Myles Gaskin, Washington ready to take the next step in 2016

Washington sees Myles Gaskin's surge toward the end of 2015 as a microcosm of their own improvement as a football team.

From Week 8 onward, Gaskin graded out as Pro Football Focus' second-best running back in the nation, behind only Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. Yeah, that Christian McCaffrey, the guy who "had the best college season of any running back ever."

So Gaskin breathed in rarified air over the final month-plus of 2015 -- as a true freshman.

The Huskies certainly hope that this microcosm effect continues into 2016. Because as long as the program's improvement mirrors Gaskin's, good times certainly lie ahead.

"Our finish to last season shows that we aren't young anymore," Gaskin said. "As the year went on, we developed more camaraderie and grew as teammates, brothers. It was more than just football. We grew to trust each other on and off the field. Every good football team has to develop that, and it'll show up on the field."

Washington did, in fact, field the Pac-12's youngest offense in 2015. That much showed throughout the season's first 10 games, which were highlighted by solid defensive play -- the Huskies ended up leading the league on that side of the ball -- but spotty performances from the offense. Washington averaged only 23.1 points per game against FBS competition in that stretch, stumbling to a 4-6 record.

The Huskies more than doubled their scoring output over their final three games, all wins in which they averaged 47 points.

Gaskin said that the spark came immediately before this season-ending hot streak, when Washington blew an early 17-0 lead at Arizona State in an eventual 27-17 loss. It would be the final time the Huskies lost in 2015.

"The locker room was mad, angry -- and we were kind of taken aback," he said. "Everyone felt that one: young guys, old guys, even the guys redshirting back home watching on TV. That stuff can never happen. We came into the film room the next day and just took it all in, and said 'we can play a lot better than this.'"

The ensuing tear ended with a 44-31 bowl victory over Southern Mississippi. Gaskin saved his best game for last, rushing for 181 yards (7.0 per carry) and four touchdowns in that one. And with that, the stage was officially set for 2016, the year the Huskies plan to make an aggressive move on the Pac-12 North.

Gaskin will no longer be a freshman, and neither will quarterback Jake Browning, who survived a trial by fire in his first year on campus to emerge with a season of invaluable starting experience under his belt. Gaskin and Browning signed with Washington in the same recruiting class last year -- they also both enrolled early -- so the two have assumed leadership responsibility among the Huskies' maturing youth movement.

"Jake sent out a direct message on Twitter after signing day," Gaskin said. "He said, 'Hey, let's go to work. We have something big coming up.'"

Gaskin says that Browning backs up the talk with football study habits that are unparalleled in Washington's program.

"While a lot of people watch TV, play video games, and watch Netflix, Jake is watching film," Gaskin said. "He watches more film than anyone else I know. I look up to the way he plays the game of football and how he carries himself."

And that reflects the culture of inspiration that head coach Chris Petersen has strived to build within the program through his focus on 'OKGs' -- "Our Kinda Guys" -- on the recruiting trail. Gaskin, who at 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds is considered slightly undersized to be a premiere Pac-12 running back, fits that 'OKG' category with his grind-it-out, one-day-at-a-time attitude.

"I personally think I need to get faster," Gaskin said as he talked about the dream of a 4.4 40-yard dash time, his primary individual offseason goal. "And I trust that we're building the type of brotherhood to make everyone faster and stronger. When you're lifting weights, you see who people really are. We're all grunting, grinding and sweating. We're really creating that bond."

Beyond the progress his team is making on the physical front, Gaskin has an extra reason to be excited about 2016: Four of Washington's starting five offensive linemen return, so he's already in sync with his blockers, who improved steadily over the course of last year.

There's strong chemistry developing in Seattle, and Gaskin always circles back to that physical grind when discussing it.

"We're just really focused on being a better team, and that goes all the way down to the individual," he said. "If you see a guy lifting under the bench struggling, you get under there and say, 'we can do this. We can get this workout done. We're going to get better from it one day at a time.'"

Steady improvement: That's the formula that thrust a young Washington team into the postseason last year, and the same formula that Gaskin and his Huskies are using to take the next step in 2016.