No. 52: Washington
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 18, 2012
The Pac-12 has become a graveyard for defensive coordinators. The money’s good, the price is right and there’s opportunity for advancement, but enlist at your own risk: Chip Kelly awaits, as does Mike Leach, as do Rich Rodriguez, Noel Mazzone and Lane Kiffin. Many a defensive mastermind — Nick Holt, for instance — couldn’t keep pace with the new-look Pac-12. Who can? It takes two kinds: either a coordinator who has forgotten more football than most will ever know, like Monte Kiffin, or, like Oregon’s Nick Aliotti, a coordinator willing and able to adjust with the flow. Washington hopes that former Tennessee coordinator Justin Wilcox slides into the latter category. He’s shown a tendency to adopt non-traditional looks, most notably while at Boise State, a program that has historically made the most of its defensive personnel. But is Wilcox the missing piece of Washington’s puzzle? Ask again in September. Scratch that: Ask again in December, after he’s fought through the same gauntlet that tested and broke the will of last year’s defense.
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
San Diego St.
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 27
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 2
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 23
at Washington St.
Last year’s prediction
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. 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. This isn’t a nationally-ranked team, but U.W. is definitely in the mix for another upper-tier bowl game in 2011.
In a nutshell I suppose that Washington ended up right where most expected — seven wins, above .500 in conference play — which does quash the idea that the Huskies were a disappointment. But they were a slight disappointment nonetheless, most notably in the way the defense collapsed over the second half of the year. It began innocently enough: Stanford scored 65 points and put together an ungodly number of rushing yards in a win on Oct. 21, but the defense seemed to regain its wits in a victory over Arizona the following Saturday. November was a month to forget, and December a month to bury deep, deep underground, never to be seen again — Alamo Bowl? What Alamo Bowl? But the offense was there, and will be there in 2012 despite losing three key skill players to the N.F.L. and a reshuffling along the offensive line. All that matters, looking forward, is whether the defense can find its footing. In 2011, the defense was Washington’s Achilles heel.
High point Another win over Washington State, the Huskies’ third straight in the series and the team’s lone win after October. The Huskies beat two bowl teams, California at home and Utah on road, in back-to-back weeks.
Low point It’s hard to view anything other than the bowl loss to Baylor as the low point, seeing that the Huskies hope to never hit that sort of defensive nadir again — ever again, for as long as the university fields a football team. But for a program hoping to close the gap separating it from the upper crust of the Pac-12, the losses to Stanford, U.S.C. and Oregon illustrate just how much work remains to be done.
Tidbit The Alamo Bowl may have been the last straw – a straw strong enough to break the Sahara’s entire complement of camels – but Washington’s defensive downturn started well in advance of the postseason. Over the second half of the regular season, U.W. allowed an average of 38.2 points, 181.2 rushing yards, 235.7 passing yards and 452.0 total yards per game – not to mention an average of 6.7 yards per play. The nadir may have been the loss to Baylor, but don’t forget about Stanford: the Cardinal actually averaged more yards per play than the Bears, at 9.3, and notched a school-record 446 rushing yards.
Tidbit (winless to bowls edition) In reaching the Alamo Bowl, U.W. became just the eighth team in the last 50 years of college football to go from a winless season to making two bowl bids over the next three years. The others are UTEP (winless in 1964), Florida (1979), Indiana (1984), South Carolina (1999), Navy (2001) and Central Florida (2004).
Tidbit (A.P. Poll edition) Washington has not ended a season ranked in The A.P. Poll since 2001, when the Rick Neuheisel-led Huskies were ranked 19th overall. Over the last decade, eight Pac-12 teams have earned a national ranking in the final A.P. Poll: U.S.C. (2002-9 and 2011), Washington State (2002-3), California (2004-6), Arizona State (2004 and 2007), Oregon (2005-6 and 2007-11), U.C.L.A. (2005), Oregon State (2006-8) and Stanford (2010-11).
Former players in the N.F.L.
