Saturday marks Senior Day at Husky Stadium, when the home crowd bids farewell to upperclassmen who transformed No. 18-ranked Washington from an also-ran in the Pac-12 Conference into a program with realistic championship aspirations.
And while the audience says goodbye to some familiar faces when the Huskies (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) host Oregon State, it will also welcome back another person responsible for the program’s turnaround.
This week is the homecoming for Jonathan Smith, the first-year Beavers head coach who served as offensive coordinator at Washington the previous four seasons.
Smith ran an offense that improved its points-per-game production each of his first three seasons. Beginning in his second season, 2015, Smith rolled with a lineup that bears a similarity to his first Oregon State bunch, reliant heavily on youngsters.
“We’ve got a bunch of individual examples of guys who played their first year of (college) football,” Smith said. “At the beginning, they were pretty young, and new at it. They’ve really improved in their techniques, and understanding the game.”
The Beavers (2-8, 1-6) have endured struggles in Smith’s first season. His time at Washington reveals the potential payoff once his vision’s implemented.
Two of the young Huskies who thrived in Smith’s offense are quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Starters as true freshman, both play their final game at Husky Stadium in the hunt to finish in the top three of various Pac-12 career records.
Gaskin is ranked fifth in rushing yards with 4,826. He should leave Washington after the next three games — possibly four, if the Huskies reach the Pac-12 Championship Game — the conference’s third leading rusher in history.
Browning sits sixth in passing yardage (11,347) and passing touchdowns (91). A top four finish in either category is within reach.
For the veteran duo to reach this point — and Washington to be in the hunt for a second Pac-12 North title in three seasons — was a process not without growing pains. Browning said this past offseason that Smith was instrumental in navigating the quarterback through his maturation.
“There were times he’d make a play call, but he’d give me that credit,” Browning said. “That’s kind of unique in a business where, if he takes that credit, maybe not as many people are calling for him to get fired my freshman year.”
Despite the record, Oregon State showed glimmers of promise in Smith’s first season. Much of it, the coach said, is behind-the-scenes.
“There’s been a lot (of progress), and a lot of it is on the day to day, not just in the games on Saturday,” he said. “We’ve grown in regard to how we practice, the detail it takes.”
On game days, the most apparent example of Oregon State’s progress, and hope for the future, comes from freshman running back Jermar Jefferson. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Jefferson led the Pac-12 in rushing yards for much of the first two months. He has accrued 1,201 yards heading into the final two games — just 101 fewer than Gaskin gained in 13 games as a freshman operating in Smith’s offense.
Gaskin rushed for more than 1,300 yards in each of his three seasons with Smith. Because of an injury that sidelined him for two games last month, Gaskin will need to average 177 yards in the next three games to reach that milestone for a fourth straight season.
His season high is 148 yards, which he gained in the Nov. 3 win over Stanford.
Although another 1,300-plus-yard campaign appears unlikely, Gaskin nears the end of his Washington career leaving an indelible mark on the program, along with his fellow seniors.
“Those guys have been spectacular. They’ve been here a long time, and been through a lot of things, and they’ve done a great job with everything they’ve been about,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “Extremely proud of those guys. They’ve been a blast to coach. They’re the kind of guys who make coaching really enjoyable.”