Three takeaways from Washington's 2022 spring game
In 2022, Washington will be led out by new head coach Kalen DeBoer. It’ll be something of a first for the 47-year-old—Washington is his first Power Five head coaching opportunity—but make no mistake, he’s ready. DeBoer hopes to turn the program back into a consistent winner, and Washington has good faith he can because that’s what he’s been throughout his entire career. He has a career 79-9 record as a head football coach.
He’s been named a Coach of the Year three times apiece by two different awarding bodies.
He won three NAIA national championships in 2006, 2008, and 2009. In 2005, his first year at Sioux Falls, he won 11 games and went to the NAIA semifinals. Over the next four years, the only loss Sioux Falls suffered in 57 games was in the 2007 NAIA national championship.
His first year as a Division I head coach featured a pandemic that destroyed his preseason and shortened the regular season to just six games. Fresno won three of them. Then the Bulldogs went 9-3 last season with a top-30 offense by SP+ and a quarterback that threw for 4,096 yards and 33 touchdowns.
DeBoer brought most of his Fresno staff with him to Washington.
They have a tall task on their hands, with the Huskies coming off a 4-8 season, their in-state rival on the rise, and their hated border rival to the south working in a head coach who just helped the Georgia Bulldogs to a national title by putting together a historic defense.
DeBoer will look to lean on what he knows—winning offensive football. The offense technically won the day on Saturday at the team’s spring showcase event, capping a 34-29 victory over the defense with a touchdown toss to win it on the game’s final possession.
Here are three takeaways from that affair, including thoughts on the quarterback spot:
Defense lost, but had strong moments
As an offensive guy, you knew DeBoer was going to give his offense the last line of the game. After a stop from the defense made it 29-18 in favor of defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell’s side, DeBoer and the offense got three final drives in which they scored three straight times.
On the third and final score, DeBoer called game.
That touchdown, a pass from Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to wideout Rome Odunze, saw the 6-foot-3 third-year sophomore tip-toe the sideline and break three arm tackles to go for the score. Any of the three Washington defenders could have used their momentum to shove him out of bounds. Instead, they tried to wrap up and all three whiffed.
That’s not how you want to close.
But it was an otherwise positive showing for that defense. All throughout, especially early on, the defensive line completely dominated the point of attack. Washington’s front seven was able to generate pressure from simple four-man looks and frequently re-established the line of scrimmage. The offense countered with a couple of nice stretch plays to get to the outside later, but there wasn’t much going up the middle. Junior defensive lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa had a nice swim move off the snap of the ball to disrupt a play in the red zone.
Morrell sent some pressure from a few different areas and UW’s defensive front was able to confuse the o-line on several occasions. Of course, with it being a Washington vs. Washington game, you have to wonder if this was a defensive line flexing or an offensive line struggling. I’d wager it was a little of both here. On a third-and-long play on the offense’s sixth possession, the defense brought a four-man pressure off a two-down look where both guys on the right side of the line (offense’s perspective) came on a stunt around the left, got a guy free to rush the quarterback, and forced an incompletion that stalled a drive in scoring position.
“I do think the defense made some huge strides (during the spring period) above and beyond probably what we expected,” DeBoer told reporters after the game.
Interestingly the strength last season was the secondary, keeping plays in front of them and limiting opposing wideouts thanks to two recent NFL draft picks at corner, while the front seven was bullied. Washington ranked 121st nationally in rushing success rate allowed (49.6%) and 105th in yards per carry allowed (4.8). Opponents couldn’t throw on Washington, but it didn’t have to.
“Early on, I felt like our run defense was maybe a little bit not where I wanted it, but the last two or three weeks I really think we’ve gotten a lot better,” DeBoer said. “I like where we’re at there. Our pass-rush has been super consistent all spring long. It’s been hard to handle the edges. You saw that again today. … Those are some of the areas we’ve really shored up.”
Washington has some interesting pieces to work with on that side of the ball.
