Each week this season, I’m going to do my best to provide an in depth look at Auburn’s upcoming opponent. I make no promises that I will both consistently do this or that anything I say actually ends up accurate....
In the future, this will probably just be one post. But having had so much time to obsess over the first game, I decided to break this post into offense/defense specific previews. Otherwise this would have been a 4,000+ word nightmare and ya’ll aint got time for that.
Today, we start with the offense. Last season, the Huskies offense ranked 18th in the country according to S&P+. The majority of that offense returns but they will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator in 2018. Bush Hamdan takes over for Jonathan Smith who left to take the head coaching job at Oregon State this past offseason. Hamdan returns to the Huskies coaching staff after a one year stint as the Atlanta Falcon’s QB coach. Before his journey to the NFL, he was the WR coach and passing game coordinator for the Huskies back in 2015 and 2016. However, I don’t expect much to change with Hamdan in and Smith out. At the end of the day, this is Chris Petersen’s offense no matter whose technically calling the plays.
I was surprised when Bill Connelly published his preview of the Washington Huskies earlier this summer he was met by a torrent of negativity about Jake Browning.
UW fans' dislike of Jake Browning remains amazing. https://t.co/KHCnwYDJLJ— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) June 1, 2018
I had always assumed he was beloved by Husky fans considering he’s thrown for almost 10,000 yards in his career, has connected on 78 touchdowns passes and helped lead Washington to the College Football Playoff in 2016. But it turns out there is no quicker way to start an e-fight on Washington message boards than to make a declarative statement, positive or negative, on Jake Browning’s ability.
That divisiveness exists among NFL Draft scouts as well. There are some who see Browning as underrated heading into his senior campaign, while others get genuinely upset watching Browning play. I’ve seen him projected from as early as the 3rd round, to not hearing his name called at all in the NFL Draft next spring.
After watching some of his games from last fall, I think I get why these arguments happen...
At his best, Browning is the dynamic point guard of this offense. He’s perfectly dictating the pace of play, quickly distributing the ball to his playmaking weapons on the outside, deftly avoiding pressure to keep plays alive and dropping dimes over the heads of DBs for touchdowns. He made some real wow throws last season.
But at his worst, Browning is an unhooked anchor dragging behind this speedboat of a Washington offense. There are times where he looks lost about where to go with the football. Other times, his efforts to avoid the pass rush involve him spinning around like a maniac and losing even more yards. He can be wildly inaccurate and struggles to push the ball consistently down the field. He made some real awful throws last season.
Overall, I think Browning is an above average QB who is perfectly capable of leading his Husky squad to a PAC-12 title and a College Football Playoff berth. But there are glaring deficiencies in his game that talented wide outs John Ross and Dante Pettis have helped mask in recent seasons. With both gone, those could turn into bigger problems for Washington moving forward. But this kid is entering his 4th season as a starting quarterback in a Power 5 conference. Saturday will not be too big for him and it’s going to be up to this Auburn defense to bring the bad Browning out to play.
The star of this offense, however, is Myles Gaskin. Somehow, Chris Petersen always seems to find a back like this kid. Small but powerful with explosive ability to take it to the house, Gaskin might be Petersen’s best find yet of his coaching career. He already holds the career rushing touchdown record in Washington football history and will more than likely leave with the rushing yards record as well. This kid is special and will be the focal point of this offense in 2018.
But it’s not just Gaskin out of the backfield. The Huskies deployed a three man rotation in 2018 and return two of those pieces this season. Salvon Ahmed would be the starting tailback at a lot of different programs if he wasn’t a Husky. Like Gaskin, he’s a smaller back but perfectly capable of making plays between the tackles. He’s not as powerful as #9 but he’s probably faster. He’s got the scary ability to hit top speed in an instant, stop on a dime and then immediately accelerate once again. Expect Petersen to try and attack Auburn’s talented front 7 by getting these guys the ball outside the tackles.
The biggest challenge facing this offense in 2018 is finding a new playmaker at wide receiver. In 2016, John Ross caught 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Dante Pettis was even more explosive going for 822 yards and 15 touchdowns on only 53 receptions. Ross was a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft making Pettis the go-to man in 2017. Pettis saw his production dip last year but was still effective catching 63 passes for 761 yards and 7 touchdowns. He went in the 2nd round in last year’s NFL Draft. That’s a lot of talent to replace in 2018.
The good news for the Huskies is they have a lot of talent still on the roster. Aaron Fuller was Washington’s #2 receiver last season and I thought flashed some big time ability when given the chance. Like Ross and Pettis, he’s not the biggest wideout in the world but makes up for it with quickness, great hands and nice route running ability. I suspect he will be Browning’s new favorite target.
Aaron Fuller was #2 in receptions last year for the Huskies & will probably be the top guy this year. Very quick WR with nice hands. Tremendous catch pic.twitter.com/VS4g6xH7rb— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) August 21, 2018
But Washington also returns their #3 WR from 2016 in Chico McClatcher. He missed most of 2017 with an injury but was a dynamic weapon in 2016 with 31 receptions for 574 yards and 5 touchdowns. He also rushed for 131 yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown. He’s not listed as a starter currently but I suspect he will have a major role in the game plan Saturday. Both Ty Jones and Andre Baccellia are looking to increase their production in 2018. Jones was once a blue chip prospect and gives the Huskies some bigger size at wideout while Baccellia is another one of those small, quick wideouts Petersen is so effective at using. The Huskies need at least one of these three to step up and become a playmaker in 2017. My bet is on McClatcher.
