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Washington Offensive Preview

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Jacob Eason did what!?

NCAA Football: Eastern Washington at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The California Golden Bears are going to have their hands full with a newly invigorated offense led by 5-star Georgia transfer QB Jacob Eason.

I figured that if Cal looked sharp last Saturday and Washington came out flat, Washington would be primed for an upset this week. Instead, the complete opposite happened, as Washington annihilated a very good Eastern Washington team— the team that beat UC Davis in the FCS playoffs last year.

Quarterback

After seeing how sharp Jacob Eason looked in his opening game, a lot of my preseason optimism for this matchup has evaporated. A quarterback being rated “5 stars” by recruiting agencies alone doesn’t mean all that much—it means they have a lot of potential, and plenty of players never live up to that potential. The key thing here though was that Jacob Eason has a much, much higher ceiling than Jake Browning did, and he looked to be reaching that potential last Saturday against Eastern Washington. He’s got a big arm, he can throw the ball accurately, and he remained calm under pressure. Considering the fact that it took Eason the entire fall camp to win the starting job, I didn’t see any of the usual drawbacks I might have expected to see with a quarterback who hasn’t taken enough reps with the first team—for example, he had some pretty good chemistry with his wide receivers already. There weren’t any miscommunications on routes, and he had really nice timing with his receivers on his throws, and that was something I anticipated it taking at least a few games to see.

It really can’t be stressed enough that Eason really is a big upgrade over Jake Browning. For all of Browning’s accolades, he was the limiting factor on that offense. Browning was panicky under pressure, leading to a lot of head-scratching decisions when he tried too hard to make something happen, but he also had some top notch wide receivers—John Ross and Dante Pettis immediately come to mind— to get so wide open that you didn’t exactly need to be a 5-star quarterback to make the throw. These (now NFL) wide receivers bailed Browning out of his questionable (jump-ball) throws or his rainbow throws that hung in the air for ages. Now Washington has a quarterback that can throw a laser, one who doesn’t need a 10-yard halo of space around his intended target, and one who is going to give opposing defensive backs much less of a chance at the ball.

First, let’s take a look at Eason’s arm. Here’s UW WR Andre Baccellia blowing past the Eastern Washington secondary, and here’s Eason hitting him in stride.

QB Jacob Eason deep to WR Andre Baccellia.
QB Jacob Eason deep to WR Andre Baccellia.

Do you know how many times WR John Ross blew 10 yards past the nearest DB, only for him to have to come back for a contested jump-ball that Browning underthrew? It was incredibly frustrating to watch. A lot of Browning’s long completions would have been touchdowns in 2016 if he had a stronger arm. Well, now Eason is that quarterback with a stronger arm.

Here’s Eason putting the ball where only his receiver, Aaron Fuller, has a chance at it:

QB Jacob Eason to WR Aaron Fuller in the corner of the endzone.
QB Jacob Eason to WR Aaron Fuller in the corner of the endzone.

Good luck contesting that one despite tight coverage. My biggest criticism of Eason coming out of the spring game was that multiple times he failed to detect pressure. First of all, it’s worth noting that Washington has one of the best offensive lines in the country, behind NFL prospects like LT Trey Adams, RT Jared Hilbers, and OC Nick Harris. (Quick note: Nick Harris was injured in the EWU game and is currently questionable for the game against Cal. He was replaced by redshirt freshman Matteo Mele, who had a few high snaps, but nothing the 6’6” Eason couldn’t handle). Thus, it’s fairly improbable for teams to generate a whole lot of pressure on Eason in the first place. But when there was pressure, Eason was able to escape the pocket and still make plays.

QB Jacob Eason senses pressure and escapes the pocket and hits an open TE Hunter Bryant.
QB Jacob Eason senses pressure and escapes the pocket and hits an open TE Hunter Bryant.

The bottom line is that Washington finally has a quarterback that’s going to allow their receivers to live up to their potential: they’re no longer setting up the quarterback for success, he’s setting them up for success.

Running back

Honestly, the running back game is relatively tame compared to what Washington was doing with its receivers last Saturday. They have a stable of talented RBs, but no real clear workhorse yet. The trio behind Myles Gaskin returns: the speedy Salvon Ahmed, the dynamic Sean McGrew, and the power-running Kamari Pleasant. However, they also debuted freshman RB Richard Newton in the EWU game, and UW has enough RBs that they can put them all over the field if they desire.

First, here’s Salvon Ahmed and his bread-and-butter run to the outside, where he simply beats the defense with his speed:

RB Salvon Ahmed with a TD run to the outside.
RB Salvon Ahmed with a TD run to the outside.