18 WR Devin Aguilar (Tennessee), OT Khalif Barnes (Oakland), LB Donald Butler (San Diego), OG Stanley Daniels (Cleveland), K Erik Folk (Atlanta), LB Mason Foster (Tampa Bay), S Dashon Goldson (San Francisco), WR D’Andre Goodwin (Denver), WR Jermaine Kearse (Seattle), OG Senio Kelemete (Arizona), CB Roy Lewis (Seattle), QB Jake Locker (Tennessee), RB Chris Polk (Philadelphia), FB Marcel Reece (Oakland), WR Isaiah Stanback (New York Giants), RB Austin Sylvester (Denver), DT Alameda Ta’amu (Pittsburgh), DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (Tampa Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
M.L.B. teams farthest from the World Series
1. Houston Astros.
2. Colorado Rockies.
3. Seattle Mariners.
4. Minnesota Twins.
5. Cleveland Indians.
Steve Sarkisian (Brigham Young ’97), 19-19 after three 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. In 2010, Sarkisian lifted U.W. back in bowl play after an eight-year absence; he repeated that feat last fall, handing the program back-to-back bowl bids for the first time since 2001-2. Sarkisian came to Seattle after spending seven seasons as a key member of Pete Carroll’s staff at U.S.C., helping the Trojans become the nation’s most dominant program for the better part of a decade. He first arrived at U.S.C. 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 32.6 points and 434.9 yards of total offense in each season. Before taking on play-calling duties – a job he took over from Lane Kiffin – 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 pick in John David Booty. 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 U.W. 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 he teams a strong offense with a backboned defense.
Tidbit (coaching edition) The bloodbath that was Washington’s bowl loss to Baylor was followed by an entirely unsurprising staffing purge. The only defensive assistant who survived the axe was line coach Johnny Nansen, though Nansen was reassigned: he’s now the Huskies’ special teams coordinator. It’s probably safe to call Justin Wilcox the biggest assistant hire in the Pac-12, if not the biggest in the entire country; he’ll be tasked with turning around U.W.’s fortunes after last year’s decline under Nick Holt, and will attempt to do so while transitioning this defense into a 3-4 base set. He’s joined by defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, who was lured away from Oregon State to replace U.C.L.A.-bound Demetrice Martin; new line coach Tosh Lupoi, late of California; and former Tennessee linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. Lupoi and Heyward are big hires not only on the field but on the recruiting trail, as both are considered to be among the Pac-12’s best in the living room.
Sarkisian also made one change on the offensive side of the ball. After Doug Nussmeier left for Alabama, Sarkisian tabbed former California assistant Eric Kiesau as his coordinator and quarterbacks coach – though Sarkisian will remain very hands-on with this offense.
Players to watch
Twelve F.B.S. programs had a quarterback taken in the first round of the N.F.L. Draft from 2007-11. In only one case has a program landed vastly superior play from this quarterback’s replacement: Washington – and Keith Price. Price’s ability to play at a Heisman-worthy level is a testament to three factors, two of which are his superb pocket presence and his ability to rapidly grasp the intricacies of Washington’s attack as a first-year starter. The other is the fact that for all his gifts, Jake Locker was not a good fit for Sarkisian’s offense; he was a round peg in a square hole, a run-first quarterback in a pass-first offense, and Sarkisian was forced to tailor his system away from its strengths.
You’re seeing this offense as it should be run with Price under center. U.W. went from pedestrian to outstanding in the passing game last fall, with Price completing 66.9 percent of his attempts for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns against 11 picks; he tied for third in the Pac-12 in touchdowns and finished second in both yards per attempt and quarterback efficiency rating. Simply put, Price took the Huskies out of the Stone Age and into this new age of Pac-12 football, where anything less than top-tier quarterback play is a recipe for disaster.
And he did so as a sophomore, a first-year starter who entered the year with 37 career attempts under his belt. This highlights the idea that Price’s best days lie ahead – that the Price you see in 2012 will have already taken a step forward over last fall’s results. There are areas where he needs to improve: Price needs to learn to throttle back, for one, not pushing the tempo in his search for the big play – as he did against Oregon, for example. He can also do more with his feet, as he did against Baylor, though that will always remain a secondary aspect of his skill set.
Once he rectifies a few flaws – and he’ll do so with added experience – Price will go from being one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12 to being one of the best quarterbacks in college football. As is, he’s clearly the second-best at his position in this league and a borderline Heisman contender; he’d be a larger presence in the Heisman mix if not for the fact that U.W. won’t win enough games to boost his candidacy. But in this offense, with his growing experience, Price is a national player on the rise. And he goes into the fall on a high note: Price went 44 of 66 for 729 yards and 10 total touchdowns over the final two games of last season.
