it seems the Huskies won’t be content with replicating their 2022 output.

“Going into this season, having that base and that past to be able to look on, like, ‘yeah, we can really do this,’ I think that allows us to have that creativity, to have that work ethic toward something bigger,” Odunze said. “I think we’ll be able to go out there this season and put an even better product on the field, for sure.”

This article was originally published at, 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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