Talented Huskies can’t duck preseason hype
Chris Petersen spent a lot of the summer cringing.
Washington’s third-year football coach was hoping his team would quietly emerge as a surprise Pac-12 title contender in November.
But the Huskies aren’t a sleeper entering fall camp after an offseason of hype generated from outside the program.
Washington was voted second in the North Division behind Stanford in the Pac-12 preseason media poll and was predicted to win the conference in Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.
“We’re into postseason rankings,” Petersen said at the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles. “I’m a voter on the (coaches poll), and it’s a complete waste of time and a crapshoot for the first five weeks. I don’t know, and I study this stuff all the time. I don’t know who’s any good.”
What is known: Washington returns a promising starting quarterback (Jake Browning), a productive running back (Myles Gaskin), an experienced offensive line (four returning starters) and the bulk of the Pac-12’s best defense in 2015.
Fans of Oregon and Washington also know that the Huskies have lost 12 consecutive games in the series. The Ducks, picked third in the North, host the game this season at Autzen Stadium.
“Those guys definitely have a lot of respect from us,” Washington tight end Darrell Daniels said of the Ducks. “But we’re going to take it game by game and hopefully put some smiles on Husky fans’ faces.”
Browning, a true sophomore, passed for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. His backup, sophomore K.J. Carta-Samuels, gives Petersen some quality depth at the position.
Gaskin set a Washington record for yards rushing by a freshman (1,302 yards) and scored 14 touchdowns. Backup Lavon Coleman (176 yards) also returns, and incoming freshman Sean McGrew is expected to contribute immediately.
The Huskies lost their top two wide receivers in Jaydon Mickens and Joshua Perkins. Projected starters Dante Pettis and John Ross could have breakout seasons as juniors.
Browning loses starting center Siosifa Tufunga, but the other nine offensive linemen from last year’s two-deep are back.
“Everybody wants to talk about Jake Browning, everybody wants to talk about Myles Gaskin, everybody wants to talk about John Ross on offense. I think we need to talk about all the other unsung heroes,” Petersen said. “If that O-line elevates their game, if our tight ends take the next step, if our wide receivers can start making some really spectacular plays, I think everything is going to change on our offense in terms of momentum.”
Washington averaged 30.6 points last season, which tied Utah for ninth in the Pac-12. The Husky defense led the conference in points allowed (18.8 ppg) and yards allowed (351.8 ypg).
The defensive line welcomes back eight experienced players, led by defensive tackle Elijah Qualls (4½ sacks). The team’s top two tacklers, linebackers Azeem Victor (95 tackles) and Keishawn Bierria (77), return.
The Huskies have an elite secondary, highlighted by first-team all-Pac-12 selections Budda Baker (junior free safety) and Sidney Jones (junior cornerback).
Petersen is considered to be one of the best offensive minds in the country after experiencing wild success at Boise State, where his record as a head coach was 92-12.
The older Huskies say Petersen is more involved with the defense and special teams than Steve Sarkisian was during his time at Washington, which has united the roster.
“The last few years you could definitely see that divide, you could definitely see Sark guys versus Petersen guys,” said Kevin King, an honorable mention all-Pac-12 defensive back last season.
“Now my class is the last Sark class. At the same time, we’ve all bought into Pete’s message. We know that Pete knows what it takes to win. He’s the most winning coach in college football history.
“It feels different. Everybody is bought in.”
The Huskies last season earned an emotional road victory over USC, which proved to be Sarkisian’s final game coaching the Trojans, and finished the season with three consecutive wins, including a 45-10 triumph over Apple Cup rival Washington State.
Petersen looks back and sees an overall mediocre body of work for 2015: 7-6 overall record, 4-5 in the Pac-12.
Even though the Dawgs are no longer underdogs, the team understands there is still a lot of work to do before Washington is officially back in contention for a conference championship.
“We were a 7-6 team. That we’re ranked so highly is actually kind of crazy to us,” Daniels said. “We’re just taking it day by day and trying to get better. … But it feels different, honestly. Being a part of this team and actually being a leader on this team, I can say we actually feel pretty good about this season.”
Washington plays a soft nonconference schedule with Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State all at home.
If the Huskies can beat Arizona on the road to open Pac-12 play, they should be 4-0 when defending champion Stanford travels to Seattle for a Friday night game on Sept. 30.
The rivalry with Oregon, which has been one-sided for more than a decade, will resume on Oct. 8.
“It’s a rivalry on our part. If it’s a rivalry on their part, 12 years, I don’t know,” King said. “We have a target on their back, we have a target on everybody’s back. I think it will always be something between us and Oregon, us and Wazzu, us and ’SC, the tension there. …
“I never want to lose to anybody, but I’m not thinking about, ‘Oregon has beat us 12 years in a row.’ That’s not in the front of my mind.”