April 21, 2005
With Spring Football wrapping up for Washington, players and coaches alike enter a new era with plenty of anticipation for the upcoming season. As expected, there were some growing pains in Tyrone Willingham's first installment of running the show as Husky head coach. But all the changes were expected ones--new terminology, new playbook, new positions, new faces and perhaps most importantly, new attitude.
After a 1-10 season, pundits and doubters may expect a struggle once again next season, but don't tell that to the Husky players. For these Huskies, hope springs eternal and the foundation of that hope is the belief that there will be a "Return of the Dawgs."
In the Huskies heyday, much of the team's success was predicated on a smash-mouth running game and a defense that relentlessly flew across the field in pursuit of the ball. The Huskies believe they are not too far from returning to that reputation.
Senior defensive tackle Manase Hopoi will be expected to lead the team when the opponent has the ball. Hopoi feels that the opposing offenses better be prepared next season as the coaching staff has been preaching finishing plays during the spring.
"A ball carrier only wants to be tackled by one guy," explains Hopoi. "I think it's real scary for a ball carrier when all 11 guys are running at him and trying to put a helmet on him. To be hit by four defensive linemen, three or four linebackers, safeties and corners all on one play and every play, I think it's going to take a toll on the opponents.
"That was probably one of the most important emphasis's this spring---to finish the play. You can start good, but you have to finish the drill, finish the play."
On the offensive side of the ball, senior offensive tackle Joe Toledo has emerged as a strong candidate to be a leader in the Huskies' effort to re-establish the run. The Huskies may have been pass-happy the last four years, but Toledo thinks there is a new philosophy.
"I think we're going to run the ball a lot more, that's for sure," says Toledo about what to expect next year. "If you came to our spring practices last year, we ran a lot of shotgun and misdirection kind of stuff and then we kind of scrapped it during the season. This spring, our run game and our play-action game look a lot more similar which is going to get a lot more movement out of the linebackers and secondary and open up some holes for our running backs and wide receivers.
"We have a good stable of running backs. If we pound the ball like I think we're going to I think our running backs are going to shine."
Coach Willingham is a little more cautious in his optimism than the players, but he saw plenty of hope out on the field this spring.
"I thought there were moments of great delight and moments of discord," says Willingham in describing the progress of the team over the spring. "We're getting closer, but I can't say that this group is there yet, but I think we're getting closer."
With 14 practices under their belt and the spring game soon to be completed, the Huskies are marching closer to the season opener on Sept. 3 against Air Force at Qwest Field. Until that day comes, Tyrone Willingham will continue to instill in the Huskies the mindset necessary to accomplish a "Return of the Dawg."
"The attitude, the hustle, the drive, you can ingrain that," says Willingham. "Some teams grab that instantly, other teams it take awhile. But yes, you can get there."