Uneven QB play
Penix led the offense out on the first drive. Of the 15 possessions UW had, he was on the field for six of them. Sam Huard, a second-year freshman who earned his first start last season in the Apple Cup, was the second quarterback to take the field. He was in command of the offense for five drives. Fourth-year sophomore Dylan Morris, a starter in 11 of UW’s 12 games last season, was the third quarterback to play. He received four possessions. (DeBoer said not to read too much into it.)
UW rotated back and forth. Penix got the first drive and then didn’t see the field again until the fifth possession. To be fair to those three, it can take a little longer to get yourself into a groove when that’s the case.
On the day, understandably, there was uneven play. On his six possessions, Penix began with a three-and-out, an interception, a drive that stalled in the red zone and ended in a field goal, and another interception. He got points on each of his final two possessions (the 13th and 15th) and made some strong throws on those, but he looked hesitant and late to make decisions at times throughout the day.
Huard converted a third-and-seven on his first drive. On his next possession, he had a deep ball to what would have been an open man, but a rather obvious defensive hold went uncalled and the ball fell just out of reach, forcing a punt for the second time. From then on, Huard led scoring drives on his last three possessions. He engineered the first touchdown drive of the day, and it was a series highlighted by some nice sequencing from the offensive coaching staff.
Tailback Jay’Veon Sunday picked up a first down on first down with a stretch run to the right. (Freshman offensive lineman Owen Prentice made the play work with a nice block in space as the pulling guard.) UW immediately followed that play up with a play-action look that feinted stretch right and brought Huard back to his left on a boot. He hit an open receiver for another first and UW was on the move.
On his third possession, UW got down in close and drew up a little switch route on the outside to try and free up wideout Nick Juran in the back of the end zone. Washington got what it wanted and Huard put the ball right where he needed to for what should have been six. His receiver couldn’t control the catch through the ground. Best throw of the day. UW settled for a field goal.
Huard also led a scoring drive on UW’s second-to-last possession, finding former Arizona State wideout Junior Alexander first with a one-handed grab for an explosive to get the drive rolling and then again in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown.
On Morris’ four possessions, UW had a three-and-out, two field goals, and a punt.
To my eye, Huard was the best quarterback on the field by a decent-sized margin. DeBoer said after the game he wasn’t yet ready to name a starter, but this looks like it’ll come down to Penix or Huard. The familiarity with Penix—DeBoer was his coordinator at Indiana in 2019—keeps the veteran in the thick of it, but Penix has struggled with decision-making throughout his career and that was apparent again on Saturday.
DeBoer said after the game Penix and Morris had all of two interceptions throughout the spring, which is good, but Penix threw two by himself in the simulated game. He also had seven against just four touchdowns in his final season with the Hoosiers. DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb are looking for a guy who’s going to consistently make the right play.
“Each of them bring a little something different,” DeBoer said of his quarterbacks after the game. “Sam had one of his best days today. He just kept playing, and that’s what he’s been doing. As the scrimmage went on, he didn’t shy away from trying to make throws, didn’t overthink. I really have an appreciation for that.”
Of course, Penix got the “game-winning” touchdown throw and led the drive. That counts for something.
One area all three can improve: the red zone. UW stalled out more than a few times down there.
UW has a deep crop of pass-catchers
With so much of the room unavailable, it’s probably best to reserve judgement on the running back room. The very first play was a broken play where Penix turned one direction for a handoff and his tailback went the opposite way. So, moving on to the pass-catchers at wideout and tight end, it looks like UW is going to have some talent.
There was quite a bit of 12 personnel; tight ends got some nice usage.
Out wide, I like Odunze. He had 41 receptions for 415 yards and four scores last season. It seems UW likes him too. He got a couple fly sweeps called for him down in the red zone and, according to Dawgman’s Chris Fetters, caught four balls for 63 yards and a score.
With Odunze, Alexander, Jalen McMillan, and Ja’Lynn Polk, Washington has some good receiver talent.