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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 46: Washington

A short, to-the-point history of Washington football: good, great, good, bad, good, bad, great – Don James – good, bad, awful, good. Awful: Keith Gilbertson and Ty Willingham. The final good: Steve Sarkisian. That Washington’s current coach has lifted the Huskies back into relevance so shortly after hitting absolute rock-bottom under his predecessor bodes very well for the program’s future under his watch. Yet I wonder: Does Sarkisian have what it takes to lead U.W. back to the top of the Pac-12? That’s a question for 2012 and beyond, not 2011, as while Washington continues to improve with each season it’s clear that these Huskies aren’t quite built for Rose Bowl contention. But didn’t many say that it would take Sarkisian years to rebuild the roster after his predecessor’s nosedive? Well, it didn’t take long for Sarkisian and the Huskies to knock off the vaunted Trojans, to win five games in conference play and to win, not just reach bowl play, so perhaps we would be wise to not question Washington’s direction under its third-year coach.

Conference
Pac-12, North

Location
Seattle

Nickname
Huskies

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 54

2010 record
(7-6, 5-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 47

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    E. Washington
  • Sept. 10
    Hawaii
  • Sept. 17
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 24
    California
  • Oct. 1
    at Utah
  • Oct. 15
    Colorado
  • Oct. 22
    at Stanford
  • Oct. 29
    Arizona
  • Nov. 5
    Oregon
  • Nov. 12
    at U.S.C.
  • Nov. 19
    at Oregon St.
  • Nov. 26
    Washington St.

Last year’s prediction

Even a year after his ascension to the job, Sarkisian is not playing with a full deck. He will be, and soon. In 2010, look for continued improvement defined by the occasional stumble, as developing teams are wont to do. There’s plenty to like: Locker is one of the top quarterbacks in the country; the Huskies have surrounded him with a handful of solid offensive skill players; and the secondary is primed to make a significant impact. Yet I can’t ignore some of the concerns: unless we see sizable improvement during the fall, both sides of the line will be this team’s Achilles heel. Other Pac-10 teams have fewer issues, thus my belief that of the conference’s second grouping, Washington is the least likely to challenge for a Rose Bowl berth. I’m predicting seven wins: lest we forget, U.W. went 0-12 in 2008. The program is headed in a wonderful direction: up.

2010 recap

In a nutshell On paper, it was a struggle: 1-2 entering October, 3-5 entering November, the Huskies needed a three-game winning streak to end the regular season to reach bowl eligibility. On paper, it wasn’t quite the successful season some had envisioned in Steve Sarkisian’s second season. Take a step back, however, and view the big picture. Sarkisian inherited the worst situation imaginable, an 0-12 mess laid on his doorstep by his predecessor, Ty Willingham. He needed to not only rebuild a talent-less roster, by and large, but also reverse the kind of losing mentality that pervades such a miserable situation. When viewing Washington’s 6-6 regular season through that prism, the Huskies should be proud of how far they’ve come in two seasons. I said entering a Holiday Bowl rematch against Nebraska that another 35-point loss to the Cornhuskers — Washington was manhandled at home during the regular season — would send U.W. into the winter on a very low note. So much for that: the Huskies dictated the tempo, controlling the line on both sides of the ball for a key win over a marquee opponent.

High point A 32-31 over U.S.C. on Oct. 2, or perhaps a double-overtime win over Oregon State two games later. Each helped remove the sting of a slow start, even if the Huskies needed that three-game winning streak in November to reach bowl eligibility. For me, however, the bowl win over Nebraska was the high point of the season.

Low point The four best teams U.W. would face in the regular season — Nebraska, Arizona, Oregon and Stanford — would outscore the Huskies by a combined total of 194-51. Over the four games, that would come out to an average final score of roughly of 49-13.

Tidbit Washington’s eight-year bowl absence, which came to an end last season, was especially troubling for a fan base accustomed to not just consistent bowl appearances but national title contention. But it wasn’t the program’s longest bowl absence since the Huskies made their first bowl trip in 1924 – when U.W. tied Navy, 14-14, in the Rose Bowl. It would be 11 years from 1926, when the Huskies lost to Alabama in Pasadena, before they returned to bowl play against U.S.C. in 1937. In terms of college football’s modern era, beginning in 1936, Washington has suffered through two extended periods of bowl-free play: 16 years, from 1944-60, and 14 years, from 1964-78. Still, in terms of the recent era of bowl proliferation, the eight-year period of staying home for bowl play was a new program-low.

