Nov. 3, 2010
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By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Time to take a few deep breaths and exhale.
Hey, at least you can exhale. Jake Locker and his broken rib would love a chance to do that without pain right now.
It's time for perspective on Husky football, following two consecutive ugly losses and a trip coming up to No. 1 Oregon without Locker playing on Saturday.
Remember this: Washington's program was spiraling to oblivion less than two years ago.
Coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff are barely more than 1½ seasons into a massive reconstruction project. They are still remaking every aspect of the program - from how players lift weights to how they study to how they eat, travel, practice, play and, ultimately, win.
That takes more than a day or three. It takes multiple recruiting classes and years of stability.
Still, even at 3-5, the reasons for hope, the amount of life and the level of innovation the Huskies have now compared to then is indescribable. It's like comparing a rotary-dial wall phone to an iPhone.
The UW administration sees this. From athletic director Scott Woodward down to the equipment men, no one has lost faith in Sarkisian's path. The Huskies hierarchy knows what many on the outside are now forgetting because of a two-game losing streak: this program was 0-12 and without direction or even a coaching staff just 23 months ago.
Former Huskies quarterback Hugh Millen was on the radio Wednesday outlining some interesting research. Millen said he found 74 teams in major college football who have once gone 0-10, 0-11 or 0-12 in a season. Only 23 of those teams finished at .500 within two seasons after that. Millen said it took those programs as average of four-plus seasons to reach .500 following a winless year.
The Huskies were 5-7 in Sarkisian's first season. This season they may be favored to win two of their final three games, at home to UCLA on Nov. 18 - when Locker hopes to return - and at Washington State on Dec. 4.
Sure, we all want Rose Bowls, Holiday Bowls, Sun Bowls - heck, even the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Anything that would have the Huskies ending their eight-season absence from the postseason.
But consider this: Washington has played 14 true freshmen this season, a school record. And that mark fell in the opener at Brigham Young, when Sarkisian played 13 new guys, mostly on special-teams units that have struggled with growing pains all season.
Some of those freshmen in the first UW class Sarkisian and his staff had a full year to recruit have been outstanding. Offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto told me he thinks 6-foot-5, 306-pound offensive lineman Erik Kohler, who has started three games, has the potential to be "dominant." Defensive lineman Hau'oli Jamora started last week against Stanford. He has been drawing comparisons to 2009 star defensive end Daniel Teo-Nesheim for his work ethic and enormous potential. Super-quick Jesse Callier has been a revelation running fly sweeps and covering kickoffs. Senior safety and co-captain Nate Williams says Sean Parker has been playing "out of his mind."
Mention dual-threat quarterback Keith Price, a redshirt freshman, to Sarkisian and the coach says "I love that kid. Every time he goes in he does good things."
Sarkisian and Locker said this week they are excited to see Price make his first collegiate start at Oregon. Against USC, Price replaced the momentarily injured Locker and threw a key touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that helped send UW to a huge win. Price has three more seasons of eligibility after this one. The Huskies also have heralded quarterback recruit Nick Montana, Joe's son, whom they are planning to redshirt this season. That would give him eligibility through 2014.
The new Husky Stadium is scheduled to be remodeled by then, bringing with it inherent excitement. Plus, the schedule in the next few seasons doesn't open on the road and then host a power like Nebraska in mid-September. Non-conference games in 2011 and 2012 include Eastern Washington, Hawaii, Portland State and Nevada.
How basic are the building blocks Sarkisian is still trying to set for these young Dawgs? Two weeks ago, the coach was walking back to the visiting locker room at Arizona Stadium following the deflating loss to the Wildcats. At the top of steps that led off the field, I stopped Sarkisian and asked him what he told his guys immediately after the game.
"That Saturday nights are not just about Saturday nights. It's about attention to detail on Mondays and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays," the former Rose Bowl-winning coordinator at USC said. "And not just on the field. Some guys missed study table this week. That stuff matters. They need to learn that."
So when getting kids to meet routine homework assignments is a prime concern, imagine how difficult it might be to install a game plan and then get it properly executed against 300-pound road graters like Stanford had last week.
Though we glorify them like pros, televise them and promote them and cheer for them from seats for which we paid big money, these guys are still kids. Eighteen-, 19-, 20-year-olds from whom we demand perfection.
Yes, the defense has allowed 85 points in the last two games. But during most or all of those losses, it was missing starting lineman Cameron Elisara, end Talia Crichton and outside linebacker Victor Aiyewa to injuries.
And Aiyewa is a converted strong safety. He might be his listed 219 pounds. He played one year of high-school football.
Elisara's replacement was Jamora, a true freshman weighing just 238 pounds. Saturday, Jamora was trying to fend off four 300-pound Stanford offensive linemen. Alongside him: Another true freshman, Sione Potoa'e.
The offensive line had two more true freshmen starting side-by-side: Colin Porter and Kohler. That's the first time Washington's ever had that.
In a perfect world, the Huskies would be redshirting all of them, allowing them to literally grow into their roles. Not so this season, with UW's lack of depth.
"They played hard, but it's just physics," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said of his freshmen D-linemen after the Stanford game."It's unfortunate they have to go in and play at an early age. It's unfair to them.
"We can't put 30, 40, 50 pounds on guys that quickly."
We all were caught up in the hype of the summer, when a bowl game was the minimum expected from Sarkisian's second season. We were euphoric that Locker had decided to return for his senior season instead of becoming a first-round draft pick in the NFL.
What wasn't to like, after a five-win improvement that woke up the program last season?
Yet even back in August while watching the Huskies go through preseason drills, Woodward worried that perhaps expectations for this season were too high. The AD told me then what we are being reminded now: rebuilding of this magnitude takes time.
It's time that seems to vanish when that vast potential spikes, such as in the wins at USC and over Oregon State.
"I believe that if we could have performed the way that we were capable of that we could be there," Sarkisian said this week when asked if he regretted his preseason confidence. "To think to the fact that we've beaten a 6-2 Syracuse team that's potentially a ranked team. We beat USC on the road. We beat a very good Oregon State team that just got down scoring 35-7 against Cal. Potentially, we're there."
After USC, reality - and injuries - hit, chilling everything and everyone purple and gold.
Still, Sarkisian has tried everything this season to make that bowl goal a reality. He's changed his pro-style, two-back offense in which he grew up as a coach at USC then brought to Washington. He's tailoring it instead to the strengths of Locker - rolling out, throwing on the run - and of skill-position players such as wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and Callier.
Sarkisian has even gone to Wildcat formations, direct snaps to Callier or to tailback Chris Polk, in hopes of finding consistency in the running game.
He's also remade the team's psyche. That's what he focused on instead of X's and O's in the bye week that followed the 35-point home loss to Nebraska. Relax. Don't press. Believe in yourselves. Have fun. Those messages got through so successfully that the Huskies responded at USC with their first road win in three years.
The fun has since disappeared. Sarkisian says his players are again trying too hard. So in Tuesday's practice, he instructed and entertained them at the same time. With Montana, the usual scout-team passer, elevated to No. 2 behind Price this week, Sarkisian ran the Ducks' fast-break offense against the Huskies' defense.
"Three turnovers," Sarkisian lamented afterward, half-jokingly. "Good tempo, though."
His defensive players got a kick out of his effort.
"I told him before practice to put on some pads," defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu said, smiling. "Don't want to hurt Coach."
These Huskies haven't given up on him. They still Bark for Sark.
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Contact Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org