Chris Petersen likes that his team is getting recognition this off-season, but is also confused by it.
The Washington head coach has satirically congratulated his team on good weeks this summer, ones when they didn’t play any football but moved up in power rankings or watch lists. He reached for the low-hanging fruit and compared the Huskies to “Pokemon Go” — a new thing “nobody knows about but thinks is cool.”
But he does know why his team is attractive. Washington had the Pac-12’s best defense last year and returns two sophomore playmakers in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.
The question now is whether the Huskies’ offensive line can give Browning, Gaskin and the rest of the skill players time and space to work.
“Everyone wants to talk about Jake Browning, everyone wants to talk about Myles Gaskin, everyone wants to talk about [wide receiver] John Ross on offense,” Petersen said at Pac-12 media days in Hollywood on Friday. “I think we need to talk about the unsung heroes who need to be unsung heroes.
“And if those guys elevate their game, if our O-line elevates its game, if our tight ends elevate their game, if our wide receivers start making spectacular plays, I think everything’s going to change on our offense.”
Washington finished 7-6 last season with a win over Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and the 34 sacks yielded by its offensive line didn’t help its cause. Browning threw for 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 2,955 yards despite the shoddy protection. Gaskin ran for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns, and gained an impressive 5.7 yards per carry.
The offensive line is one year older and conceivably healthier, and has a chance to help Browning, Gaskin and the whole Washington offense take a big step forward.
“That group will probably be the most improved on the field next year. And they are definitely working hard; as we speak they’re definitely working hard right now,” said tight end Darrell Daniels, looking at his watch. “Those guys are a great group of guys and they’re definitely gelling and becoming one unit.”
It’s already shaping up to be a great year for college running backs, with LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and others. Gaskin flashed the potential to join the elite running back conversation in the future, but will need help from his teammates to hit the next level.
McCaffrey spoke to the biggest crowd of the two-day event on Friday, which could be expected for a player who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last year. But when UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown was asked why McCaffrey was so effective, he didn’t start with McCaffrey’s shiftiness or vision or any personal attribute.
“He has a great offensive line,” Brown said, before calling McCaffrey a baller.
That doesn’t mean Gaskin, or any Washington playmaker, is on McCaffrey’s level. It just means they will need an improved offensive line to even think about catching up.