Tidbit (turnover edition) Some good teams excel on offense but suffer on defense; some put the clamps down defensively but can’t score; but all good teams fare better than the opposition in turnover margin. Well, nearly all. One area where Washington has seen a drastic improvement under Sarkisian is in this category: after finishing in the bottom half of the F.B.S. in turnover margin from 2006-8 – 117th nationally in 2008 – the Huskies have been in the positive in each of the last two seasons. In 2009, U.W. ranked 35th nationally in turnover margin. The Huskies dropped a bit to 47th last fall, but remained in the black – 19 takeaways, 17 giveaways.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Dr. Klahn, whose correct answer to a quiz in the East Carolina preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Washington Huskies. Take it away, Doctor. Also, I have this pain when I… we’ll talk about that later.

Constrained by the 100 word limit my preview will focus on the two players I am most looking forward to watching in 2011, DT Alameda Ta’amu and TB Chris Polk.

Ta’amu progressed steadily throughout the season and was a major factor in Washington’s much improved rush defense over the last four games. His season peaked in the Holiday bowl where he recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and forced a safety while the defense held the Huskers to just 91 yards rushing. His improvement throughout last season, along with the developing talent around him indicates that he is due for great things in 2011.

Washington would not have accomplished much without Chris Polk last year. His 1400+ yards are an impressive accomplishment considering the young offensive line, inconsistent passing game and having to perpetually shed tacklers. Hopefully, the 2011 season allows him to accumulate more yards than Bob “Rah-Rah” Condotta accumulates blog posts.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 OT Khalif Barnes (Oakland), QB Mark Brunell (New York Jets), LB Donald Butler (San Diego), OG Stanley Daniels (Denver), LB Mason Foster (Tampa Bay), S Dashon Goldson (San Francisco), DT Tank Johnson (Cincinnati), C Olin Kreutz (Chicago), CB Roy Lewis (Seattle), QB Jake Locker (Tennessee), S Lawyer Milloy (Seattle), RB Louis Rankin (Oakland), FB Marcel Reece (Oakland), WR Isaiah Stanback (Seattle), DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (Philadelphia), S C.J. Wallace (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Independent bookstores in the United States
1. Strand (New York).
2. Powell’s Books (Portland, Ore.).
3. Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle).
4. City Lights Booksellers (San Francisco).
5. Chaucer’s Books (Santa Barbara, Calif.).

Coaching

Steve Sarkisian (Brigham Young ’97), 12-13 after two seasons with the Huskies. Washington’s win total in his first season marked a five-game improvement over Ty Willingham’s final year in Seattle. Last fall, Sarkisian lifted U.W. back in bowl play after an eight-year absence. Sarkisian came to Seattle after spending seven seasons as a key member of Pete Carroll’s staff at U.S.C. He first arrived at Southern California as an offensive assistant (2001) before rapidly climbing the team’s coaching ladder. From 2007-8, Sarkisian served as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator; over this time, U.S.C. went 23-3, averaging at least 32 points and 430 yards of total offense in each season. Before taking on play-calling duties – a job he took over from Lane Kiffin, now the coach at U.S.C. – Sarkisian was the team’s quarterbacks coach (2002-3, 2005-6). Over that four-year period, Sarkisian was responsible for tutoring two Heisman Trophy winners, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and an all-conference honoree, John David Booty. Sarkisian was also U.S.C.’s assistant head coach from 2005 to 2008. A one-year hiatus from U.S.C. (2004) was spent as the quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders; probably because of this stint, and his success at U.S.C., Sarkisian was Al Davis’s first choice to replace Norv Turner as Oakland’s head coach in 2007, a position that eventually went to Kiffin. Sarkisian is a young, energetic, emotional coach – like his former boss, Carroll – who has had an immediate impact in rallying the support of both his players and the Husky fan base. Willingham, his predecessor, didn’t do Sarkisian any favors: his first team was far less talented than recent Washington teams. The roster gets better with each recruiting cycle, and there’s no reason to think that Sarkisian won’t lead U.W. back into major Rose Bowl contention once his roster is populated entirely with his own recruits.

Players to watch

So much for that quarterback controversy. The competition lasted through spring practice and a matter of days: it was clear throughout spring drills that Keith Price was the answer, not Nick Montana, and Sarkisian merely made if official roughly a week after the spring game in May. The choice was easy; that doesn’t make the transition from Jake Locker to Price any less troubling, if only because of the added dimension Locker – one of the finest athletes in college football – brought to this offense. But bear with me here: Locker was a very nice college quarterback, but U.W. can get more from the quarterback position. While numbers don’t tell the whole story for Locker, take note of the following: against Nebraska, U.S.C., Stanford and U.C.L.A., Locker completed 50 of 111 attempts for 569 yards with 2 touchdowns against 5 interceptions; against everyone but Syracuse and Oregon State, Locker hit on 141 of 264 attempts for 1,690 yards with 8 touchdowns and 8 picks.

