WINNER: Jacob 'Skinny' Eason
The football nerd in me really wanted to give the award to the offensive line, who HAVE to be the most consistently dominant position group in order for this Washington team maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses as much as possible. They will be tested more than any other unit because of Pete's play-action system, a new signal caller to learn and build chemistry with on protection communication, tough matchups against Jordon Scott at Oregon, Utah's entire defensive front, and an early 5 week stretch made up of three road games in four weeks including @ BYU, @ Arizona, and @ Stanford
But LET'S F'ING DOOG.
Jake Browning threw 43 TD's to 9 INT's as a Sophomore on the way to the College Football Playoff with True-Freshman Aaron Fuller as his #3 WR and an overrated OL. The next year, Browning threw 19 TD's with 5 INT's, until he capped off his illustrious career with 16 TD's to 10 INT's. It's impossible to try to evaluate the next step the offense must take towards simplifying and improving without continually circling back to awful 2015-16 OL/WR recruiting AND the QB's inability to anticipate with proper feet and eyes and his inability to earn ANY vertical respect from opposing defenses.
When safeties are playing up at 18 yards, 15 yards, and even 12 yards like Ohio State did, not only is the box more stacked against the run, but even the easy underneath, late read check-downs are minimized because there is a lack of spacing needed to open throwing windows or to open field for players to run after the catch with.
While questions remain as to how quickly can Eason consistently get the ball out of his hand, let's just look at what happens to the offense if that same Ohio State teams plays their safeties at 18-30+ yards simply because the game COULD be changed with one ball that COULD be thrown over their heads.
1) ILB's can't mug the line to delay free-rush or free-cover to try to jump an under route. Without tight safeties, there is too much space between the second and third levels for Washington's talented TE's to exploit.
2) OLB's must focus on rushing the passer because time defeats deep safety concepts. Time for the QB equals time for a WR to either find a soft spot in a zone or to get a fraction more of separation versus man. Chase Young and tOSU's OLB's peeled to cover RB's, TE's, and Fly Motion WR's in order to kill Browning's confidence WHILE forcing him to try to fit in a great throw rather than dump-off an easy one where the play-maker can maximize the yards gained. (Check-downs are like life jackets for QB's and Ohio State did a great job of zapping a QB's confidence by seeing how well he could swim to safety with a life jacket with no flotation device. Now that ILB's are dropping and OLB's are rushing, at the very least easy check-downs are back open for business and providing reassuring confidence for the QB.)
3) With defense playing more vanilla, uptempo can be employed and there is more spacing at each level for RB's to find lanes in the running game that aren't closed up by a safety with a head start based on alignment
Those are three simple yet concrete examples of how just the THREAT of Eason's explosive arm talent can positively impact multiple areas of the offense against a team of the highest caliber. I didn't even mention that he can elevate WR's around him who aren't the best at creating separation by combining the rare velocity with anticipation.
RUNNER-UP: Salvon Ahmed
WINNER: Levi Onwuzurike
Sorry, Keith. I'm biased towards my DL and big games are won up front. It's not a coincidence Oregon and Auburn had game winning TD runs on 3rd and mid-range after bad recruiting years at ILB and DL. I'm going to sound like a broken record but Levi's health is key after signing zero DL in 2017.
But since Levi is Levi, THE ONLY 4-STAR BADASS TEXAS RECRUIT PETE HAS SIGNED, he's just going to have to be that much more dominant when zero'ing up guys head up, and making plays going forward in both gaps at multiple alignments until demanding triple teams. As amazing as Levi was last year, he started the year banged up physically. If fans can't shut up every week about how you're the next great DL as a RS-SO who isn't even playing at 100% health, the sky's the limit.
If you watch him side by side with Greg in the Cal game, you can see Greg at that next level of decisiveness, having shorter strides with first two steps, lower pad level, and giving up minimal chest exposure, that Levi is going to have to consistently play at for the Huskies to maximize this team's potential.
With that being said, Levi has GAMEWRECKER POP when shedding blocks or shucking OL when their weight distribution gets out of position, that you just can't coach. It's also hard to coach his heavy, thumping ways in which he finishes sacks and tackles for loss with cat like feet disguised as size 18 shoes, boasting arms as buff as a Gorilla's but also as long as the wings of an eagle. His impact will also be measured by his percentage of snaps, on vs off numbers, and how many plays he makes for DL/OB playing next to him and LB's playing behind him.
