The NCAA’s new redshirt rule opens the door for more freshmen to play this season, but who will capitalize for UW? Beat writer Adam Jude answers that and much more in his latest mailbag.
A week from today, the Huskies will be in Atlanta, checking out Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time and putting the final touches on their preparations for their season opener the next day against No. 9 Auburn (12:30 p.m. PT Sept. 1, ABC).
Larry Stone and I will be in Atlanta, too, preparing to cover what is probably the biggest season opener the Huskies have ever had. Perhaps on Friday we’ll check out the College Football Hall of Fame, located next to the stadium in downtown Atlanta, and perhaps I’ll challenge Stoney to a race in the 40-yard dash on the hall of fame’s mini field. Pretty sure I could beat Vita Vea’s 5.10 time in the 40. (Or not.)
I would certainly expect the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened last year with a capacity of 71,000, to be largely filled with Auburn fans — Auburn, Ala., is of course just a little more than 100 miles from Atlanta.
There should be a strong contingent of Husky fans in attendance, though: UW reports it has sold about 6,000 tickets for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (of its 7,500 allotment). For comparison, UW sold out its allotment of 13,000 tickets in 2016 for the program’s first College Football Playoff berth against Alabama in Atlanta.
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OK, on to this week’s #HeyJude mailbag …
All three of the freshmen receivers — Austin Osborne, Marquis Spiker and Trey Lowe — did some good things during the first 10 days of fall camp, and I would expect all three to play at some point this year. I would be surprised if any of them have any real impact next week, particularly against a top-10 team in their first collegiate game, but the NCAA’s new redshirt rule has dramatically changed the way coaches think about using freshmen. They have four games to work with, to see what the young players can do it game situations, to build confidence, and no doubt coaches will try to do all that with as many of the freshmen as they can, even if it’s only in mop-up duty late in blowouts. Among the young receivers, Osborne seemed most prepared to help early on this season — he was the only one of the three to graduate high school early and participate in spring ball, and he should be ahead of the curve. A reasonably expectation for him and Spiker, California’s all-time record-holder in touchdown receptions, looks something like Ty Jones’ first-year statistics from 2017: 11 games played, 7 catches, 71 yards.
I wouldn’t say “trouble,” but I would put the defensive line — specifically the D-line depth — as one of four lingering questions about this roster (the others being the unproven wide receivers, the pass rush and the kicking game). There’s strong senior leadership with Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman, and D-line coach Ikaika Malloe said those veterans have worked hard to try get the young linemen up to speed. “Those guys know that for us to be elite the bottom end has to be just as good as the top end,” Malloe told me last weeek. “So I give them a lot of credit for that.” Levi Onwuzurike, a third-year sophomore, is one of the biggest wild cards for the team. We’ve seen glimpses of his potential, but his production has been inconsistent. Getting versatile junior Jared Pulu back from an unknown injury (no timetable for that) would help the depth. And it will be interesting to see how soon — and how much — the Huskies rely on freshmen Tuli Letuligasenoa (338 pounds) Sam Taimani (320).
I have little doubt Trey will play. Even if he’s just 90 percent healthy (my rough estimate), he is the Huskies’ best option at left tackle and he’s determined to play. As teammates have said, it’s just a different feeling out there with everybody’s 6-foot-8 best friend. No way Trey would miss this opener.
Joyner, the former Marysville-Pilchuck High standout, is lined up to be the versatile sixth man, of sorts, for the secondary (sophomore Elijah Molden will be used in a similar way). Joyner missed most of spring ball with a minor leg injury, and missed some time earlier this month too, so staying healthy will be key, obviously. Joyner was solid as the starting cornerback in Jordan Miller’s absence in the second half of the 2017 season, but he has spent much of his time this month practicing at safety with the No. 2 defense. Jimmy Lake’s secondary is simply loaded at cornerback and Joyner’s services are most needed at safety right now.