The Huskies can get more on the passing end, at least. Locker, for all this athletic gifts, never developed into the passer most expected him to become under Sarkisian’s tutelage – partly due to injuries, to be fair. Washington hopes that Price, a sophomore, can turn into the sort of pass-first quarterback Sarkisian tutored to such acclaim while a U.S.C. assistant. Does Price have what it takes to provide more balance to this offense? He has a nice ceiling, though we won’t know what Washington will get until he leads this offense into games against Nebraska, California and the rest of the Pac-12.

I know it’s nearly sacrilegious to say so, seeing how well-regarded Locker is among the U.W. fan base, but I really think the passing game will be better in 2011 than it was in 2009 and 2010. Price won’t make things happen to the same degree with his legs, no. But he will complete around 60 percent of his attempts, if not more, and will be more consistent as a passer than was his predecessor. Most of this faith stems from the fact that he has Sarkisian in his corner; there aren’t many better quarterback coaches in the country.

It’s a good thing that Price will have two of the best offensive skill players in the country to work with. One is all-conference running back Chris Polk, who opted to return for his junior season rather than test the N.F.L. waters. I never thought he would leave early, but Washington fans still held their breath while he weighed his decision. After making a name for himself in 2009, rushing for 1,113 yards, Polk really flourished in 2010: 1,415 yards and 9 scores, cracking the 1oo-yard mark six times, including a 284-yard showing against Washington State and a tough, gritty, 177-yard performance against Nebraska. If you can run for 177 yards on the Cornhuskers, you can do it against anyone. Polk is one of the best running backs in the country. Right behind him is sophomore Jessie Callier (433 yards, 18 receptions), who was a nice second option in his rookie season. He’s next in line when Polk does depart.

Polk’s opposite number at receiver, senior Jermaine Kearse, is also one of the nation’s best. He is on occasion, at least, as while Kearse has the physical skills to dominate all Pac-12 cornerbacks he does struggle at times with consistency – not just individual drops but game-long absences, such as we saw a few times in 2010. Washington needs a full season from Kearse, who made 63 grabs for 1,005 yards and 12 scores last fall, especially with a new starter under center. He’s good enough to be an all-American. The Huskies also have some nice complimentary options in senior Devin Aguilar (28 catches for 352 yards) and junior James Johnson, though the latter must recapture his 2009 form after doing nothing of consequence a year ago. Keep an eye on the following players: sophomore receiver Kevin Smith, who used a strong spring to grab a starting role; true freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a top-notch recruit who could be a major factor in 2011; and incoming true freshman receiver Kasen Williams, who arrives in the fall.

Is it all good news offensively? Not quite: the line is a question mark, with three lost starters and a lack of enviable depth. Numbers are arriving each season, so depth will eventually be built; for now, U.W. needs several non-seniors to step into key roles. The one senior starter, left tackle Senio Kelemete, is the team’s best lineman – and he’d better be, seeing that he will occupy that all-important blind side position. The second returning starter is center Drew Schaefer, a junior. How will the rest of the line play out? Sophomore Colin Porter will get the call at right guard after making six starts as a rookie. Where U.W. goes at left guard and right tackle will hinge on the play of sophomore Erik Kohler, who can play both spots. If Kohler plays inside, it would open up the right side to another sophomore, Ben Riva; his lack of size – about 275, according to the most recent tally – is a bit of a concern.

Here’s a name to remember on this Washington defense: senior tackle Alameda Ta’amu. All good play starts up front; more specifically, nearly all good play begins and ends with a solid presence along the interior of the line, which the Huskies have with Ta’amu (40 tackles, 5 for loss), an honorable mention all-conference pick a year ago. It’s mostly about size with the senior, who is tough for interior linemen to handle at the point of attack, but Ta’amu has also flashed a quick burst into the backfield, making him one of the Pac-12’s best linemen, interior or otherwise.

Ta’amu is one of six returning linemen with starting experience, including all four of the linemen who ended last season in the starting lineup. Joining him inside is the duo of sophomore Sione Potoa’e and junior Semisi Tokolahi, who split time in 2010. Look for redshirt freshman Lawrence Lagafuaina to play an important role in limited doses behind Ta’amu, paving the way for his turn as the starter in 2012.

