Analysis: 6 players who must ascend for Washington to reach College Football Playoff in 2023

The gap between an Alamo Bowl win and a playoff berth is difficult to measure.
In his debut season in Seattle, Kalen DeBoer flipped the flaming remains of a 4-8 roster into an 11-2 revelation.
But this program has greater goals.
Namely, Washington covets a return to the Pac-12 Championship Game (for the first time since 2018) and the College Football Playoff (for the first time since 2016). And while Washington’s stars — quarterback Michael Penix Jr., wide receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, edges Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, left tackle Troy Fautanu, etc. — have returned, others must ascend for the Huskies to close that gap.
So, for UW to count itself as a Pac-12 title and CFP contender, here are six players who must reach another level in 2023.
RB Dillon Johnson, jr., 6-0, 218, Greenville, Miss. (Mississippi State)
The Huskies aren’t hurting for serviceable running backs — as Cameron Davis, Richard Newton, Daniyel Ngata, Sam Adams II and Will Nixon have all contributed to some degree on the Power Five level.
But Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson has the highest ceiling.
A 6-foot, 218-pound junior, Johnson brings a unique blend of physicality and pass-catching prowess — with 1,198 rushing yards, 864 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns across three seasons in Mike Leach’s air raid. That skill set should fit even more naturally in UW’s offense than Virginia transfer Wayne Taulapapa’s straight-ahead style last fall.
But after missing much of the spring with a minor injury, the question is how quickly Johnson can get up to speed.
“We’ve been really careful since spring ball to make sure we weren’t throwing too much on him too quickly from a training standpoint,” DeBoer said this month. “He does need to get a lot of reps in fall camp, just to get that feel of playing, but also to learn the intricacies of the offense and the pass catching responsibilities and gelling with the offensive line, both as a ball carrier and a pass protector.
“I think he’s in a really good spot. I like the way he’s moving around.”
DL Ulumoo Ale, sr., 6-6, 327, Tacoma
UW’s new staff prioritized adding numbers in the box to stuff the run last fall, and that emphasis yielded results. In 13 games, the Huskies led the Pac-12 in opponent yards per carry (3.52) and ranked third in rushing defense (121.23 yards allowed per game).
But while Tuli Letuligasenoa, Faatui Tuitele, Voi Tunuufi, Jayvon Parker and Jacob Bandes have each been productive players, none have achieved “game-breaker” status (AKA, the Vita Vea/Greg Gaines tier).
It’s unclear whether Ale — a 6-6, 327-pound behemoth who converted to defense in 2022 — will summit that mountain, thus transforming UW’s defense. But the former Golden Gloves boxer has perhaps the most untapped potential on the team.
“I know he played significantly last year, but we could tell as the season went on that towards the end he really got the hang of the D-line thing,” former UW offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland said in March. “With how large he is, he can be a force in there. So I’m excited to see that.”
C Matteo Mele, sr., 6-6, 298, Tucson, Ariz.
Washington has answers (with exclamation points) at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive tackle.
The offense’s only significant questions reside on the interior offensive line.
With three starters — guards Kirkland and Henry Bainivalu and center Corey Luciano — out of the picture, it’s up to left guard Julius Buelow, right guard Nate Kalepo and center Matteo Mele to keep the offense humming … and protect an oft-injured star quarterback who was sacked just seven times last season.
Mele — who played in all 13 games as a reserve last fall but has started just one game across five long seasons — will be counted on to lead that line.
UW offensive coordinator (and longtime offensive line coach) Ryan Grubb notably called the center spot “so critical. There’s a lot of pressure in that position. You have to produce at that spot. If you don’t produce at that spot, it’d be tough to function as an offense.”
CB Elijah Jackson, soph., 6-1, 191, Carson, Calif.
Following the NFL departures of standouts Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon and a significant scheme change, UW’s cornerback play plummeted in 2022. But sophomore Elijah Jackson — who appeared in just seven games due to injury — ascended into a starting role last spring and brings the lanky athleticism coveted by former coach Jimmy Lake.
“He’s a good press man player, there’s no doubt about it,” said UW co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell. “He’s confident at the line of scrimmage. He runs well at the top end of routes. He’s really good at disrupting the ball. He’s got great length. So when it comes to those 50/50 balls and the ball floating in there late, he’s a guy that can go up and attack the football and get the ball out.”
Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad is an assumed starter with a proven track record.
Analysis: Colorado is leaving the Pac-12. So what’s next for Washington?
But Jackson — or junior college transfer Thaddeus Dixon, should he falter — may be the wild card at cornerback.
S Dominique Hampton, sr., 6-3, 220, Glendale, Ariz.
Dominique Hampton has played every position in UW’s defensive secondary.
So far, nothing has stuck.
But the sixth-year senior’s inconsistency in the “Husky” nickel role last fall may have been furthered by outside injuries. Morrell acknowledged before the Alamo Bowl that “there was certainly a point when we were just trying to make sure guys were in the right spot at the right time and probably not exploring the full depth of the defense. Because we had several young guys that had to step on the field in some really critical games and just didn’t have the game experience.
“So we wanted to put the pressure on guys we knew could get the job done. From the Husky position, having Dom as a guy that’s on top of the slot and a lot of times is covering the best opposing slot, I think he did a great job with that.”
Still, it’s probably not what the 6-3, 220-pound punisher does best. After sliding back to safety, will Hampton finally thrive in a position that encourages him to attack running lanes and jump routes? Time will tell.
LB Edefuan Ulofoshio, sr., 6-1, 236, Anchorage, Alaska
Ulofoshio was named an All-America Honorable Mention (Pro Football Focus, Phil Steele) and second-team All-Pac-12 performer after producing 47 tackles, four passes defended, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a sack in the shortened 2020 season.
His next two seasons were shortened as well.
But after missing a combined 14 games across 2021 and 2022 due to a partial tear of his distal bicep tendon and a torn ACL, Ulofoshio appears to be all the way back. The sixth-year senior linebacker and unquestioned team leader achieved personal bests in the bench press (350 pounds), squat max (480 pounds), vertical leap (35 inches) and max speed (22 mph) this offseason.
If Ulofoshio can return to an all-conference level, UW’s linebacker corps — which also includes proven contributors Alphonzo Tuputala, Ralen Goforth and Carson Bruener — may be the best out west. The proof will be in their play.
Mike Vorel: mvorel@seattletimes.com; on Twitter: @MikeVorel. Mike Vorel is the UW football beat writer for The Seattle Times.

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