The best part? HE'S ONLY A JUNIOR BECAUSE REDSHIRTING IS AWESOME. I'm always team get your money because my crappy career (and college life) was derailed by injuries, but man if Levi comes back with all the RS-FR coming up and serves as a Christian WIlkins like leader. Wilkins took a lot of heat for coming back for his SR year after being mocked in the late teens-early 20's of the first round, he won a Natty, won the Ronnie Lott Award for being outstanding off the field, and was drafted #13 overall.
RUNNER-UP: Keith Taylor
Comeback Player of the Year:
WINNER: Chico McClatcher
Everyone is going to say Trey here but I am going to give Trey that award last year for deciding to return early and stepping up in the Rose Bowl to block the best EDGE in the country, Chase Young. Seeing Chico tear his ACL AND break his ankle in 2017 was hard enough. I cannot even begin to describe the empathy I had for him when seeing him lose confidence AND go through adversity in his personal life so serious he stepped away from his brothers he loved so much and worked so hard to rehab back for, just to have Ruth make fun of him for doing so.
While ACL recoveries have been cut down tremendously, most players say it takes a full year of playing at game speed to have the same confidence and reaction time to explode the way you need to if you're a super-ball of muscle like Chico is. Confidence is everything in sports so to see him lose that was awful.
Without speculating, the second the news dropped that Chico would be stepping away, I was so proud of the fans and this program for sticking by a hometown hero INSTANTLY. We have all gone through tough times and every single one of us can relate and empathize with a young adult having a tough time in this weird transition period in life. But the out-pour of tweets with Chico holding kids at picture day, or tweets that said they were praying for him because he reps Federal Way so well, reminded us all that Husky Nation is all about: a community genuinely supporting hardworking kids, not as football players, but as real people who sacrifice for free to make us proud to be unified.
RUNNER-UP: Trey Adams
Special Teams Player of the Year
WINNER: MJ Tafisi/Eddie Ulofoshio
I feel like this is the easiest "prediction" of awards because I'm copping out by choosing two guys, BUT C'MON!?!? Did you see what these guys did in just 4 games last year? Football Outsider's.com rated our special teams 102nd out of 130 D1 teams. When BBK is by far the best player at a thin position, there is a trickle down effect. That's no disrespect to such a great player but where is he on the Clemson, Bama, or Ohio State depth chart? Your team becomes exponentially better is if a stud like BBK, who was #2nd in the NCAA in Tackles, was stuck behind so many talented guys that he was relegated to special teams. Instead he is your best guy by far, and your special teams are full of walk-ons with no prior game experience.
With the uptick of successful LB recruiting (IN SPITE of Bob Gregory's best efforts), UDUB is close to being the deep, complete package team that has All-Conference talent all over special teams because there is so much depth and competition even with freak walk-ons like Ulofoshio and Drew Fowler. Ulofoshio and Tafisi are guys who are seen as great players who just don't have the size and length to be the go-to future stars. Those criticisms are fine by me on special teams especially because they turn into qualities when you are as fast and as quick as these guys covering kicks and the ability to stay low to drop hips to get in front of guys when they are on return teams. This all sounds a lot like BBK and what better way for Eddie and MJ to turn a teams weakness into a strength by balling out of special teams to prove they are better than Kyler Manu before the rise of the 2019 class..
RUNNER-UP: Alex Cook
Coach of the Year:
Purely based off which position groups need to make the biggest improvement in order for this team to reach its ceiling.