He’ll be surrounded by a new-look cast of complimentary skill players. At running back, U.W. moves forward without Chris Polk, who left early after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. With no one back storming to the forefront, U.W. would be wise to go with a by-committee approach for at least the first portion of last season. The top two exiting the spring were junior Jessie Callier (260 yards) and sophomore Bishop Sankey (187 yards), two solid contributors in reserve roles last fall. If he can recover the knee injury that cost him each of the last two years, sophomore Deontae Cooper – once a premier recruit – would also join the mix. Behind this top group are a slew of unproven backs, including a few former walk-ons and two incoming freshmen. Obviously, U.W. is going to be hard-pressed to replicate Polk’s impact with one back; instead, the Huskies should throw numbers at the problem.
Washington also loses its top two receivers in Jermaine Kearse and Devni Aguilar. Here’s an easy solution for this problem: create an even larger role for sophomore Austin Seferian-Jenkins (41 receptions for 538 yards and 6 touchdowns), a premier pass-catching tight end who finds himself very much in the conversation for national accolades heading into his second season. After years of dismal results at the position, Seferian-Jenkins finally gave U.W. a solid threat in the red zone and over the middle of the field; one year later, he’s ready to make a run at all-American honors.
In fact, the Huskies have more than enough in this top group to keep Price happy. At receiver, U.W. will turn to sophomore Kasen Williams (36 for 427, 6 scores) and senior James Johnson (28 for 366). Williams in particular is ready for big things: he made 24 grabs for 330 over the Huskies’ last six games. The key will be landing production from the receiver corps’ second tier, a group that includes senior Kevin Smith – a special teams standout who can do more at receiver – senior Cody Bruns, sophomore DiAndre Campbell and redshirt freshmen Jamaal Jones and Josh Perkins.
If it’s broke, fix it. Credit Sarkisian for one thing: Washington’s defense was clearly broken – broken long before the Alamo Bowl – and Sarkisian, despite his ties to Holt and his defensive assistants, felt no compunction about making drastic alterations to his coaching staff in an effort to lift the Huskies into true Pac-12 contention. He’s thrown his chips in with Wilcox, hoping that a defensive coordinator with his track record, along with assistants like Heyward, Sirmon and Lupoi, can take a young but promising group of defenders and get stops against the league’s top offenses.
Two things you should know about Wilcox, beginning with his style of defense. For all intents and purposes, U.W. will shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base alignment. However – and this is one thing I’ve always loved about his defenses – Wilcox will be extremely multiple, using those swing players, those who can fill hybrid roles, in enough ways to run any one of three or four different formations: 3-4, 4-3, 3-3-5 and the like. This is the one thing to appreciate about Wilcox: his flexibility. With the way many Pac-12 offenses present multiple looks, doesn’t it make sense that a defense should do the same?
Another thing: Wilcox is as familiar with Oregon’s offense as any coordinator in football. While Tennessee was routed by the Ducks in 2010 – Wilcox’s first year with the Volunteers – he helped Boise State notch back-to-back wins over U.O. in 2008 and 2009. In the latter game, the Broncos held Oregon to 152 total yards of offense, 31 rushing yards, 3.5 yards per play and, most of all, 8 points. The former Oregon defensive back has that in his corner, as well as coaching experience inside the Pac-12, at California from 2003-5, and it’s certainly something that stands out as he prepares for a trip to Autzen Stadium in October.
U.W. lost a pair of starters up front, including all-conference tackle Alameda Ta’amu, but does bring back five linemen with past starting experience. One lineman in particular stands out: Josh Shirley (28 tackles, 12.o for loss, 8.5 sacks), a sophomore, will be Wilcox’s hybrid end-linebacker – he’ll put his hand on the ground at times, but Shirley will more often serve as a rush outside linebacker. This is a role that the 235-pound sophomore was built to fill. Undersized as a traditional, hand-in-the-dirt end, Shirley is an agile, mobile edge rusher who can absolutely excel if used to his strengths – getting to the quarterback and making plays in space. While this defense is relying heavily on his ability to wreak havoc on the outside, Shirley is ready for the challenge.
You’ll see two players used at one end spot. The first is sophomore Andrew Hudson (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks), who made three starts last fall. When U.W. wants to get bigger, it will use junior Sione Potoae, a converted tackle. The Huskies have three options on the other side – what you could call the traditional end position: sophomore Hau’oli Jamora, junior Talia Crichton and redshirt freshman Jarett Finau. If he’s healthy – he missed all but the first four games of last season due to a knee injury – Jamora will be the pick.
