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Unleashed: Sarkisian Says Huskies Are Almost There
Release: 09/26/2012
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Sept. 26, 2012

By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.

SEATTLE - Thursday night will reveal more, but here's something to chew on with your pregame meal:

Washington is almost there.

See, Huskies fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian doesn't look at Stanford's roster loaded with accomplished veterans tested in consecutive appearances in the Bowl Championship Series and turn Cardinal red with anger. Or even envy.

Turns out, one of the handful of coaches in the last half century to lead a program from a winless season to two bowl games within three years doesn't feel UW is all that far behind what has become one of the Pac-12's and nation's elite teams recently.

"We'll be there ... We're not that far away from that," Sarkisian said of the growing Huskies (2-1) on the eve of Thursday's 6 p.m. "blackout" game at CenturyLink Field against eighth-ranked Stanford (3-0).

It's easy to forget, now that the Cardinal are national darlings following their upset of then-No. 2 USC, but Stanford went 4-8 in Jim Harbaugh's first season of 2007. It was 5-7 in '08.

It then got to 8-5 and 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win before the San Francisco 49ers hired Harbaugh to turn them around, too. Stanford promoted assistant David Shaw in 2011, kept the same, smash-mouth philosophies in playing and recruiting and went to last season's Fiesta Bowl.

"Where they restructured their program and where we restructured our program, they are a couple years ahead of us," Sarkisian said.

He arrived at Washington in January 2009, weeks after UW finished 0-12 season.

"Where coach Harbaugh came in and really turned that thing over and had a plan for what they wanted to get done and then Coach Shaw picked up right where Coach Harbaugh left off and has done a great job, they are a couple years ahead of us," Sarkisian said. "In two years from now, we'll be a pretty veteran group as well.

"As of right now, we're a young, talented team. And that's how we play."

What that means is the Huskies are still capable of fluctuating wildly from week to week, quarter to quarter - even play to play.

As much as everyone - including Sarkisian -- wants to win consistently, beginning yesterday, inconsistency is a common by-product of inexperience.

Already this season, the Huskies have exemplified it. The new, aggressive defense bailed out a sluggish offense in the opening win over San Diego State. At LSU, special teams got UW an early lead while the defense kept the Huskies in the game for most of a half. But the offense went nowhere, allowing the No. 2 Tigers to eventually roll.

In week three, Keith Price stayed more within himself as promised, Bishop Sankey and the running game awakened and the Huskies trounced Portland State.

Leading wide receiver Kasen Williams nailed it immediately after that 52-13 victory when he said, "I think that we are back to where we need to be. But at the same time, you know, we have to show that we can do that same thing - move the ball, score touchdowns - against a better opponent."

That's inconclusive inconsistency.


All of this makes the bye from which Washington is returning about the best-timed thing in Seattle since that call ending the Seahawks game the other night.

When playing after eight or more days of in-season preparation under Sarkisian, the Huskies have six wins in eight games while averaging 447 yards of offense and 31.5 points (this isn't counting season openers). Those wins have included upsets at USC in October 2010 - UW's first road win in 14 games and first at the Los Angeles Coliseum since 1996 - and the upset of Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The last two times UW has had time to learn and then re-run the game plan in consecutive practice weeks, Washington gained 562 yards and put up 52 points on Colorado last September, and 620 yards and 56 points on Baylor in December's Alamo Bowl.

Unlike many coaches, Sarkisian uses open-week practices to install the plan early for the next game. Sure, he and his staff do some self-scouting and make adjustments based on the tendencies other teams know about the Huskies. But Sarkisian simultaneously installs the game plan early in a bye week, then has the players go through a second week of game-plan prep in the practices directly leading up to the game.

When playing after eight or more days of in-season preparation under Sarkisian, the Huskies have six wins in eight games.I'm not the only one who thinks this.

"I think there is some merit to that," Sarkisian said. "You know, we really try to frontload our work as coaches. In that, sometimes guys in the bye week, you are still focusing on yourself - `OK, we'll wait until next week until we get on the next opponent.' We frontload ourselves in that we are on to our next opponent while we are fixing ourselves.

"So our guys should get extra reps on what we want to run and on the multitude of looks that they could potentially get so they can react to them a little bit better when the game actually comes. And then, ultimately, their comfort level with the game plan should increase. They should feel better about what we are doing by the time game time comes.

"I'd like to think that will happen again this week, because we have more time to prepare."

Of course, Sarkisian doesn't need to be reminded what Stanford has done to UW the last three seasons.

"One thing that's great is that we can use that, `Hey, this is who we are.' But at the end of the day, you still have to go out and execute it," he said. "You can't just rely on, `Oh, it's going to happen.' You have to prepare really well."

He says they have this week. Sarkisian has been pleased that since coming back Saturday afternoon from a day and a half off his Huskies have practiced with what he called "a purpose and an edge."


In at least one way, Stanford has become a measuring stick for the entire conference. Literally.

Sarkisian pointed out this week how Stanford's roster is tall.

Actually, it's basketball tall. Almost as tall as its unofficial mascot, the Redwood "El Palo Alto" tree.

Forty-three of the 121 players on Stanford's full roster are listed as being 6-feet-4 or taller.

There are 21 such Huskies on UW's 100-player roster.

Sarkisian noted second-ranked Oregon, the Huskies' opponent next week in Eugene, has a few more players at 6-4 or taller than Washington does and that No. 13 USC has about the same number as the Huskies. Washington hosts the Trojans on Oct. 13.

"Interesting stat," Sarkisian said of Stanford and its height. "They have made it a real point to recruit taller players, longer players.

"It shows up up front, especially on their defensive line. Their linebackers they're taller, longer. Up front on offense, (it's at) the tight end position."

Stanford's starting defensive ends are 6-6 redshirt sophomore Henry Anderson and 6-4 redshirt junior Ben Gardner. The starting linebackers include 6-4 senior captain Chase Thomas and 6-6 junior Trent Murphy outside.

The top two tight ends - the Cardinal will use three and maybe even four Thursday night, perhaps in the same, power formations - are 6-8 Levine Toilolo and 6-6 Zach Ertz.

Sarkisian continues to recruit toward length. He wants to create more matchup nightmares for opponents with height in addition to the speed UW already has. Converted safety Travis Feeney, now a starting linebacker at 6-4, is an example. Another, most obvious one is 6-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, whom every college team wanted out of Gig Harbor, Wash, High School.

Three seasons plus three games into his UW tenure Sarkisian is 21-20... Three seasons plus three games into his reclamation project at Stanford Harbaugh was 20-20.

In essence, Sarkisian wants to be more versatile through size with speed, to attack any opponent in a variety of ways from both sides of the line of scrimmage.

"I would like to think we're getting closer to that number from where we were, from where we started to where we are headed," Sarkisian said of his number of tall players.

It does, however, take time to be so deep and versatile on a completely remade roster with a new recruiting regime.

Three seasons plus three games into his UW tenure Sarkisian is 21-20 - including 1-1 in bowl games.

Three seasons plus three games into his reclamation project at Stanford Harbaugh was 20-20 - including 0-1 in bowls. It took until the end of his fourth season at Stanford for Harbaugh to win a bowl game, the 2010 Orange Bowl.

So the progress to building a program sustainable and versatile for the long haul is usually more incremental than it is astronomical.

"Steady progress," is what athletic director Scott Woodward constantly uses as his barometer for whether UW football is succeeding.

And to that end, from where it has come from in three-plus seasons, it is.

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 each Wednesday.

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