1. Scott Huff - Offensive Line
2. Coach K aka the Best Front 7 Coach in America aka The Mad Genius aka Pete Kwiatkowski - Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers
3. Junior "The Culture Savior' Adams - Wide Receivers (TROY FRANKLIN & EMEKA EGBUKA)
Freshman least likely to Redshirt - Offense:
WINNER: Puka Nacua
The outcry to play young talent at WR has never been louder. In my opinion this is the best year to do it because you have balanced talent at every other skilled position like
Hunter who is basically a Travis Kelce like, high volume of targets TE
Cade who is only a RS-SO and more talented than current NFL TE's, Drew Sample and Will Dissly
Experienced RB's like Salvon-McgGrew-Kamari who all are great receivers out of the backfield
CHICO position guys like OG, healthy McClatcher being pushed by the hungry, up -n'- coming lion, Trey Lowe
A QB who had the most chemistry with the 2015-2016 WR recruits is gone
WR's/TE's who have been playing with the 3's and scout team since the Spring of 2018, have gotten to build a chemistry with Eason
That's a lot of touches getting spread around that doesn't even mention the run game. Why not integrate Nacua in on some RPO slants from the slot, or screens that don't require total comprehension of an advanced playbook? That way he can acquire valuable experience and UDUB can manufacture the chance of much needed explosive plays with low risk based off his elite ability to run with the ball.
Heck, every WR can run a 9- Route, why not have him in on a couple run plays to see if defenses gamble and play man with a safety cheating down to where we can check into a "Puka is catching it or it's incomplete by a mile" GO.
Nacua has been the most commonly brought up name to this question but my biggest concern has been if Terrell Bynum and Austin Osborne can't see the field, how is Puka going to jump over them AND whoever is in front of them holding them back.
Freshman least likely to Redshirt - Defense (not named Cam Williams):
WINNER: Asa Turner
This kid is a HORSE. While everyone freaked out to see him lose 12 pounds in just over 2 months until he was listed at 187lbs, I was jumping up and down with excitement. And not just because this should show fans how much better we are than Notre Dame.
But to take a look at Pete's development brilliance and continuing the progression focus through his #1 disciple, Jimmy Lake, let's compare the early stages of UDUB's plan with Asa versus similar Blue-Chip, Strong Safety targets of years passed.
Example 1: Isaiah Pola-Mao - #4 STRONG Safety recruit of 2017 - USC; gained 12 pounds as a wiry-thin True-Freshman to get up to 200 pounds, then had season-ending surgery. After surgery and rehab, not only did he gain back what he lost during severe surgery, not only did he get back to the 200 pound mark that was previously such a big deal for him, the kid worked so hard he weighed 208 pounds while being named a RS-FR starter. After just one game, he had season-ending surgery on that same shoulder.
Example 2: Talanoa Hufanga, USC, #1 Strong Safety recruit of 2018; while Pola-Mao made a 12 pound jump during his transition from recruit to true freshman, Hufanga made a 20 pound jump from 188lbs to 208lbs. He absolutely BALLED OUT, even with USC coaches putting too much responsibility on his young shoulders. After starting in most of the 8 games he played in, Hufanga broke his collarbone. With a late season injury that would almost certainly effect winter mass-gaining season, Hufanga entered Spring Ball at 215 pounds. After six spring practices it was announced Hufanga would have surgery on that same collarbone. After rehabbing again, he is listed at 220 to start his SOPH year.
In order to get someone as talented as Asa on the field as early as possible, the Huskies have took the opposite approach and making him a lighter, more traditional safety, with less than traditional length. That's deliberate. For a majority of his #2 snaps, he as played deep single over the top, late roll high, or motion adjuster responsible for running with and covering a WR in the rare instances Lake calls for man coverage. But for someone who is a rare, physical mismatch with unteachable, god-gifted tools like Asa is, rounding out all areas of their game, especially their weaknesses or future kryptonite, will truly unlock their value of versatility.
Taylor Rapp was 208 pounds before losing ten pounds and breaking his hand in the spring of his True-Freshman season. He played high free with an iconic diving PBU in the 2016 Apple Cup when Washington already had a centerfielder as good as Budda baker dominating. Rapp finished his Junior year at 211 while being the best TE/Seam, Run-Game Safety in College Football. Coincidence?
Most Pivotal X-Factor - Offense:
WINNER: Offensive Line Dominating in the Run Game and Giving Skinny Time for late developing Play-Action
Hunter Bryant's health and usage came in a close second, but when you have:
Trey and Nick who have started 3 years worth of games
Luke Wattenberg who has started one and a half years worth
Jaxson Kirkland, a talented 6'7" freak of a sophomore who started every game last year and ran over to help his ball-carrier up after every play
And 6'7" Jared Hilbers who started 11 out of 12 games last year while fighting off Henry Roberts and Henry Bainivalu...
