Aug. 1, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Steve Sarkisian isn't just on the cusp of the Huskies' 2012 season.
He sees his Dawgs as being on the edge of greatness.
"We have a team that is one we're proud of, and we think we're on the brink of something special here at the University of Washington," the fourth-year coach declared last week at the Pac-12's media day in Los Angeles.
"This is a team that has a great culture about themselves and one that I believe is headed in the right track of not only what we're doing on the field but off the field, in the classroom. It's a young, talented football team that is maturing rapidly...
"It's a great time to be a Husky."
And to be a Husky fan.
As of Thursday just four -- 4! -- days remain until the start of preseason practice. And Washington has four main questions standing between it and its next step, beyond consecutive Holiday and Alamo bowl appearances to contention for the Rose Bowl.
These key questions have potential answers -- but as of yet they are, of course, unproven. The proving begins in 31 days, against San Diego State at CenturyLink Field.
1. How much different will the defense be in 2012?
Completely different. A-new-coordinator-and-three-new-assistants different. Players-in-hybrid-schemes different.
And so far, different looks good.
A month of spring practices then the spring game in April offered a glimpse.
Fast, flexible, 3-4 looks mixed with stout 4-3 schemes under the direction of new maestro Justin Wilcox. Rush end Josh Shirley, who sacked Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III three times in December's Alamo Bowl, being mostly unblockable speeding into the offense's backfield. Andrew Hudson also flourishing as an outside pass rusher. Fellow sophomore Danny Shelton emerging as even more of run-stopping force inside at 325-plus pounds.
Plus, far more aggressive coverage in the secondary. This season, expect returning starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Greg Ducre to join junior Sean Parker and senior Justin Glenn at safety in challenging receivers more immediately off the line of scrimmage.
"They do a lot of different stuff. I can't give it away," Keith Price says of the new defense, chuckling over how Wilcox's guys chased him all over the field each spring day. "It's definitely new."
Wilcox arrived in January after lifting Boise State's defense and turning around Tennessee's in his previous two stops. His reputation was for aggression and innovation.
Once he got to UW, he immediately saw what he had in Shirley, a freakishly fast, 6-foot-3, 235-pound force. He couldn't miss him.
So Wilcox is installing rush packages that can turn Shirley loose in almost any passing situation this season.
From there, it's on Shirley.
"It's consistency, bringing it on every single down," Wilcox said. "He showed flashes of it. He's a guy people have to deal with.
"It's about becoming more consistent, where it's every down you've got to deal with him. That's the kind of guy he has to be for us."
The secondary, already a strength because of experience, gets its first look at Shaq Thompson when practice begins Monday afternoon on the East Field behind the construction at Husky Stadium. Thompson, out of Grant High in Sacramento, Calif., was considered one of the nation's top high school safeties - if not the top one -- in last winter's recruiting class.
"The defensive staff on board, I couldn't be more impressed with Justin Wilcox, Tosh Lupoi, Keith Heyward, Peter Sirmon, the recruiting that they have brought along with what they have been doing on the field," Sarkisian said. "They put challenges on Keith and what he had to do in spring ball."
The question within the question on defense is at linebacker. Wilcox has moved physical, 2011 safety Nate Fellner up to help replace captain Cort Dennison inside and playmakers Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa outside at linebacker the last two seasons. Princeton Fuimaono seeks more consistency from his time starting last season as a sophomore.
Did I say last season?
"It's erased," Parker says. "It's like a lost memory.
"This is a new beginning."
And Wilcox is just getting started.
"We wanted to develop our brand, who we are and what we are about," Wilcox said looking back at spring ball. "I think we are making progress.
"But we still have work to do."
2. How will UW keep running now that Chris Polk is in the NFL?
Even though Polk took his 4,049 yards rushing - second-most all-time at UW - and school-record 799 carries when he left in April for the pros after his junior season, the question isn't whether the Huskies will run without their All-Pac-12 tailback.
