Analysis: Five questions Washington must answer in preseason practice — and beyond

By Mike Vorel
Seattle Times staff reporter
Don’t let the feeling of impending doom permeating Pac-12 headquarters distract you from one unassailable fact:
Preseason practice starts Wednesday.
And before Washington — a genuine Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff contender — takes the field inside Husky Stadium at 9 a.m., here are five questions that need answering … both in August and beyond.
Can Michael Penix Jr. be even better?
That’s a lot to ask of a quarterback who set a school record for passing yards (4,641), led the country in passing yards per game (357) and finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting in his debut season in Seattle.
Still, for UW to take another seismic step, it starts with the signal caller.
And for Penix, improvement won’t be neatly defined by an uptick in passing yards, touchdowns, etc. With the additions of transfer running backs Dillon Johnson and Daniyel Ngata, it’s entirely possible — maybe even preferable — that UW employ a more balanced attack this fall. The return of wide receivers Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk and tight ends Jack Westover and Devin Culp should allow for a smooth sequel as well.
But can Penix improve on a 65.3% completion percentage and cut down on his eight interceptions — including three in back-to-back losses against UCLA and Arizona State?
Perhaps more importantly, will the sixth-year senior handle success — draft projections, Heisman expectations, etc. — as well as he handles adversity?
“What he’s so good at is the response piece, whether it’s a response by the offense or his response individually when things are not going well,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said recently. “His response has always been what I’ve been impressed by, especially last year. I think it’s just indicative of who he is and the adversity he’s been through on a bigger scale with his career. He can just flush it and move on in a way that a lot of other guys can’t. That’s one of the greatest qualities you want in a quarterback.”
Will a retooled offensive line maintain the same standard?
Lost in the avalanche of touchdowns and prolific passing totals is the fact that Penix took just five sacks last season.
Five sacks, over 13 games.
For a quarterback who had each of his previous four collegiate seasons end in injury, that is an undeniably critical detail.
UW returns starting left tackle Troy Fautanu and right tackle Roger Rosengarten, both of whom could surge into the top two rounds of the 2024 NFL draft. But without a strong interior, it’s impossible for the Huskies to reach the same statistical heights.
UW’s three assumed starters — center Matteo Mele, right guard Nate Kalepo and left guard Julius Buelow — are veterans who have earned rave reviews behind the scenes this offseason. Redshirt freshman center Parker Brailsford, true freshman center Landen Hatchett and sophomore guard Geirean Hatchett have all impressed as well.
But this group will have to prove itself on Saturdays, starting Sept. 2 against Boise State.
Has the secondary improved enough?
Following the NFL departures of Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon last offseason, UW couldn’t afford to suffer significant injuries in the secondary — particularly at cornerback.
You probably know this, but cornerbacks Jordan Perryman, Mishael Powell, Julius Irvin, Davon Banks and Elijah Jackson, plus safeties Asa Turner and Vince Nunley, all proceeded to miss significant stretches.
The results were both unsurprising and inevitable.
UW ranked 129th out of 130 teams nationally in passes defended per game (2.54), 117th in third down defense (44.51% conversions) and 114th in opponent completions of 30 yards or more (24).
But after bringing in three college cornerbacks (Jabbar Muhammad, Thaddeus Dixon and Darren Barkins), moving several starters (Mishael Powell from corner to “husky” nickel, Dominique Hampton from “husky” to safety) and signing five freshman defensive backs, have the Huskies done enough?
“We may not have the depth still that we ultimately want, but we’re in a much better place if something like last year were to happen again this year. We could get through it,” DeBoer said. “Meesh [Powell] hasn’t really taken any corner reps since we moved him [to husky] in the winter, but he’s a guy who understands our defense now on a much greater level. Dom Hampton played the husky position last year and is now playing safety. Asa Turner’s got all these reps now banked.
“You just go down the line and you have more guys with more snaps at the college level, whether here or somewhere else. It makes you feel more secure about the direction we’re going.”
Who are the next edges up?
Without the services of outgoing senior Jeremiah Martin (11 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last fall), Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui return as proven pass rushers and cemented starters.
Otherwise, UW’s edge depth leaves much to be desired.
Sioux Falls transfer Zach Durfee is a physical specimen, but it’s unclear how quickly he’ll be ready to contribute at UW. Junior Voi Tunuufi will likely shift permanently from the interior to edge, after nabbing a combined eight sacks in his first two seasons. Redshirt freshman Lance Holtzclaw will also likely earn a role as a pure pass rusher — with senior Sekai Asoau-Afoa, sophomore walk-on Milton Hopkins Jr. and sophomore Maurice Heims vying for reps as well.
Preseason camp will be critical for Tunuufi to adapt to a new position and UW’s young edges to gain confidence before stepping into elevated roles.
But if you’re looking for a spot where Washington can least afford a significant injury, this might be it.
Is special teams a strength or a weakness?
UW enters preseason camp with open competitions for its place-kicking and punting duties.
So what should we expect?
UW’s staff seems to have faith in the available options, given that the Huskies did not target a short-term leg or two in the transfer portal (despite having room on their roster). But the candidates (kickers Grady Gross and Addison Shrock, and punters Jack McCallister and Adam Saul) have yet to prove themselves on the Pac-12 level.
McCallister — a 6-0, 216-pound sophomore walk-on — did start last season and averaged an underwhelming 40.8 yards per punt, with five 50-plus yarders and five inside the 20. Though he punted just 23 times in 13 games, McCallister will need to display more consistency to outlast Saul.
As for the place-kickers, it will not be easy to succeed Peyton Henry — who held down the spot for the past five seasons and connected on 19 of 22 field goals and 58 of 59 extra points in 2022. But a critical kick could spell the difference between a Pac-12 title and Husky heartbreak.
For Gross and Shrock, those are the stakes.

Latest Player Notes

How Wisconsin athletes are benefiting from a unique NIL deal with Madison's Exact Sciences

Feb 17, 2024MJ Hammill entered what can be a scary time of an athlete’s life in mid-December.She went into the volleyball ...

Mike Griffith: Texas is Georgia's primary focus this offseason

February 16, 2024The Georgia Bulldogs face three SEC contenders on the road next season in Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss. According ...

Navigating a season that could see Texas play Georgia more than once

February 17, 2024The Texas Longhorns and Georgia Bulldogs will play in Austin on Oct. 19. It may not be the only time they ...

After some key departures from the team, Dykes got busy in the portal this offseason.

5:11 PM on Feb 16, 2024Biggest unanswered question: Who will emerge as the clear WR1?Before last season, Williams was the ...

How Louisville football coach Jeff Brohm balances transfer portal, high school recruiting

Louisville Courier JournalCollege football used to buzz on the first Wednesday in February, but Louisville football's office ...

Bob Asmussen | Illinois defense counting on linebackers to plug the gaps

College Football Reporter/ColumnistCHAMPAIGN — A new linebacker coach is in place at Illinois, and Archie McDaniel said he ...

Where Alabama’s quarterback group stands before spring practice

Alabama football’s offense is going to look different this season. Kalen DeBoer has replaced the retired Nick Saban as head ...

Why did AJ McCarron return to the St. Louis Battlehawks?

When AJ McCarron joined the resurrected XFL last year, the former Alabama All-American hadn’t played since suffering a knee ...

Colorado football self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations from Deion Sanders’ first year with Buffs

1/26/2024The Colorado football program has self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations since the hiring of head coach Deion Sanders ...

What Steve Young said about today’s NFL quarterbacks

By Jackson Payne Steve Young may have enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling just ...
See More Player Notes