THAT UNIT SHOULD BE THE BEST UNIT IN THE PAC-12 HANDS DOWN WHOM YOU CAN LEAN ON WHEN THERE ARE INJURIES, CROWD NOISE, QUARTERBACK TIMING ISSUES, OPPOSING OFFENSES SCORING FAST, AND SMALL WIDE RECEIVERS WHO CAN'T CREATE SEPARATION.
The fact that we have had so much success with so little talent in 2016, means this year should be the absolute peak of the Strausser recruits. In year six of Chris Petersen, with four straight years of having a 1,000+ yard rusher, there is no excuse for not having his best year as far as cohesiveness, chemistry, fewest sacks allowed, and Salvon running wild. The excuses that the boxes are stacked should be gone, Kizer is back with a physically matured Cade Otton, they have a plethora of DL, OLB's, and ILB's to practice against compared to previous years, and every single one of them have face either Jordon Scott, Justin Hollins, and Jalen Jelks at a loud Autzen Stadium or a heartbreaking loss on the biggest stage at the Rose Bowl against guys like Chase Young.
RUNNER-UP: Hunter Bryant's Health and Usage
Most Pivotal X-Factor Player - Defense:
WINNER: Joe 'Genetics' Tryon
OH BIG SEXY, SWEET MOTHER OF GOD! JOE TRYON HAS THE VOICE OF BARRY WHITE AND GENETICS THAT BUILT A 6'6" TALL 265 POUND MONSTER THAT SYMBOLIZES WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE TO BE THE PLAYER FIRST TO COME OFF THE BUS. With such an imposing stature, a couple years of not having any OLB's, and flashes of greatness last year, it is hard to remember that Tryon is only a RS-SOPH. If someone as impressive as Levi was last year still has room to become more consistently game-changing with two years of eligibility left, Joe Tryon can get better everywhere while also finding an elite, signature skill that serves as his fastball to set up everything else.
While everyone points to the lack of sacks, I look at the actual technical aspects he should improve. I can't wait to see him be much more stout in the run game but the biggest focus he should be having is maintaining hardworking feet THROUGH contact and block. It is natural to try to stop someone from pushing you back by anchoring but in order to be elite at moving guys backwards to make tackles at the LOS going forward, small steps with the ferocity to push a car is essential. It is a very hard thing to learn especially when you have big feet, and a huge frame like Big Joe. But his pad level was low at his size, he is only going to get stronger, his long arm lockout looks good, but the best part about speeding up his foot drive is that it will translate to rushing the passer better in all facets starting with a nasty bullrush that sets up all the clups-hips-swipes-arm overs-rips. It will also help his most unfamiliar area which is dropping into space to cover zone or flat pass-catchers.
At his floor, Joe Tryon will be the same consistently good run defender Benning was AND he will have more fluidity than Potoa'e as a pass rusher. That will be the starting point and the minimum this year. But in order to level up to where we can actually beat a team as talented as last year's Ohio State team and regain the swagger of the 2016 Death Row Defense, Joe is going to have to skip the high-floor Benning of last year and become the first or second guy opposing coaches have to design an entire game plan around. There was NO JUICE or GOON ATTITUDE that Husky fans recognize as a signature staple to the DEATH ROW DEFENSE. That trash-talking, in your face defensive swagger that has been missing since Azeem Victor's tragic leg injury, can EASILY be re-branded with Keith Taylor and the biggest, baddest man on the team, playing, leading, and carrying himself like the biggest, baddest man on the planet.
RUNNER UP: Ariel Ngata
Newcomer of the Year - Offense
WINNER: Trey Lowe
One young WR we don't have to worry about not getting reps is Trey Lowe, representing for Walter Bailey and all the Portland, Oregon DAWGS. Trey was the only class of 2018 recruit on offense to get snaps in multiple games including a couple in the Rose Bowl. Doubters could say that was because of Chico's injury and off the field adversity but it has been apparent from the moment Spring football started that the Chico role is going to be prioritized by the offense. So far, Chico and Trey have split a lot of reps but no matter what the rotation is, Trey has already done an amazing service by pushing Chico to be his absolute best, knowing that someone as good as Trey is here to take his job.
