Caple’s UW Huskies Sugar Bowl notebook from New Orleans
Dec 30, 2023, 4:11 PM | Updated: 4:16 pm
(Tim Warner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS — Bowl games — particularly the kind played on New Year’s Day, with national-championship implications — have a way of inspiring big-picture reflection.
So the UW Huskies’ media availability here the past two days has unsurprisingly featured many questions about the post-2021 transition from Jimmy Lake to Kalen DeBoer, the process of re-recruiting the roster and preventing the Huskies’ best players from transferring, and establishing the systems and culture that have brought UW to Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Texas.
It was, after all, the period of time most critical to fast-tracking DeBoer’s rebuild. Without stepping off campus, DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb convinced star receivers Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk to stay and play in their offense. They kept others, like edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui, from going immediately into the portal, convincing them to at least give the new coaches a shot through the spring.
Their most important acquisition, Michael Penix Jr., came from the transfer portal, and DeBoer has supplemented the roster with veterans at other positions, too; running back Dillon Johnson and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad have been particularly vital, and receiver Germie Bernard is a regular contributor. But unlike, say, Lincoln Riley’s attempted makeover at USC, DeBoer has won 24 of his first 26 games with many players who sat in his first team meeting.
“A lot of us were going to leave after Lake got dismissed,” said sixth-year senior linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. “I think you’ve got to give (DeBoer) a lot of credit, because he recruited the heck out of all of us. He was trying super hard and he was having so many authentic conversations.”
Said fifth-year junior edge rusher Bralen Trice: “They seemed serious about it. It didn’t seem like a bunch of lies.”
Of Washington’s 22 likely starters, 17 are in at least their third year in the program, and five of the Huskies’ defensive starters are sixth-year seniors who have only played at UW.
The Huskies will need players from DeBoer’s early high-school recruiting classes — and another crew of transfers — to help replace all that outgoing experience next season.
The fact they’re in New Orleans this year, though, is a dividend realized by DeBoer’s first, most important recruiting efforts. It helped, Ulofoshio said, that he struck a similar tone as former coach Chris Petersen, who recruited many of UW’s top players.
“The things that DeBoer values, Pete also valued,” Ulofoshio said. “I just felt like if they had those similar things, then we’re going to be OK, at the end of the day. That was the majority of that decision. He’s a good person — he cares about people, and he cares about ball.”
• We were able to watch 15 minutes of Washington’s practice on Friday morning at the Superdome — no team periods, just drills. Asa Turner appears to be a full participant, his right hand no longer burdened by the club-like cast he wore during the Oregon game.
Turner played 21 snaps that night, per Pro Football Focus. A month later, the senior safety should be in line for more significant duty.
“Having both him and Kam Fab (Kamren Fabiculanan) back in the mix here late in the season was definitely a plus for us,” said co-coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell. “And those guys do such a fantastic job of operating in the back half and running the show. They prepare like pros every single day, and it leads us to being really sound in the back half. So it’s great having Asa back.”
Like Turner, defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa played a bigger role against Oregon (30 snaps) after coaches had been managing his snap count due to injury. Monday’s game should find UW’s defense as healthy as it’s been all season.
• And that’s to say nothing of the pending debut of edge rusher Zach Durfee. Trice was asked about the Sioux Falls transfer, who wasn’t eligible to play until the end of the academic quarter because the NCAA ruled him a two-time transfer.
“Zach’s really locked in this week, being that he’s getting the chance to finally go out and play,” Trice said. “ I think it’s amazing that he’s getting the chance. He’s going to be a great player, and you guys will see him this week, obviously.”
UW coaches have said they think Durfee can contribute, even if his snaps might be situational.
• A perhaps forgotten factor in Washington’s 27-20 victory over Texas in last year’s Alamo Bowl: Texas receiver Xavier Worthy dropping consecutive passes in the third quarter, including a likely touchdown.
Asked Friday about the game, Worthy said, “It’s the highs and lows of football. It’s what you’ve got to love about football. I have definitely learned from it and had to overcome it. I have put that game in the past and overcome it.”
It was a frustrating sophomore season for Worthy in 2022. His numbers dipped as he played through a broken hand, which coach Steve Sarkisian revealed after the season. But he leads the Longhorns this year with 73 catches for 969 yards and five touchdowns, and his speed will test UW’s secondary.
“He might be one of the fastest guys, if not the fastest player that we’ve played against this season,” Morrell said. “Obviously, it’s round two. We have seen most of these guys a year ago — almost exactly a year ago. And I think he’s definitely improved his game, really involved in their explosive plays, doing a better job this year of running his route tree. And he’s a threat any time he touches the ball.”
Worthy did injure his ankle in the Big 12 championship game, and told reporters here Friday that he’s still working toward 100 percent.
• I thought this was an interesting description of Sarkisian’s play-calling style, from senior offensive lineman Christian Jones:
“Aggressive. Attack oriented. Wanting to win. Wanting to take the game to the opponent and not playing passive. No jabs, just straight hooks, haymakers. We know when he’s dialing them up. On the sidelines during games, he’s dialing it up. It’s a really good feeling, understanding that he has that much confidence in us to go execute. You’re able to play free and just let it all hang out.”
And a breakdown from senior safety Dominique Hampton, on the UW side: “I think they compare pretty well to Oregon in terms of giving you eye discipline plays and testing you after tempo. They’ll go tempo and immediately get you to see if your eyes are correct, then take a big shot. They’re definitely very similar to Oregon, and we’ve played them a couple of times so we have a good sense of the motion leading to shots.”
• While the Huskies have at least one game left with their current receiving corps, they took a big step Friday toward bolstering next year’s crew.
Jeremiah Hunter, California’s top receiver the past two seasons, announced that he will transfer to UW for his senior year. Hunter seems an ideal replacement for NFL-bound Rome Odunze at the “X” position; he has good size, at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, and had 2,103 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns the past three seasons at a school that has not necessarily accomplished many feats of forward passing.
If you’re curious how he fared against the Huskies, Hunter had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in this year’s game, missed the UW game last year due to injury, and, as a true freshman in 2021, caught a season-high six passes for 77 yards.
Hunter posted four 100-yard games in 2022, his best season, which he finished with 60 receptions for 965 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games. Hunter’s average depth of target was a 14.4 yards last season — Odunze’s ADOT, for comparison, is 15.6 — which should make him a top downfield option in Washington’s offense.
Pro Football Focus had him for only two drops in each of the past two seasons.
Assuming Polk and McMillan both leave with Odunze, the Huskies now are looking at a 2024 receiving corps led by Hunter, Giles Jackson, Germie Bernard and Denzel Boston, plus redshirt freshmen Rashid Williams and Keith Reynolds, and 2024 signees Jason Robinson and Justice Williams. We’ll see if they might seek another veteran option in the portal.
• Washington cornerback Jabbar Muhammad, a native of DeSoto, Texas, has two cousins on the Longhorns roster: edge rusher Billy Walton III, and freshman cornerback Malik Muhammad.
As such, when the CFP selection show revealed Texas as Washington’s opponent, Jabbar Muhammad said, “the group chat went crazy. It went ballistic.”
He’s fielded many ticket requests from family members, and expects a large contingent come Monday. Or, as he put it: “A lot of supposed-to-be tickets, but I don’t know how they’re gonna get ‘em.”
This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the 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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