U.W. brings back senior Everrette Thompson (35 tackles, 5 for loss) and sophomore Hau’oli Jamora (49 tackles, 3 sacks) at end, hoping that both can continue to stand up against the run while doing a better job getting to the quarterback. The pass rush is one area where this defense must improve, in fact: Jamora’s three sacks lead all returning defenders. Looking for a potential difference-maker? Look no further than former U.C.L.A. transfer Josh Shirley, a redshirt freshman who will be asked to do one, simple thing: rush the quarterback. Judging by spring reports, Shirley will excel in his rush-only role.

The wide majority of last season’s two-deep in the secondary returns, but the one loss is a big one. Washington will need to retool at strong safety without all-conference pick Nate Williams, who finished second on the team in tackles last fall. The Huskies are looking at a trio of sophomores in his vacant spot, with Sean Parker, a reserve last fall, the leading contender. The rest of the secondary remains intact. Junior Desmond Trufant and senior Quinton Richardson will be at cornerback: Trufant has all-conference talent, while Richardson, with 30 career starts, is one of the most experienced players on the team. Junior Nate Fellner was a very nice surprise at free safety a year ago. After making a nice climb forward in 2010, the secondary should be just as good, if not better, this coming season.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker With the quarterback competition ending shortly after the end of spring practice, it’s clear that linebacker becomes the most closely-watched position on the roster. Two starters must be replaced: one is Mason Foster, the all-American weak side linebacker who finished second nationally in tackles; the other is Victor Aiyewa, who set a new single-season program record with 16.5 tackles for loss off the strong side. That leaves senior middle linebacker Cort Dennison (93 tackles, 8.5 for loss) as the lone returning starter, and Dennison must both help recoup the lost pair’s production while assuming a leadership role with this defense as a whole. Dennison, an honorable mention all-conference pick last fall, is good enough to pick up the slack. But the losses are significant, and he can’t go it alone. So enter the youngsters, the freshmen and sophomores hungry for the opportunity this open depth chart presents. Here’s the word of the day for the Washington two-deep at linebacker: or. Make that OR – a word illustrating just how unsettled the depth chart is on the outside. How will things shake out? Ask again in late August, when Nick Holt and the U.W. defensive staff have another series of practices with which to judge the potential applicants. For now, it’s just a guessing game – but you can look at sophomores Garrett Gilliland and Princeton Fuimaono as two linebackers likely to play meaningful roles. Gilliland seems like a solid choice to step in for Foster on the weak side, seeing that he’s the most experienced linebacker on the roster behind Dennison, whom he replaced in the starting lineup for the win over Nebraska. There’s really nothing settled on the strong side: it may be Fuimaono, it may be redshirt freshman Jamaal Kearse, it may be John Timu, who can play on the weak side or the strong side – it may be a player who has yet to make his mark. It was though that JUCO transfer Thomas Tutogi was an option here, but it seems that he lacks the speed to play on the outside. As of today, no position on defense remains as open as strong side linebacker.

Game(s) to watch

Another date with Nebraska, the rubber match of a three-game series that stands tied at a game apiece heading into September. That game is a nice barometer for U.W. in Sarkisian’s third season, but it won’t decide Washington’s season: the year will be decided during Pac-12 play, most notably against teams like California, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. Those teams inhabit the middle of the conference, like Washington, and the team that comes out on top will stand right below Oregon and Stanford as the best of the Pac-12’s second tier.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I don’t understand the lack of love for Washington heading into 2011. Is it just because the Huskies must replace Jake Locker? Let me say it again: Locker was a superb athletic talent, but Washington can get more out of the quarterback position. Price is not going to step in and be an all-conference quarterback from the start; he’ll be a better passer from the start, however, and the offense will have far more balance than it did a year ago. A consistent passing game is really all this offense needs to rank among the top half of the Pac-12, as there are several talented skill players who rank among the conference’s best. That list includes Polk and Kearse, but watch out for Seferian-Jenkins, who adds a different dimension to the passing attack. Yeah, the line needs work, but there are several talented younger options poised to step into larger roles. Defensively, all U.W. needs to do is locate two starting linebackers; the line and secondary are in very good shape. Washington’s not a Rose Bowl contender, but anything less than another seven wins would be surprising, in my mind. How could this team not make at least a one-win improvement off last year’s mark? Most of all, I have a tremendous amount of faith in Sarkisian and his staff, who have done wonderfully in very difficult straits since arriving following the 2008 season. The arrow is pointing up for Washington, in my mind. This isn’t a nationally-ranked team, but U.W. is definitely in the mix for another upper-tier bowl game in 2011.

