News & Analysis

Why Washington is a dark-horse playoff contender in 2016

Led by an up-and-coming defense, Washington is a darkhorse candidate to make some noise in the College Football Playoff. The last two recruiting classes have been kind to the Huskies as the defense re-loaded in the 2014 class with defensive tackle Greg Gaines, safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones; while last year’s class featured PFF’s top-graded true freshman quarterback (Jake Browning) and running back (Myles Gaskin) in the nation.

The defense was extremely young a year ago, but they head into 2016 with 11 players who played at least 300 snaps in 2015 and many of them played well. The aforementioned Gaines was the top run stopper on the team at +15.3 while Baker played up to his four-star billing with a +7.8 grade that ranked third among returning Pac-12 safeties. Jones has the No. 2 grade among returning Pac-12 corners (+10.4) while linebacker Azeem Victor’s +14.4 overall mark also ranks second. That’s before even mentioning DT Elijah Qualls who led the entire defense with a +19.0 mark as the most well-rounded defensive lineman on the team. Washington’s defense has a dangerous combination of young, yet experienced players who have also been extremely productive early in their respective careers.

On the offensive side of the ball, Browning was outstanding for a freshman as he did a nice job of leading receivers to space and making big throws at the intermediate level. He continued to progress all season and another big step from him should vault Washington into Pac-12 contention. As for Browning’s classmate, Gaskin hit his stride in week six and never looked back, rushing for at least 90 yards in eight of the last nine games and finishing with the third-best grade among Pac-12 running backs. Perhaps most impressive, Gaskin did his damage behind a unit that finished with a cumulative run blocking grade of -54.5 on the season, 57th out of 65 qualifiers.

And that brings us to the biggest concern as the offensive line returns five players who played at least 400 snaps last season but only left guard Jake Eldrenkamp managed a positive overall grade (+1.6). As is usually the case in college football, experience and growth is vital for offensive linemen and simply returning that many starters should bode well for their development. Still, it’s no slam dunk that the offensive line will move from weakness to strength, but even a moderate improvement will go a long way toward allowing Browning and Gaskin to carry the offense as true sophomores.

With playmakers on every level of the defense combined with budding superstars at the skill positions, Washington may very well be two years away from making a major national splash, but keep an eye on them in 2016 as they have the talent and experience to do a lot of damage in a wide open Pac-12 North.

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