Inside, U.W. has three enormous linemen capable of occupying blockers at nose tackle. In senior Semisi Tokolahi and sophomores Danny Shelton and Lawrence Lagafuainia, the Huskies can throw one meal shy of 1,000 pounds at an issue that plagues teams moving into the 3-4 system. Line depth is further strengthened by the arrival of a few incoming recruits, including one tackle off of the JUCO ranks.
U.W. will bring one new face – not counting Shirley, the hybrid – to a linebacker corps that reshuffled after losing Cort Dennison in the middle. One personnel move finds safety Nate Fellner (34 tackles), a senior, moving to the strong side. Not only does that free up a logjam at free safety, but it also gives U.W. some speed at outside linebacker – and Fellner has added about 20 pounds since last season, which also helps. The other linebacker spots will again be held by junior Princeton Fiumaono (64 tackles, 8.5 for loss) and sophomore John Timu (52 tackles), with Timu moving inside to fill Dennison’s shoes.
Shaq Thompson can’t hit the curveball. No harm, no foul (ball). After spending the summer trying his hand at baseball, in the Red Sox’s system, Thompson will step on campus in August and immediately make a push for one of Washington’s two starting safety spots. That’s not surprising – the football part: Thompson, a five-star safety who made a late flip from California to U.W., is one of the impact recruits in the entire Pac-12. In addition, he steps into a secondary that needs not only consistency but also big plays, and not only consistency and big plays but also an intimidator: U.W. made it far too easy for teams to taste success down field in 2011.
So where does Thompson slot in? It really depends on where his future lies, whether at strong or free safety, though he’s athletic enough to swing between both spots – and even play some in the slot – as a freshman. For now, with junior Sean Parker (91 tackles, 4 interceptions) at strong safety, Thompson’s best shot at an immediate starting role is at free, where senior Justin Glenn (52 tackles) and junior Will Shamburger were the Huskies’ top two during the spring. Thompson will play; the only question is where, and how early.
Overall, the Huskies’ depth at safety is outstanding. The list: Parker, Glenn, Shamburger, Thompson, sophomore James Sample, redshirt freshman Travis Feeney – who I feel could grow into a very good outside linebacker in this system – and sophomore K.C. Herren, to name a few. While the depth at cornerback isn’t as strong, U.W. can put forth a solid starting pairing in senior Desmon Trufant (64 tackles, 2 interceptions) and junior Gregory Ducre (37 tackles). Trufant, a three-year starter, earned honorable mention all-conference honors last fall; Ducre replaces Quinton Richardson after making four starts last fall. While Trufant is entrenched as a starter, Ducre will need to fend off sophomore Marcus Peters, JUCO transfer Antavius Sims, junior Tre Watson and incoming freshman Brandon Beaver.
Where does the defense stand today? It’s improved. For one, it’s clear that the defense needed new direction; Wilcox provides that and a new voice, not to mention a scheme change that will match speed with speed against opposing Pac-12 offenses. In addition, U.W. looks far better in the secondary. It’s not merely about a player like Thompson, but also the projected progression from veterans like Trufant, Parker and Ducre. Finally, the Huskies were playing with more fire during the spring. Obviously, this defense needed an attitude adjustment as much as anything.
The Huskies will have their hands full on special teams. Sarkisian and Nansen must find a new punter, kicker and long snapper. Junior David Butler will handle the latter. As for punter and kicker? U.W. has options – five, by my count – but no clear answer. With Aguilar gone, the Huskies will need Kevin Smith to take on a larger role in the return game.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Beyond the injuries and beyond the losses to graduation lies Washington’s biggest issue when it comes to this offensive line: a simple lack of numbers. Blame recruiting missteps for the program’s current predicament. Sarkisian signed zero linemen in his first class, in 2009, though it was a class cobbled on the fly following the coaching change. He signed only two in 2011, with both coming off redshirt seasons. In between, U.W. inked seven offensive linemen in 2010 and another five this past February. It’s simple: U.W. has recruited poorly, even if partly due to circumstances outside the program’s control – the coaching change following the 2008 season, for example – and, as the Huskies enter September, are suffering a lack of depth as a result.
