Monday, February 28, 2011

No More Hurt Locker: The Kids Are All Right

It hasn't been that long.  Twenty years ago the Washington Huskies were National Champions.  Ten years ago they went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl.  They lost the Sun Bowl in 2002, fired Neuheisel over his various shenanigans and implausible denials, and endured six years of misery under Gilbertson and Willingham, to the untuneful howl of 18-53, looking more like whipped mongrels than proud malamutes until Steve Sarkisian arrived and began to instill some win-forever arrogance to a pack that had lost its way.

Last Season:

In year one of the Sarkisian regime, they finished 5-7, including wins over Cal and Washington State in their last two games.  Year two, they made it back to a bowl, awaking at least the echo of the echoes by winning the Holiday Bowl, 19-7 over Nebraska,  securing their first winning season since Cody Pickett left town, the bowl victory all the sweeter because it not only sent favorite son Jake Locker out on a winning note, it also avenged a week three 56-21 pounding at home versus those same Cornhuskers.  Locker famously went 4 for 20 in that first game, giving lie to his first round draft status and Heisman candidacy.  In the second he improved to 5-16 for 53 yards, chipping in another 83 on the ground, including a 25-yard touchdown run.

The Huskies used to own the Northwest.  They used to spit on 7-6.  They used to pounce and snarl their way to a major bowl game year after year.  Now, 7-6 feels like progress.  7-6 feels like hope.

Way--too-early 2011 forecast:

Oddly, it all hinges on the Oregon game.  The Ducks have to travel to Husky Stadium on November 5th.  It's likely to be wet and miserable, and by then the rookie starting qb will have eight games experience.  Washington has lost to their Northwest rivals for seven straight years, and sooner or later that domination will crack.  Polk and Callier are likely to run another 52 times as Sarkisian takes the air out of the ball. 

If they can pull off the upset at Montlake,  it spurs them to 8-5 and another notch toward respectability.   If Oregon manhandles them again, they'll slump to 5-7, finish out of a bowl, and the honeymoon will give way to a rocky period in the Sarkisian-Tyee Club marriage.

Sark is a thorough, knowledgeable and passionate football coach.  He's building the right way at UW, and continuity is the surest route back to respectability.  The Dawgs will never again dominate the way they did in the Don James years, but they'll regularly contend for bowls once he has the requisite four years to fill the roster with his own players.  Best bet here is a year of rockiness.  They'll be in most every game, but traveling to Lincoln with a first-year starter so early in the season is a bad recipe.

The consecutive wins over USC prove emphatically he's got his players to believe and buy in, so anything is possible.  No one should overlook them going forward.

Biggest off season headlines:

Coaching continuity at Oregon, Washington
Locker, Foster Prepare for NFL Combine
Danny Shelton Commits To Washington Huskies
Kasen Williams Named Parade Magazine Player Of The Year

Important Dates:

Spring Practice begins March 29th.  Spring game April 30th.  Season opener versus Eastern Washington on September 3rd.

All PAC-12 practice and spring game dates

Key Losses:

The Huskies lose 17 seniors, including their team leaders on both sides of the ball.  Quarterback Locker and linebacker Mason Foster are moving on to this week's NFL combine and  the Washington pro day.  Foster will be hardest to replace; the senior linebacker made a whopping 163 tackles last season, finishing his Washington career with 378 over four years, three as a starter.  Named the Husky Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a Rivals and Scout All-America.

Locker isn't as big a loss, which is odd to say about a four-year starter.  For all his physical tools, a strong arm, 4.5 speed, and 6-3 230, he was never a finished product or an accomplished quarterback; his highest passer rating was 129.75 as a junior.  He never completed more than 58% of his passes, threw 35 career interceptions, and was sacked 47 times over his last two seasons.  For much of his Husky career he was battered, under-achieving and disappointing, 0-3 lifetime versus the Ducks.  In truth,  with some patient tutoring Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier could reasonably expect similar production from redshirt sophomore Keith Price or redshirt freshman Nick Montana. 

Other key losses include senior linemen Ryan Tolar, a three-year starter, and Cody Habben, as well as safety Nate Williams, who finished third in the conference in tackles with 8.33 per game, a team captain, 2nd team all-conference.

Why the losses might not matter:

Washington got a huge boost this off-season when Polk elected to stay in school.  He rushed for 1415 yards and 9 tds last season, a 5.4-yd. average, and his ground-pounding, move-the-chains presence takes a huge load off the shoulders of whichever young quarterback wins the job.  Jesse Callier provided a good counterpunch as a true freshman, adding 433 yards at 5.6 yds. per carry.  In the Holiday Bowl, the Dawgs ran 52 times for 268 yards, previewing a Ground Chuck-style attack that would serve an inexperienced quarterback and a rebuilding defense very well.

