Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 16 Washington

Yahoo Sports
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M

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No. 16 Washington

2018 record: 10-4 (7-2)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 2 defense

Reintroducing Jacob Eason

For four years, Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin led the way for Washington at quarterback and running back. When their time came to an end, Browning was first in program history in passing yards while Gaskin topped the Huskies’ all-time rushing ranks.

Usually when a program is forced to replace two of its best players ever, it’s a pretty big cause for concern. For UW, it doesn’t feel like that will be the case. They have well-regarded replacements at the ready.

At running back, Salvon Ahmed is the surefire starter after having a significant role in the offense in 2017 and 2018. Ahmed has 996 yards and seven touchdowns on 165 career carries, an average of 6.0 yards per rush. With 34 career receptions, he’s steady as a receiver, too.

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Replacing Browning at quarterback is not as set in stone. Chris Petersen will continue a competition between Jacob Eason and Jake Haener into fall camp. Eason, a high-profile transfer from Georgia, is considered the favorite over Haener, Browning’s backup in 2018.

Eason was a five-star recruit in 2016 and won UGA’s starting job as a freshman. But he hurt his knee Week 1 of the 2017 season, opening the door for Jake Fromm in Athens. That prompted a move for Eason back to his home state.

If he does win the job, Eason will have plenty of weapons to play with. On top of Ahmed, UW has a deep group of receivers, led by Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, Ty Jones and talented (but oft-injured) tight end Hunter Bryant. Four starters return on the offensive line, too, including left tackle Trey Adams, an NFL prospect who has missed significant time with knee and back injuries.

Salvon Ahmed will take over lead running back duties for Washington after the graduation of Myles Gaskin. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Salvon Ahmed will take over lead running back duties for Washington after the graduation of Myles Gaskin. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Replacing 5 NFL draft picks on defense

The Huskies had five starters from last year’s defense selected in the NFL draft, but it’s hard to envision a significant drop-off. If recent history tells us anything, Petersen and his staff are recruiting and developing defensive players at a high level, enough to sustain on-field results in lieu of obvious rebuilding seasons.

So there will be plenty of new faces, but the defensive line returns Levi Onwuzurike and Benning Potoa’e, two players with starting experience, with a slew of four-star recruits ready to step in alongside them. The secondary still has Myles Bryant, a returning starter, and juniors Elijah Molden, Keith Taylor and Brandon McKinney have all seen significant action the last two seasons.

Linebacker appears to be the biggest question mark, with Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven now playing for the Seahawks. Brandon Wellington, a senior who started late last year, looks to be the guy in the middle. The rest will play out in preseason practice.

The defense will still be strong, but not the best version of Washington we’ve seen in recent years.

A very favorable schedule

Even with the need to replace so much talent on defense, the Huskies have a schedule sets up nicely for another return to the Pac-12 title game — a game they have won two of the last three years.

The Huskies will face divisional foes Oregon and Washington State at home and also draw home games against Utah and USC, arguably the South’s top two teams. The team’s toughest road game is a trip to Stanford on Oct. 5. Other than that, UW should be a significant favorite in its three other conference road games: Arizona, Oregon State and Colorado.

The non-conference slate is easier, too. There’s no season-opening trip to Atlanta to play Auburn like last fall. Instead, the Huskies have FCS Eastern Washington, Hawaii and a trip to Provo to play BYU on Sept. 21.

The difficulty of the Pac-12 North is underrated nationally, but that schedule is nothing compared to the road losses that knocked the Huskies from the College Football Playoff picture by mid-October last season. That’s especially true when you remember Washington hasn’t lost at Husky Stadium since Nov. 12, 2016.

Washington head coach Chris Petersen has a 47-21 record in five seasons. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Washington head coach Chris Petersen has a 47-21 record in five seasons. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Biggest game: Oregon (Oct. 19)

We project Oregon as Washington’s top competition in the Pac-12 North. The Ducks return a whopping 17 starters, including Justin Herbert, a 6-foot-6 quarterback who could have gone No. 1 in the NFL draft had he left school. The Ducks knocked off Washington in Eugene last fall. Washington will get the chance to return the favor coming off back-to-back road games against Stanford and Arizona. A win over the Ducks would launch the Huskies into the home stretch of the season.

Impact player

RB Salvon Ahmed

Myles Gaskin was an absolute workhorse at running back for Washington, rushing for more than 1,200 yards in all four of his seasons. Ahmed was plenty productive the past two seasons in a backup role. He is now poised to take on a bigger workload in 2019. Like Gaskin, Ahmed has the ability to run between the tackles coupled with the speed to take it to the house. He is also a skilled receiver out of the backfield.

Biggest question mark

From Lars Hanson of DawgReport.com: The biggest concern for Washington on offense starts at quarterback. Up front UW returns one of the more experienced offensive line units in the Pac-12, an important note. Everything runs through the QB position at both the college and professional level and the Huskies have to replace a four-year starter in Jake Browning.

Chris Petersen and Bush Hamdan enter fall camp with a two-headed QB race, former five-star recruit and Georgia transfer Jacob Eason verses redshirt sophomore Jake Haener. Whichever of the two is able to grasp the playbook quicker and execute in practice will win the job. If it’s Eason, the expectations will be at minimum a Pac-12 Championship.

Dawg Report’s breakout player

TE Hunter Bryant

One player that could break out if the Huskies offense performs to expectations is junior tight end Hunter Bryant. The touted former four-star recruit missed the first half of the 2018 season due to injury and never got fully integrated. If UW can get its offense clicking in September it will likely be due to Bryant playing a pivotal role.

Without an effective Bryant opening up the downfield passing game that means either UW has developed the receiver position better, or the run game took more control of the offense.

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Injuries have limited talented tight end Hunter Bryant to just 14 games over the past two seasons. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Injuries have limited talented tight end Hunter Bryant to just 14 games over the past two seasons. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

OT Trey Adams

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: In a few months, this could look quite dated. The 6-7, 308-pound Adams has all the upside in the world, but injuries have derailed his path and kept him in school — he likely would have been in the NFL already with a clean bill of health. But 16 missed games over two seasons because of a torn ACL and a bulging disk have made his projection a bit more murky.

One more season of healthy dominance for the redshirt senior could go a long way toward easing the minds of the NFL folks that he can enter the league with promise. If so, we could see Adams being one of the top tackles available, even with what possibly could be a fantastic 2020 class at the position.

But don’t forget about QB Jacob Eason, who remains a relative unknown after transferring in from Georgia. Last time we saw Eason in action was back on Oct. 7, 2017 in a clean-up performance for the Bulldogs. In 2016, he flashed good potential as a starter and is a former five-star prospect with the size, arm and talent to ascend quickly throwing to Aaron Fuller and Hunter Bryant and being protected by a good line anchored by Adams.

If Eason plays at a high level this season, he easily could be in the Day 1 or 2 draft discussion.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Ty Jones

Jones was Washington’s third-leading receiver a year ago with 31 catches for 491 yards. But he led the team in touchdowns (six) and yards per reception (15.8). Aaron Fuller is probably the No. 1 option among the receiver group and Andre Baccellia saw many of his targets on short and intermediate routes. The 6-foot-4 Jones, however, has the potential relied upon in the red zone and is worth a late round pick in your fantasy draft.

Over/under projection

Over 9.5

A new quarterback and so many new starters on defense make me hesitant to take the over here, but the Huskies are so routinely dominant at home that it’s hard to find three losses on the schedule.

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