One injury has thrown this line into flux: Colin Porter, a would-be junior and a returning starter at right guard, was forced to take a medical scholarship after surgeries indicated degenerative arthritis in both shoulders. With Porter out, U.W. went through periods this spring without four of its projected starters – Porter, sophomore left guard Colin Tanigawa, senior center Drew Schaefer and junior right tackle Erik Kohler. You can look at this optimistically: Porter’s the only lineman who was out permanently, and the lack of a set starting five allowed Sarkisian and offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto to work out several leading reserves in starting roles.
However, it’s vital that U.W. get a healthy season out of Tanigawa, Schaefer and Kohler. With Porter gone, the Huskies will move Kohler inside and promote sophomore Ben Riva into the starting job at right tackle. That certainly makes the Huskies’ interior the line’s strength: Schaefer, the line’s best – especially with Kohler taking on a new position – will be flanked by two veteran linemen. There are two bigger issues for U.W. to worry about: tackle play and depth. The program is at least one more recruiting cycle away from settling the latter concern. When it comes to tackle, the Huskies will be fine if Riva can step in for Kohler and sophomore Micah Hatchie for left tackle Senio Kelemete, the program’s first first-team all-conference pick in a decade.
Game(s) to watch
The bad news: Washington gets four road games over the second half. The worse news: Washington’s first half includes L.S.U. and Oregon on the road and Stanford and U.S.C. at home. Hey, at least the Huskies get the big boys out of the way early. Unfortunately, the tough first half will leave U.W. in a position of needing a strong close simply to reach bowl eligibility. While I think that the Huskies get there, there’s a chance that this year’s Apple Cup will have a bowl bid on the line for both teams – cranking that annual rivalry up a notch. The must-win games: San Diego State, Portland State, Arizona, Colorado and Washington State. Taking those five games would leave U.W. with some wiggle room in October and November. One thing that’s pretty clear: U.W. would be ecstatic with a 3-3 start.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell You can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Washington opens with a first half unlike any in college football: L.S.U., Stanford, Oregon and U.S.C., all before mid-October. The best-case scenario is that U.W. pulls out one win from that quartet and heads into the second half at 3-3; a more realistic scenario has U.W. at 2-4, losers of three straight and four of five; and the worst-case scenario finds the Huskies at 1-5, having lost to San Diego State in the season opener. No matter how you cut it – and it takes a leap of faith to picture anything other than 2-4 – the Huskies are going to need to make up ground in the second half. Remember that the Huskies hit the ground running while making those changes on defense: U.W. will ultimately benefit from the coaching change, but Wilcox and this defense won’t get on the same page until later in the season.
Let’s put Washington in a vacuum. In terms of talent, coaching and potential, where do the Huskies fall in the Pac-12? Consider what U.W. brings to the table: Price at quarterback, talent at receiver, speed and size along the front seven and a clearly improved secondary. Consider where U.W. falls short: offensive line depth – if not a solid starting five – proven production at running back and familiarity with the new defensive system. This isn’t a complete team, and won’t be until Wilcox gets the house in order on defense and Sarkisian adds more quality depth along the offensive line. But in this vacuum, I do think that it’s clear that U.W. is a better team than it was a season ago. As is, the Huskies are looking at six wins or seven wins – treading water, in a way, but a nice accomplishment when given the difficulty of this year’s schedule. More so than any team in football, Washington’s talent and ability will not be reflected in the final standings.
Dream season U.W. beats both Stanford and U.S.C. to cap the first half at 4-2. With such confidence, the Huskies have no problem running through the second half unscathed. While Oregon takes home the North, U.W. is very much in the B.C.S. mix at 10-2 overall and 8-1 in the Pac-12.
Nightmare season A loss to San Diego State sends the Huskies into a tailspin. At 1-5 at the midway point, U.W. closes with two wins in six tries to limp into the offseason at 3-9.
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. Condotta’s always on-point U.W. football perspective make his reports a must-read.
Washington’s all-name nominee S Will Shamburger.
Through 73 teams 285,587.
Who is No. 51? Tomorrow’s program has seen its scoring total decline in each of the last three years. Last fall’s output was its fourth-lowest in a winning season since 1966.
Tags: Andrew Hudson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Deontae Cooper, Desmond Trufant, Eric Kiesau, Gregory Ducre, James Johnson, Jessie Callier, Josh Shirley, Justin Wilcox, Kasen Williams, Keith Heyward, Keith Price, Kevin Smith, Nate Fellner, Pac-12, Peter Sirmon, Princeton Fiumaono, Sean Parker, Semisi Tokolahi, Shaq Thompson, Steve Sarkisian, Tosh Lupoi, Washington
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