When you look at all the RB's who can catch passes and all the WR combinations that could possibly play, there doesn't seem to be that many touches going around, but with Salvon featured as the RB and Wildcat QB, Trey is going to do a lot of fly motion and attacking the seams. He is going to be the change of pace WR to Big Ol' Hunter Bryant up the seam instead of being a change of pace RB. I'm excited to see all the offensive versatility at all of the skilled positions, but we have definitely been missing this position more than most fans would believe.
RUNNER-UP: Dev Culp
Newcomer of the Year - Defense
WINNER: Tuli Letuligasenoa/Sam 'Taki' Taimani
"I'm in love, I'm in love and I don't care who knows it" - Buddy the Elf
These two are probably the only reason I feel confident about the D-LO's take over this year after the Huskies signed zero DL in 2017. Tuli and Taki were two of the biggest momentum shifting recruits of this era, that started the monopolization of rare, blue-chip west coast lineman on both sides of the ball. Tuli Letuligasenoa (Leh-TOO-Lee-HAH-Seh -No-AH), is the slightly longer armed & more technically polished version of the two similar skill-sets, while Taimani is the more powerful of the two who carries more punch.
Levi, Benning, and Josiah is a great start but none of them have the natural size or the experiencing of playing Nose, making these two RS-FR extremely valuable to Washington's success. The accepted word last year was that Tuli and Taki were right up there with Greg and Levi all year but Tuli came in overweight with a sore knee, and the extra weight put on Taimani put him a little out of shape for his first time being a full time DT.
With a whole year of practice under their belts and both getting some game action last year versus conference opponents, they should team with Levi to Solidify the NT position with Benning and Josiah next to them. They can then get to a point where Levi is getting bumped over the majority of the snaps to get Levi matched up one on one to make a play that is only enabled by these two consistently demanding doubles. You can't replace Greg with one person but you can with two former blue chip recruits.
RUNNER-UP: Cam Williams
Unsung Hero - Offense:
WINNER: Cade Otton
I think a lot of people talked about how good Cad was last year based off low expectations for a young player stepping in for two guys (Hunter injured and Will Dissly off to the NFL). I also think that he was mistakenly stereotyped into being a road-grading blocker because of his cowboy collar with rocking gloves are his taped up hands and fingers.
Where he impressed me was his skills as a WR and the area where he actually needs to improve the most is his blocking but not to the extent some fans are suggesting with their critiques of his playside missed blocks and penalties, the kid was a 240 pound RS-FR playing a year before he was ready because of poor roster management and he fought his ass off while playing in every game. TE's are isolated a lot in Pete's system and asked to do a lot and you can see with his body adapting that he is going to be ready to do everything he is asked. While Hunter deserves headlines for his Travis Kelce, high volume of targets, style of play, Cade Otton's blocking maturity and security blanket hands will be a huge piece to reestablishing the horizontal stretching of the field that we were missing last year with fly sweep, bubbles, TE flats.
RUNNER-UP: Kamari Pleasant
Unsung Hero - Defense:
WINNER: Zion Tupuola-Fetui
Zion has been one of my unsung heroes since I stayed up late to watch him score a defensive touchdown at 250 pounds.
One year after finding Joe 'Genentics' Tryon as a diamond in the rough, I thought there was no better way to establish a Hawaiian culture and no better way to get a hidden big win for Coach K, than getting ZTF committed when we did. He has an awesome story: a player from Pearl City as a half Black-half Polynesian kid who was very raw but super athletic. A lot of people didn't know who he was when he committed and even hated on him. All of the sudden, ZTF and I are laughing at all the haters when Coach K sent Zion out on multiple Rose Bowl snaps as a True-Freshman as we were desperate for a pass rush.
I still think he is a year away after suffering through some injuries and still having Bowman in the way and Myles Rice coming along. But at 6'3.5" tall and 266 pounds at this early stage of his career, with Laiatu Latu going gangster up underneath him, there is no way he shouldn't be pushing for a good portion of snaps equal to Bowman's. There is no way that I can watch Psalm Wooching and Connor O'Brien go to the College Football Playoff and not expect a group of Joe Tryon, Ariel Ngata, ZTF, and Myles Rice to have constant, swarming, Jojo Mathis's style of relentless pressure from the edges in ALL situations.
RUNNER-UP: Brandon McKinney