Defending Pac-12 champs edged out by rival Oregon as North Division favorite

Editor's note: The 10th in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.

Myles Bryant isn’t going to be rooting for Oregon to beat Auburn.

Washington’s standout defensive back can’t bring himself to do it, even if it would help change the national narrative about the Pac-12 lagging significantly behind the SEC and other Power 5 conferences.

That doesn’t mean Justin Herbert and the Ducks — who defeated the eventual Pac-12 champion Huskies in an overtime thriller last season and edged their rivals out by one point as the North Division favorite in the preseason media poll — haven’t earned some respect in Seattle.

“Herbert can spin it,” Bryant said at the Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. “And I think he's a guy who has deceptive speed. A lot of guys don’t know how fast he is. He's a tall guy, he has a long stride, so they can do a bunch of read options with him. He could roll out and throw it.

“He’s a guy who brings a lot to the offense, and he's a valuable piece for them.”

 

Herbert’s decision to return for his senior season is the main reason why Oregon is considered to be a real threat to take Washington’s crown.

The Huskies are in the process of auditioning replacements for four-year starter Jake Browning, who is the program’s career leader in passing yards and touchdowns.

Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is the people’s choice, but the former five-star recruit from Lake Stevens, Wash., wasn’t able to separate himself from redshirt sophomore Jake Haener during spring practice.

“I know there’s a lot of people ready to anoint certain guys at the quarterback position or at other positions,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “We’re really not. This is going to be a really nice, awesome competition to go in in fall camp. We’ll see how this thing shakes down.”

Browning, now in the Minnesota Vikings training camp, made 53 out of a possible 54 starts during his career with the Huskies, finishing with 12,296 passing yards and 94 touchdowns.

“It's a pretty heated competition right now,” center Nick Harris said of the succession plan. “It's truly really good for our offense and our success this year just to see these guys battling back and forth.

“They're bringing a different degree of competition, which will be good for the offense, whoever it is.”

Washington’s experienced offensive line is led by Harris and left tackle Trey Adams, who are both preseason all-Pac-12 selections.

The new quarterback will also benefit from the return of No. 1 wide receiver Aaron Fuller, who had 100 receptions for 1,349 yards last season. Cade Otton and Hunter Bryant might be the best tight end tandem in the conference.

The Huskies’ all-time leading rusher, Myles Gaskin, is out of eligibility after helping Browning lead the program to a 32-9 record and two Pac-12 titles over the last three seasons.

Gaskin had 259 carries for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, brining his career totals to 945 carries for 5,323 yards and 57 touchdowns.

Junior Salvon Ahmed and sophomore Sean McGrew are the top returners in the backfield.

“Myles Gaskin obviously is arguably one of the greatest Husky running backs,” Harris said. “This year it's going to be running back by committee because all these guys have had playing time, they have the experience, they're all talented.

“So it's going to be pretty good to see these guys get loose back there trying to take up where Myles left off.”

Washington must replace defensive tackle Greg Gaines, linebackers Ben Burr-Kirvin and Tevis Bartlett and defensive backs Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh.

Defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake has reloaded successfully in the past when great players have moved on to the NFL. Defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Benning Potoa’e, linebackers Ryan Bowman and Brandon Wellington and cornerbacks Bryant and Elijah Molden will lead the latest reboot.

“We have a lot of guys that have experience playing in the Pac-12 championship game and in the Rose Bowl,” Bryant said. “They didn’t get that official start, so it might seem like we are losing nine starters, but these guys played a bunch too and have that experience.”

The Huskies, who lost to Auburn in their 2018 opener, will start the season with home games against Eastern Washington, California and Hawaii.

The road to the Pac-12 championship still goes through Seattle.

South Division favorites Utah and USC and North Division rivals Oregon and Washington State all visit Husky Stadium.

“You can't put too much into it right now, you can't invest anything because it's all based off assumptions, it’s all based off potential,” Harris said of the Ducks being picked to win the division. “We’ve just got to block all that noise and take it a game at a time. Then we'll see at the end of the at the season.

“What really matters is the poll at the end of the season.”

WASHINGTON HUSKIES

Coach: Chris Petersen, sixth year (47-21 at Washington, 139-33 overall)

Key players: QB Jacob Eason, WR Aaron Fulller, C Nick Harris, LT Trey Adams, DT Levi Onwuzurike, CB Myles Bryant

2018 record: 10-4 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

2019 projection: The Huskies are picked to finish second in the North Division in the preseason Pac-12 media poll

Nonconference opponents: Eastern Washington, Hawaii, BYU

Plays Oregon: Oct. 19 in Seattle

Full schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Eastern Washington, Sept. 7 vs. California, Sept. 14 vs. Hawaii, Sept. 21 at BYU, Sept. 28 vs. USC, Oct. 5 at Stanford, Oct. 12 at Arizona, Oct. 19 vs. Oregon, Nov. 2 vs. Utah, Nov. 8 at Oregon State, Nov. 23 at Colorado, Nov. 29 vs. Washington State

Sunday’s preview: Oregon