However, it’s not just wide receivers involved in the Huskies’ passing game. As Son of Crow tried to explain to a disbelieving Auburn fanbase last week, there are these things called “tight ends”. They can be pretty useful weapons in the passing game and can help out as blockers as well. Petersen is what you might call a “tight end hoarder” and will not blink at using three at one time. I know, just madness right?
The Huskies top returning tight end, Hunter Bryant, will miss the first part of the season recovering from a knee injury. But Petersen still has some nice options from that group. Drew Sample and Jacob Kizer have both seen action before and there seems to be excitement among the Washington fanbase around Justiss Warren’s switch from linebacker to tight end full time. You will see a lot of these guys Saturday.
Finally, there’s the big uglies up front. The Huskies return four starters from last year’s squad and these ain’t little fellas either. Four of Washington’s starting five OL stand at least 6’5” tall and weigh over 305 lbs. Their starting tackles are both 6’8” 315+ lb monsters while their brand spanking new right guard is just a paltry 6’7” 315 lbs.
Poor Nick Harris... He must feel a bit out place when the Huskies huddle.
The big question for this group heading into Saturday is the health of their super star left tackle Trey Adams. He went down with an ACL injury in the Arizona State game last fall and for most of the summer it was speculated he would not be ready in time for their matchup with Auburn. However, he played every 1st team snap in Washington’s most recent scrimmage so I expect we see him start the game this weekend. What we won’t know is how close he is to 100%. If he’s close, that’s a huge boost to this Washington squad as he’s got top 10 talent. If not, that could cause problems for Browning as the game wears on. Either way, Adams vs Nick Coe is gonna be must watch tv.
Chris Petersen’s one time running back coach Jeff Choate was asked about Petersen’s system. His answer?
“We run plays, we don’t have an offense. It’s what we do.”
The truth is Petersen does have an offensive system, it just has less to do with a specific formations or personnel groupings and more about using the talent at his disposal to effectively move the football. In any given game, you will see almost every personnel grouping you can imagine along with almost every combination of formation to go along with it.
If Washington has a “base” formation or personnel grouping it’s probably this one with 12 personnel.
Now here they are with tight ends on either side, QB under center, one tailback deep and both WRs lined up inside the numbers.
Three tight ends bunched together? What is this dark magic?
Here’s three tight ends bunched again but with the back motioned out wide making this a 4x1 set.
Here’s your classic 2x2 set you see in most any spread offense.
This time no tight ends on the field and two backs in the backfield.
Finally, let’s bunch everyone up at the line of scrimmage why don’t we?
I think you get the gist...
In this one game, the Huskies did not line up with the same personnel and same formation on back to back plays until very late in the 2nd quarter. I feel confident in saying that Auburn will not see as wide an array of personnel and formation usage the rest of the season than they will in Saturday’s contest vs the Huskies.
But through all that window dressing you can see the core concepts. Petersen, like Gus Malzahn, wants to run the football first. Sure he’s put up some video game like numbers in the passing game before but a lot of that is predicated off his team’s ability to run the football. From what I could tell, the Huskies’ running game last season was built around four main concepts: Power, Counter, Split Zone and Power Sweep.
I should note, knowing Petersen he could have four different plays making up the core of his run game in 2018. It’s more about the personnel available than a specific scheme.
Petersen can and will run all of those concepts (and more) from any look with any personnel grouping. Here’s your classic Power run concept run out of three different looks.
The Huskies also love to use a lot of pre snap motion. They aren’t has hardcore about it as former LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada but you will see some of the same multiple formation shifts from the Huskies Saturday as you did in Baton Rouge last year.
So what’s the point of all these formations, personnel and motion? It’s pretty simple - confusion. Showing all these different looks while varying the pace of play, the Huskies are trying to either gain a numbers or leverage advantage on every snap. Meaning they are either hoping to catch the defense a man short on one side of the field or they are hoping to setup favorable angles that makes it easy for their blockers to free the ball carrier.
Through the air, Petersen’s offense will attack a defense in any way imaginable. They use screens, RPOs, intermediate passing concepts and the occasional deep ball. It’s all about stressing a defense horizontally to open up a strike vertically. A lot of times they will fake action one way, only to turn around and throw it the other.
They love to use the quick screen game as a way to get their quick athletes in space. Given the fact that there’s usually at least one tight end on the field at any given moment, they can often get really good perimeter blocking and setup some big plays.
Overall, this is a sophisticated offensive attack that will give Auburn’s defense plenty to think about. The good news for the Tigers is they have Deshaun Davis running the defense in 2018. Having a guy like that on the field has to give Kevin Steele some comfort that his group is going to be lined up correctly and won’t give up that huge busted play due to a misalignment. But it’s absolutely crucial this Auburn defense say disciplined and not over pursue. Because if they do, Washington will be waiting to punish them.
Tackling on the perimeter, pressuring Browning and staying disciplined are the keys for this defense to keep Washington out of the endzone. It should be a fun chess match Saturday between this stout Auburn defense and this creative Washington offense.