The Huskies played 14 true freshman last season, and they return three of their top four targets at wide receiver, including Jermaine Kearse, who torched PAC-10 secondaries for 1005 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior.  Devin Aguilar will add to the new signal caller's comfort level, and Polk catches the ball reasonably well out of the backfield, chipping in 22 receptions for 180 yards last year, 25 the season before.

Impact Newcomers:

Redshirt freshman guard Colin Tanigawa, 6-3, 310.  DT Danny Shelton, an Auburn Washington product the Huskies won out over the Ducks.  Parade Magazine Player of the Year, WR Kasen Williams, a 6-2 200-lb. burner who caught 56 touchdowns in high school. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a 6-7, 250-lb. tight end.

Critical Spring Practice Questions:

Who impresses in the quarterback competition?  Sarkisian has indicated he favors naming a clear starter over a platoon, and he and Nussmeier will be looking for the one of the candidates to assert himself.  Last year Montana led a very Joe-like comeback in the spring game.  Price acquitted himself well last season, thrust into a starting role in the Oregon game when Locker was ruled out with broken ribs.  He tossed a touchdown pass and showed good poise and mobility, facing a hostile crowd in his first college start.

With only two starters returning, who fits in the mix-and-match of the offensive line?

Who replaces all those tackles made for the last three seasons by Foster and Williams?

An early look at the 2011 Schedule:

After opening with home games against FCS Champion Eastern Washington and Hawaii, the Huskies travel to Nebraska on September 17th, host Cal, then travel to Utah on October 1st.  The next week is a much-needed bye, then a home game versus Colorado.

The next four are critical and challenging:  at Stanford, home versus Arizona, home versus Oregon, at USC.  In 2010 the Huskies beat the Trojans for the second straight year, 32-31 in the Coliseum on October 2nd.

In all, seven home games, five on the road, including Nebraska, Utah, Stanford, USC and Oregon State.  They catch the Ducks, Arizona and Cal at home.

next:  USC.


  1. Seems like a fair and well thought out evaluation. Not sure how you can make the firm statement of 'they will never dominate the way they did during the Don James years.' If you are speaking of 91-93, I understand the comment. If you are speaking of the years around that, why not? Depends upon what you mean by dominate. Teams rise and fall (see UW, USC) and others will follow the pattern (cough, cough...UO.) UW has a long tradition, passion, Sark and staff are doing it the right way (not seeking the quick fix) the facilities are on the way to a tremendous (and much needed)update. I fully expect them back where they are regular contenders for the league title in the near future.

  2. To think that UW will never again dominate is as foolish as thinking that Oregon will never incur another losing season. Its all about cycles. These two schools will pass each other in the middle, eventually, heading in opposite directions. Its only a matter of time.

  3. An astute breakdown. Don't forget the lack of
    tight end production: 6 catches for the season.
    The returning starter kicked off the team last
    July, and his replacement quits before the bowl
    game. Huge hole in the offense that didn't help
    Locker, and would have hobbled any QB. UW had
    been a tight end pipeline to the NFL.

    As late as last years game @ Autzen the special
    teams were horrible; but from then on, their play
    and starting with the Oregon game (until they
    ran out of gas) the defensive improvement was

    Hard to beleive the Dawgs will be talented and
    deep enough to challenge Oregon and Stanford for
    the division crown next year, but if they can
    build on the late season improvement; they would
    be capable of beating anyone on any given Saturday.

  4. for the record mason foster was the weakside LB not MLB, and WR D.Goodwin is not coming back due to graduation. to the o-line they also have two other part time starters coming back(porter and kohler).

  5. Thank you folks for your comments; I appreciate the corrections and updates.

    Regarding domination, that statement wasn't to slight the team or the coaches; it's my belief that the landscape of college football has fundamentally changed since the days of Don James and John Robinson. Scholarship limits, recruiting services, ESPN, have all worked to create a parity and competitiveness that didn't exist in the downtrodden days of have and havenots. Washington will have their seasons of 11-1 and the Rose Bowl, and they will have their seasons of misery. So will Oregon, Cal and Stanford. But the era where one team will dominate a conference and a region for twenty years are gone forever.

    For one thing, too much success gets you in the watchful eyes of the NCAA.