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Washington poised to regain national relevance

The natural feeling is that Jake Browning should be much better in his sophomore year, but that's no guarantee. Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

It's impossible to ignore the "maybe" that looms over Washington's football program as the Huskies eyeball spring practices that begin in a week. Oh, something resembling that "maybe" appeared previously -- under coaches Tyrone Willingham and Steve Sarkisian -- but this one is more tethered to logic than wishful thinking.

Washington has the proven coach, with Chris Petersen entering his third season. The Huskies have 15 position player starters returning from a team that won its final three games of 2015 to finish 7-6, including sophomore QB Jake Browning, 1,000-yard rusher Myles Gaskin and seven starters from the Pac-12's best defense. They have a forgiving schedule, with seven home games, though visits to top rivals Oregon and Washington State will provide the rugged and perhaps ultimate measure of that Maybe.

The biggest issue, the nagging doubt, is the offense. For much of last season, it wavered between anemic and mediocre. Before the aforementioned three-game winning streak that tied a nice bow around the season, the Huskies ranked 11th in the Pac-12 with just 25.7 points per game. Browning ranked eighth in the conference in passing efficiency with nine interceptions and just 12 touchdown passes.

Those last three games? The Huskies averaged 47 points in dominant wins against Oregon State, Washington State and Southern Miss. One shouldn't get carried away by that winning streak, as it needs to be noted the Cougars were without starting QB Luke Falk, but it did suggest something clicking into place, something that could be built upon heading into the 2016 season.

"You feel like we've got some momentum and there's progress being made, no question," offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. "We feel great about where the program is headed but that doesn't change how hard we have to work in the offseason."

The expectation is Browning is going to grow -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- after being thrust into service as a true freshman. Not unlike former California QB Jared Goff, who surprisingly won the Bears starting job as a true freshman, Browning arrived at Washington rail thin and reserved. While Browning is unlikely to develop the NFL-ready arm strength that Goff did, a year in the program will yield a QB who is sturdier in all aspects.

That should translate to better accuracy with downfield throws, improved pocket presence and a not insignificant ability to take command at practices and in the huddle, which is not easy to do when you're just a couple of months out of high school, as Browning was last spring.

"His comfort level is so much higher than it was a year ago in regards to everything -- knowing the offense, knowing how we practice, how we implement plays -- it's really that next step of having great fundamentals and taking some strides with leadership," Smith said. "As a true freshman, he didn't need to say a whole lot, but now he's more or less the guy."

The Huskies' biggest question on offense is receiver. They must replace their top-two pass-catchers from last season -- Jaydon Mickens and tight end Joshua Perkins -- but Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius combined for 56 receptions in 2015 and the healthy return of speedster John Ross should provide a dangerous downfield threat.

Smith said an area to watch this spring is the production of the slot receivers and tight ends, position groups that will be competing for focus in the passing game. Does a scatback sort like Chico McClatcher make the offense more dangerous in three and four receiver sets, or might doubling down with tight ends Darrell Daniels and Drew Sample stress a defense more?

"We feel like we've got some talent there," Smith said. "We've just got to find some polish."

Browning should find the passing game easier to manage because his offensive line should be vastly improved. Four starters are back and eight returning linemen saw significant action last season. Six of 10 spots on last year's two-deep were sophomores or younger, including four freshmen.

While that crew sometimes struggled to protect Browning -- see 34 sacks surrendered -- they did pave the way for true freshman Gaskin to rush for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging a stout 5.7 yards per carry.

With a defense that allowed just 18.8 points per game welcoming back all-conference talent on all three levels, the offense won't need to score 40 every Saturday.

Washington has finished a season ranked just once since 2001. This is a program, by the way, that ranks third in the Pac-12 in appearances in the final AP poll behind USC and UCLA.

With Pac-12 North Division leaders Stanford and Oregon laden with far more questions this spring, the Huskies figure to raise a few eyebrows in the preseason polls. That's the ultimate "maybe" in college football. Then the season starts and "maybe" yields to "is" or "isn't."