Huskies mailbag: Emerging redshirt freshmen and the running back stable

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Jacob Eason and Co. answered more than a couple questions with their season-opening theatrics last week.

But, before No. 14 Washington hosts Cal in its Pac-12 opener at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, we’re here to answer a few more. So, without any unnecessary rambling, let’s get to another edition of The Times’ UW Huskies mailbag.

It looks like Chris Petersen and Co. intend to redshirt freshman inside linebacker Daniel Heimuli. The 6-foot, 217-pounder could use a season devoted to UW’s strength and conditioning program, and he didn’t dress for the team’s season-opening win over Eastern Washington.

At least, that’s the plan -- and it isn’t written in permanent marker. That’s because the Huskies remain precariously thin -- when it comes to proven production, at least -- at inside linebacker, with UW’s primary contributors being senior starters Brandon Wellington and Kyler Manu and redshirt freshmen M.J. Tafisi and Jackson Sirmon. Redshirt freshman Edefuan Ulofoshio and true freshman Alphonzo Tuputala could also earn occasional reps. It would seemingly require a couple significant injuries for Heimuli to find his way onto the field.

As for Tafisi, the 6-0, 235-pounder certainly impressed last weekend, finishing third on the team with five attention-grabbing tackles. Inside linebackers coached Bob Gregory rotated Wellington, Manu, Tafisi and Sirmon liberally throughout the opener, and I expect all four to play heavily in the weeks to come as well. Even if Tafisi isn’t listed as a starter, you can expect him to be a regular contributor both on defense and in special teams.

But he wasn’t the only inside linebacker who made a positive impression last week.

“I thought Kyler Manu played one of his best games since he’s been here,” said defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “B-Welly played strong. Those other young guys also had solid games. I think everybody noticed Tafisi and how violent he hits. We saw that all last season when he was redshirting. So you’re going to see him playing a lot. (There’s also) Jackson Sirmon, who is as smart as they come -- coach’s kid, tough and physical.

“So I think it’s an exciting group. We’ve got two older guys and a bunch of younger guys, and we’ve just got to continue to get better.”

It wouldn’t be quite correct to say that running back Richard Newton came out of “nowhere,” but I can understand the sentiment. After all, the 6-0, 210-pound redshirt freshman was a somewhat overlooked three-star recruit in 2018 and sat out the entirety of last season after having shoulder surgery. But early reviews in spring practice were positive, and we saw (and reported) Newton lining up in wild cat looks as early as last April.

So, am I surprised we saw that again last Saturday? No.

Am I surprised we saw it on fourth-and-2 in the opening drive of the season? Absolutely.

With that said, we can ball up our fists and post never-ending social media threads about how Newton should start, but it doesn’t really matter. Running backs coach Keith Bhonapha clearly has confidence in both junior Salvon Ahmed and Newton (as well as juniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant), and all those four will play. Ahmed and Newton bring different dynamics to the Husky backfield, and it would seemingly benefit both to share carries -- regardless of who runs out for the first offensive play.

This isn’t a surprise anyone wants to see, but USC’s season outlook was instantly altered when sophomore quarterback JT Daniels tore his ACL and meniscus in the team’s narrow season-opening win over Fresno State. Daniels’ sudden absence is even more of a concern when you consider that the Trojans just turned this offseason to new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s version of the air raid offense, which leans heavily on efficient and accurate quarterback play.

In Daniels’ stead, USC’s new starting quarterback is true freshman Kedon Slovis -- who was ranked by 247Sports as a low three-star recruit, the No. 39 pro-style passer in the country and the No. 1,295 overall recruit in the 2019 class. Because this is USC, Slovis will be surrounded by electric athletes. But can he effectively run Harrell’s offense? Head coach Clay Helton’s future with the program may depend on the answer.

OK, here are the true freshmen I’m immediately eliminating from contention, due to overexposure: wide receiver Puka Nacua, safety Cam Williams, outside linebacker Laiatu Latu, defensive back Asa Turner and cornerback Trent McDuffie.

Instead, let’s focus -- maybe for the first time -- on inside linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala. A 6-2, 224-pound freshman from Federal Way, Tuputala was one of the most lightly recruited prospects in UW’s 2019 class. He didn’t arrive on Montlake with the apparent momentum of four-star freshmen Josh Calvert or Daniel Heimuli.

And yet, he restructured his body, dropping roughly 25 pounds this offseason. Then he appeared in UW’s season-opening win over Eastern Washington. Same as Heimuli, it’s unlikely Tuputala plays in more than four games this season to preserve his redshirt. But what if an injury to a starter forces more freshmen into action? Tuputala is a physical hitter who seeks contact and should be an asset in run support.

And, who knows? Maybe he’ll show that sooner than anyone expects.

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