For all the creative passing strategy and Price's UW-record 33 touchdowns through the air last season - and even with the coach saying last week "maybe we throw the football a little more" without Polk -- Sarkisian's offenses back to his coordinator days at USC have always been anchored by the run.
The speedy Callier, a junior, got a reputation as a fly-sweep specialist as a freshman change-up to the brutish Polk two seasons ago. Last season he showed he can run inside effectively, too.
Now, he sounds as driven as his running style.
"I'm not satisfied with my work," Callier says. "I never am."
The 5-foot-10 Sankey was occasionally explosive last season while as a true freshman. He's gained more than 10 pounds from last season, on his way to 205, to get more rugged on the inside runs that used to be Polk's.
"I feel like I am ready to be an all-around back," Sankey says.
A potential wild card: Promising and determined Deontae Cooper. He's trying to come back from knee surgeries that ended his last two seasons before they really began.
"We have Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey, and whether it's one of them or both of them (replacing Polk, we'll see)," Sarkisian said. "Deontae Cooper is a guy we hope to get back, and with the addition of younger players, I think that position is one we feel good about the depth."
3. Can Keith Price do it again?
He is sure primed to.
Top receivers Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams, last seen in Seattle hurdling a Washington State defender in a career night in last November's Apple Cup, are remarkably just sophomores. Senior James Johnson will be joining them in replacing the prodigious production of departed seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.
As for Price, he isn't exactly resting on records set in 2011, or his seven combined touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl, a modern record for a major college postseason game.
Through fiendish workouts and rehabilitation from January through March, he strengthened knees that were ached and sprained from the first half of last season's first game through the Alamo Bowl. He's tested those knees since, first over the 15 practices in April, then through workouts with his quarterback tutor in Los Angeles -- and then in Louisiana last month with none other than Peyton and Eli Manning.
Now the fourth-year junior says he's as healthy as he's been since he was a true freshman mostly untouched while redshirting behind Jake Locker.
But can the Huskies protect him this fall?
Colin Porter, a starter his first two seasons at UW, had to quit football this spring because of degenerative conditions in his shoulders. The other starting guard, Colin Tanigawa, is coming off reconstructive knee surgery that shortened his 2011 season.
Ben Riva is seeking to replace departed senior Senio Kelemete at one tackle. The other job is wide open - so much so, center Drew Schaefer, the Huskies' only senior starter on the line, will be getting time at tackle during practices this month.
"The questions are obvious. When you think you return four starters, you lose one to a medical hardship in Porter, and you're down to three and one of them is coming off a knee, you have concerns," Sarkisian said. "I think we have depth and versatility at the position.
"Obviously, that is one of our question marks: Who are going to be our five guys? ... You're going to see times at training camp, Drew Schaefer will be at tackle, Taniela (Tupou) at center and (Erik) Kohler at center. And we will do it time and again to get the best five guys to be successful on the field, so we can run the football the best and protect (Price).
"Like anything, we have question marks. The O-line happens to be one of those."
4. Will November ever get here?
To say Washington's schedule is challenging to begin the season is like saying Price smiles sometimes.
I don't have to remind you that UW plays three of the nation's top four teams ranked in ESPN's preseason poll, and four of the top 15.
But did you realize that gauntlet -- at LSU, versus Stanford, at Oregon and against USC -- is all within the season's first six games?
Yet as tempting as it may be, those first six games ultimately will not define the Huskies' 2012 season.
"We would be remiss to put all of our eggs in the basket during the first half of the season," is how Sarkisian put it.
He joked he must have unknowingly run up the score on someone in the Pac-12 scheduling office back in the day. But as the 38-year-old has said repeatedly while becoming one of the handful of coaches since 1950 to lead a program to two bowls in the first three years following a winless season: Bring it on.
"The thing is for us to put it together," he said. "Ultimately, you get dealt a hand, and you have to play that hand. I think that's one of the beauties of these guys who have been with us since day one (such as Price and Trufant): Hearing the consistent messaging. It's not about, `What just happened to me?' It's about, `What we're going to do about it?'
"That's our schedule. Let's go play it."