And now here’s Washington keeping the defense honest with a direct snap to RB Richard Newton and using the jet motion sweep by RB Salvon Ahmed to occupy the defense:

RB Richard Newton takes a wildcat snap for a TD.
RB Richard Newton takes a wildcat snap for a TD.

I do think the running game will take a slight step down without Myles Gaskin, but it’s still strong enough to keep defenses from worrying too much about the passing attack.

Receivers

This is the section I really wanted to write, even before last week’s game. Washington has some seriously impressive receivers. The first two worth mentioning (since we haven’t seen them enough due to injury) are WR Chico McClatcher and TE Hunter Bryant. Both have suffered knee injuries in the past, but they haven’t let that slow them down any. WR Chico McClatcher is a small, speedy receiver, and he’s frequently deployed on jet motions and end-arounds when Washington is looking for an explosive play. TE Hunter Bryant is unquestionably the best tight end in the Pac-12 this year, and light years ahead of a more talked about 6’7” Gumby character that plays for a particular junior university somewhere. Bryant provided an immediate boost to the receiving corps with his return late in the 2018 season. Here he is, for example, making a ridiculous catch in the Rose Bowl as Washington was mounting a comeback:

TE Hunter Bryant with a ridiculous one-handed catch in the Rose Bowl.
TE Hunter Bryant with a ridiculous one-handed catch in the Rose Bowl.

Did he seriously just palm that ball? Honestly, it wouldn’t be that difficult to fill a whole highlight reel of UW receivers just one-handing balls. Here’s one from WR Aaron Fuller:

Very nice one-handed catch by WR Aaron Fuller.
Very nice one-handed catch by WR Aaron Fuller.

There’s no way Aaron Fuller is going to top the above highlight-reel catch, right? Wrong:

Play of the game. Aaron Fuller doesn’t care about PI; he only needs one-hand.
Play of the game. Aaron Fuller doesn’t care about PI; he only needs one-hand.

Not that it matters, but it looks to me a bit like pass interference. Luckily there are no universally accepted standards or guidelines for what constitutes pass interference, so this sort of judgment call is best left in the hands of the always impartial and totally consistent Pac-12 referees.

Another receiver I like a lot is WR Ty Jones. Here he is sneaking past the vaunted Utah secondary, scoring the first receiving touchdown against Utah in 2018:

Ty Jones scores the first receiving TD against Utah.
Ty Jones scores the first receiving TD against Utah.

I really like Jones’ body control and his ability to make catches with minimal space. This was necessary with Browning, but I’m using this clip to demonstrate how much more dangerous Washington will be with a quarterback that can fit his throws into tight windows. The point being that if the quarterback can get the ball there, then these receivers are going to come up with it:

WR Ty Jones doesn’t need room to catch a pass. Look at this body control.
WR Ty Jones doesn’t need room to catch a pass. Look at this body control.

And of course, the obligatory-at-this-point one-handed catch:

WR Ty Jones with the one-handed catch.
WR Ty Jones with the one-handed catch.

I also feel like Andre Baccellia has become a bit of an X-Factor for Washington these days, as he’s really made a lot of improvement over the past two years. He’s not particularly big (listed at 5’10”, 173 lbs), but he is probably the fastest wide receiver on the team, which definitely helps in getting open deep (refer to the earlier clip with Eason to Baccellia). With Eason’s big arm, I could see Baccellia’s speed being a factor as a deep threat.

Special Teams

If there’s one area that Washington is not completely dominant in, it’s likely in the kicking game. K Peyton Henry hasn’t proven to be a reliable kicker past 30 yards (his longest is 41, and he’s only 7/12 from 30+ yards), but this has the effect of Washington being more aggressive on 4th down. In the punting game, P Joel Whitford and the punt team managed to pin Eastern Washington inside the 1, which resulted in a safety a play later by LB Laiatu Latu late in the game. They also have a number of playmakers (RB Sean McGrew, Aaron Fuller, Chico McClatcher) that they use to return punts/kicks, so good kick coverage is very important against Washington as well.

Conclusion

Washington’s offense took a big step up with Jacob Eason at quarterback, and it did not take him long at all to get acclimated to his new team. He faces his biggest challenge yet in the Cal secondary, but unfortunately Washington does have playmakers at wide receiver that can make plays despite tight pass coverage, so this will likely be the Cal secondary’s biggest challenge as well (until they face Justin Herbert again at Autzen). Washington has a stellar offensive line, which means it will take some very creative defensive play calls if Cal hopes to disrupt Eason in the passing game. Cal has split the series with Washington 2-2 in the past 4 years, with Cal’s last win in Seattle coming in 2015 behind Jared Goff’s stellar Goffense. Washington’s defense still looks like a Washington defense, so it’s going to take some big plays by the Cal defense if Cal is going to pull the upset.