Caple: UW Huskies takeaways from Pac-12 Media Day

BY CHRISTIAN CAPLE
UW Huskies Football Insider, Seattle Sports
LAS VEGAS — When asked how Michael Penix Jr. might be even better in 2023 than he was in setting the UW Huskies’ single-season passing record last season, Kalen DeBoer does not critique his quarterback’s mechanics or assign statistical goals.
Caple: Ranking UW Huskies positions from most to least established
The coach has seen Penix, a sixth-year senior, make every throw — inside and outside the pocket, early and late in games, at home and on the road. He watched him guide an offensive renaissance at Washington that saw the Huskies nearly double their per-game scoring average, and watched Penix lead the nation in passing yards per game.
So on the subject of what the next step might look like, DeBoer focuses on intangibles.
“Just another level of communication, another level of leadership,” DeBoer said at Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day. “He’s always consistent. There’s not these ups and downs you go through with him. All those things that are strengths — throws, reads, his temperament — those need to stay and be above where they were before, and be consistent in that fashion.
“Just always in control, which I think he was a year ago. Just on another level.”
This time last year, Penix still had to win the starting job. Coaches split reps evenly between Penix, Dylan Morris and Sam Huard, though the consensus had long been that the Indiana transfer would emerge as the starter. Still, rather than daydream about what Penix’s ceiling might be within DeBoer and coordinator Ryan Grubb’s scheme, fans mostly just hoped the left-hander from Tampa, Fla., could stay healthy for a full season, something that never happened in his four years at Indiana.
After throwing for 4,641 yards with 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a junior, Penix says his priority is “just maturing in my leadership, and making sure we show growth throughout our team and hold each other accountable, not letting things slip when they shouldn’t, and truly calling out people if they’re not showing championship habits or effort.”
Penix had a busy summer. He worked as a counselor at the Elite 11 quarterback camp and attended the Manning Passing Academy, where he won the Nike QB Challenge. He was one of several UW athletes who attended the Black Student Athlete Summit at USC in May. The school began pushing him for the Heisman Trophy late last season, and has plans to build another campaign around him for 2023.
This spring, Penix said the Heisman attention stays on the periphery, remarking that all he has to do is retweet or share whatever content the school might come up with. His laid-back demeanor has made him an ideal fit in Seattle.
“He has a way about it from a humility standpoint, where our guys appreciate that he speaks up more in team meetings, position meetings,” DeBoer said. “If there’s something he wants to say, he says it. It’s thoughtful. It’s with the intention of the team being first, and not him. I think he’s just been more vocal in all those ways and done an even better job of leading.
“A year ago, he was not the starting quarterback at this point. Now he is, and he knows it, and he’s not taking that for granted. He’s just trying to build the guys around him to help him be the best team we can be.”
Summer standouts?
Which UW players improved the most over the summer? I wrote about a few the other day, but also wanted to pass along what DeBoer said about a few others.
“I’m proud of ZTF,” he said, referring to senior edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui. “He’s had a 120-pound squat (max) increase over the last year and a half. That’s just one number that’s representative of how hard he’s worked.
“I think Bralen Trice continues to grind. He’s increased his bench (max) by 50 pounds in the last year and a half, and 105 pounds on his squat. Those guys want to be the best in the country when it comes to production from that position.
“(Edefuan Ulofoshio), I think, has just had a phenomenal offseason. I think our defensive backfield, as a whole, from Meesh (Mishael) Powell to guys like Jabbar Muhammad. Those guys are doing a nice job in different ways, because Meesh has been through it, but Jabbar is figuring it out.
“There’s a lot of guys who are just ready to go. Roger Rosengarten has done a really nice job. His intensity level is strong. He’s stepping up as a leader, and sees himself now as not just a guy that is fitting in on the offensive line, but a leader of it.”
Secondary consideration
Much of the focus this spring was on Washington’s re-made defensive backfield, and for good reason: the Huskies had one of the worst pass defenses in the Pac-12 last season. DeBoer has pointed to UW’s lack of experienced depth at both cornerback and safety as a big reason why the Huskies weren’t able to overcome injuries to several of their starters, and vowed to adjust the roster accordingly.
Jabbar Muhammad arrived as a transfer from Oklahoma State and appears to be a lock to start at cornerback. Elijah Jackson emerged as a standout at the other cornerback spot this spring. Dominique Hampton moved from “husky” (nickel) back to safety, and Mishael Powell moved from cornerback to husky. The one starter returning to the same position he played last year: senior safety Asa Turner.
The Huskies also brought in Thaddeus Dixon, a junior-college transfer, to bolster their cornerback depth, and feel better about younger players who weren’t ready to contribute meaningfully last season.
“Guys like Elijah Jackson, I just feel has got another level of toughness and understanding of the defense and confidence,” DeBoer said. “Another one would be (redshirt freshman safety/husky) Tristan Dunn. I just feel so strongly in the direction he’s going. It’s about the team first with him, which is really cool to see. He’s out there just giving everything he’s got. When it comes to conditioning sessions, he’s out there at the front of the pack. He’s got the tools, but he’s also got the determination right now. He’s all in. He’s got a lot of the length and instincts and things that you want.
“I just think we’re building depth. We’ve got guys who have a lot of banked reps under their belt who are going to lend themselves to more competition for starting spots, but more depth in the defensive backfield, as well.”
On the flip side …
Everyone knows exactly what the Huskies have at receiver, with Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk returning as one of the top trios in college football. But UW believes its depth doesn’t end with the starters. Giles Jackson is back for his senior year, and a pair of 2022 signees — Denzel Boston and Michigan State transfer Germie Bernard — began to emerge this spring.
How deep can the Huskies go, on a game-by-game basis, with their receiver rotation? Last season, they mostly stuck to five — Odunze, McMillan, Polk, Jackson and Taj Davis, who has since transferred to California.
Should you expect the same in 2023?
“I think it will vary. It’s who’s playing well,” DeBoer said. “And we can assign personnel groupings to get everyone involved. We’ve always done that. We do it at tight end, running back. We have a way built into our system to make sure guys feel they have a role on the football field in each and every game.
“I think we can get by with five, but I think you could see, as guys develop and more guys get comfortable, that could be six. It’s easier to get guys on the field at receiver than most other positions. … I don’t see it being three or four. I feel like the number’s got to be five that you feel good about in the rotation.”

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