Dream season From 0-12 to 5-7 to 7-6 to a 9-3 regular season, complete with wins over Nebraska, Stanford, U.S.C. and Washington State.

Nightmare season Sarkisian and Washington don’t come close to sliding back to the Willingham days, but the Huskies finish with a disappointing 4-8 record.

In case you were wondering

Where do Washington fans congregate? Like most big programs, there are a number of options out there to talk Washington football. If interested, take a trip to Dawgman.com, UDubSports.com and UWDawgPound.com. In addition, do yourself a favor and check out Bob Condotta’s Husky blog for The Seattle Times, whose always on-point U.W. football perspective makes his reports a must-read. As always, list below any blog, message board and local beat reporter deserving of being mentioned in this section.

Word Count

Through 75 teams 222,867.

Up Next

Who is No. 45? The mascot at tomorrow’s university made its debut in 1936 but did not become the school’s official mascot until 1954.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    Small correction, Nick Montana plays for the Huskies. Nate Montana plays at University of Montana.

  2. Dr. Klahn says:

    Also, a misspelling of Ben Riva. Great write up as always!

  3. Joel says:

    Texas Tech is next

  4. WizardHawk says:

    Can’t argue about much of what was said in this write up, however the loss of fullback zack fogerson and tailback deontae cooper leave some question about our depth in the backfield. We will have some quality TE’s that may be asked to help step up in blocking plays to help cover the weakness at fullback, but the Huskies need Polk and Callier to stay healthy for us to have the kind of rushing pressure we need to make Price’s first year a great one.

    Paul: Maybe should have mentioned Fogerson’s replacement. But didn’t mention Cooper because even before his latest knee injury I’m not sure if he was going to make an impact in 2011. Not sure if he’ll ever play again at this point. U.W. has some nice RB depth, but you’re right, getting a third option just in case would be comforting.

  5. AZDawg says:

    spelling correction for the Former Players in the NFL section: Dashon GOLDSON, MASON Foster, Isaiah StanbAck

    Paul: Thanks. You have no idea how tiresome it is to write these names down year after year, year after year. Surprising that there aren’t more mistakes.

  6. Rossfilms says:

    Tomorrow’s is TEXAS TECH – definitely…

    (because it’s already ‘accidentally’ listed as such in the ” Print, Peruse, Prognosticate: 2011″ article elsewhere on the website! oops!

    Paul: Son of a bitch. I thought I had scheduled that for 12:02 tomorrow morning! All full of errors today. That gives it away a bit, doesn’t it?

  7. Scott R says:

    The WR is named Kevin Smith, not Keith Smith.

  8. Dawgma says:

    Another correction, Dennison was in the lineup at LB in the Holiday Bowl win. He was replaced by Gilliland when we get walloped during the regular season.

    I’m also not sure how I feel about your assertions about the passing game. Locker didn’t have great numbers, but he did demand attention and open up opportunities for our skill players and Price will not do that. I have a feeling it may be about a push since we should be able to get the TEs involved in the passing game to force the defense to actually defend the middle of the field, and that was something Locker just didn’t have last year.

  9. MadisonHusky says:

    Excellent work. After reading this, I would trust your assessments of other programs for my season previews.

  10. Michael says:

    Very good write-up; I appreciate finding out more about this team and I leave your review both more familiar with the Huskies, but also more impressed and with higher expectations than I had going into the review. The middle-of-the-pack games against UCB, Utah, and Arizona will prove decisive and I like UDub’s chances in those matches more than I did before reading.

    For independent bookstores, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Raven Used Books in Cambridge, MA… but it’s absolutely in my top-5.

  11. Steindawg says:

    Another small correction, Ben Riva is a redshirt frosh not a soph as is listed in the article.

    Nice write up though I think Jamora should get some more love, he had a dominant Holiday Bowl as well with 3.5 tackles for loss.

    Sean Parker is also a highly touted player so replacing Nate Williams might not be as difficult as mentioned in this article.

  12. Niguel says:

    I think Keith Price will do fine because he will have a TE Seferain -Jenkins & Harvigton to help him out which hurt Locker when Middleton was kicked off the team. Also Price doesnt have to be the best player on the field just be smart which Locker put too much weight on his shoulders. Deontae Cooper will be back look for Bishop Sankey and/or Jorhi Forgerson will make up the slack for RB depth and RB Kyle Lewis will also be on board this fall. The only weakness on defense will be LB not because UW doesnt have talent just short on experience. The key is how they will play Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and USC (who made Locker a first round draft pick in the first place) if they can go at least 3-1 against them watch out!!!

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