Huskies reloading for another playoff push

Washington made a surprising run to the College Football Playoff last season and thanks to Chris Petersen’s efforts on the recruiting trail, the Huskies could be in line for a return trip in 2017.

While much was made of Washington’s schedule in 2016 -- it might be even easier in 2017 with USC not on it, allowing another run to the playoff – and the Huskies could actually be more talented this fall despite losing big-time stars in wide receiver John Ross, defensive backs Budda Baker and Sidney Jones and defensive tackle Elijah Qualls early to the NFL draft.

Petersen and his staff have taken Washington recruiting to a level where they are challenging for the Pac-12’s top class this year -- the Huskies sit at No. 4 right now, but just nine spots behind USC, nationally. While Washington coaches were able to build the top Pac-12 program without a significant number of ESPN 300 prospects, they’ll have an opportunity this fall to prove what they can do with a more talented roster.

The Huskies have six ESPN 300 prospects committed in the 2017 class, which would double the number of ESPN 300 prospects on the roster now, as just six remain from the 2013-16 classes. While recruiting will always be an inexact science, the math for the Huskies appears fairly simple. Washington signed three four-star prospects in the 2014 class and four in the 2015 class. But in the 2016 and ’17 classes combined, 15 four-star prospects will join the roster -- with time to add more before signing day.

Washington has made stars of three-star running back Myles Gaskin, three-star wide receiver Dante Pettis, three-star defensive tackle Greg Gaines, four star offensive tackle Trey Adams and four-star safety Taylor Rapp. So successful have Huskies coaches been in developing players such as cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria -- all three-star prospects -- Washington hasn’t been forced to stick its recent ESPN 300 prospects on the field early, though the Huskies also haven’t shied away from playing true freshmen.

In the 2015 class, quarterback Jake Browning and cornerback Austin Joyner were the lone ESPN 300 prospects. Both played in their first career games for the Huskies. Browning has become one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12, while Joyner’s freshman season was cut short due to injury, but should be a heavy contributor this season.

In the 2016 class, Washington’s depth this past fall allowed the Huskies to redshirt all three of its ESPN 300 signees. Now, defensive backs Byron Murphy and Isaiah Gilchrist and linebacker Camilo Eifler should be in line for playing time this fall or to at least push upper classmen in front of them on the depth chart.

It isn’t usually a successful strategy to rely heavily on true freshmen, and there could be concerns about replacing veteran starters with inexperienced players, but this 2017 class might be able to provide that youthful spark that provides the right mix with the veteran depth Washington was able to build in those 2014 and 2015 classes. When a program is humming, one of the first signs is usually the fact that there isn’t a clear need for true freshmen to step into immediate playing time, but the program is recruiting so well that it makes it impossible to keep some off the field. That could be the case with Washington this fall, as ESPN 300 prospect Salvon Ahmed and ESPN 300 cornerback Elijah Molden could push for time in a defensive secondary that has become synonymous with the conference’s best. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could join a front seven that refuses to take a step back no matter the losses to graduation or the NFL.

And as always with the Huskies under Petersen, there will be at least a couple prospects down the recruiting class that make early splashes or become staples in another strong run in the future. In this class, wide receiver Ty Jones, cornerback Keith Taylor and linebacker Ariel Ngata are all prospects likely to make impacts for the Huskies at some point in their careers.