July 31, 2005
The Washington football team entered the spring football practice season with a lot of questions. After all, with new head coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff getting their first on-field look at the UW team, the evaluation of personnel and installation of a new system promised more than a few unknowns.
Certainly, while plenty of questions remain for coaches, players and fans alike, the Huskies head into the fall with a new determination and a mission to return to the status to which Washington football has become accustomed.
Willingham, the 2002 national coach of the year at Notre Dame, has given his new team a relatively simple process for beginning to answer those questions, and it's one he hopes will lead to a quick turnaround from the 2004 Husky squad, which finished 1-10.
"The number one thing we need to do is to get back to"`Husky Football'," Willingham explains.
"I think we started to do that. What we tried to emphasize was the discipline, the toughness and the tenacity that we need to become a good football team.
"Number two, in order to become a good football team, we have to learn a new system," he continues. "In spring practice, we put guys in situations so that they could understand how this system will work. From a mental standpoint, I think we made some progress.
"The next part is to start to identify some playermakers -- people we think we can count on," Willingham concludes.
"We started to find some of those and we started to find out where we don't have them and what we have to do to adjust."
Having established this process during his first spring workouts, Willingham has planted a seed he hopes will continue to grow through the summer and into the fall, when the Huskies return to the field to prepare for the 2005 season.
"What we still need to have answered is how far we've come in all of those areas, because that determines our success on the field," Willingham says. "Have we really become a football team that is tough, that is tenacious, that never gives up? Have we become that team that really understands the system and can execute it under game conditions? And, do we have those playmakers in place?"
Willingham will have an abundance of young players to jumpstart the Washington's rebuilding process. A total of 62 lettermen and 19 starters return from last year's team. There is considerable depth at almost every position except for cornerback. It is unlikely there will be a repeat of the large number of injuries that depleted the depth chart last season. Four of the team's five captains were sidelined by the end of the season. While that experience can only help, Willingham is quick to emphasize that the past is the past and that players must continue to fight for playing time.
"We gave a lot of young men an opportunity in the spring," Willingham says. "If you were dressed and practicing, you at some point had an opportunity, whether you were the No. 115 player on the squad or the No. 1 player, to show what you can do. To us as a coaching staff, that's important -- providing an opporunity to the players to demonstrate where they should be and how they rank."
Willingham has presented his players with a formula that is at the same time simple and demanding. He and his assistant coaches have made it clear what players must do to succeed in their system.
"We've explained to them what will get them in with us very clearly," Willingham says. "We've told them, I am fond of young men that work hard, that don't make mistakes and play smart football. I am fond of guys that go to class and do well in the classroom, that are good people. So, they know where they stand with us in terms of the things we're asking of them. "But, in terms of who is No. 1 or No. 2 at a position, I think most of them know who has the edge, but in many cases, they didn't close the door," he continues. "They didn't slam down the position so that they could walk away with no doubt in their mind. Hopefully, this offseason will give them ample opportunity to work to get better."
The Huskies return eight starters and 29 lettermen on offense. Washington struggled last year in two critical areas - scoring and turnovers. The Huskies were last in the Pac-10 averaging just 14.0 points per game. The team was ninth in total offense, averaging 311 yards per outing. The team had 42 turnovers, 12 more than the next closest team in the league.
Getting consistent play from the quarterback position is a must for the Husky offense. Last year the team completed only 40 percent of its pass attempts and had 24 interceptions while recording just eight touchdown passes. Washington averaged 190.8 passing yards per game, the lowest total in 10 years.
After giving three different players the opportunity to run Washington's offense in 2004, Willingham said he intends to decide on a single player to be the Huskies' starting quarterback.
"My biggest concern is to see if we can get not only our quarterbacks, but every position, a fair and equal opportunity to see who is our best player. For me, I am comfortable and patient enough that if we don't announce that until September 3, I am okay," Willingham says. "I prefer one quarterback. I think you would want one leader, but at the same time, if we can't find one guy to do the job, then we will do whatever it means is necessary for us to be successful."
In addition to the three returning players who contended for the job last spring - senior Casey Paus, junior Isaiah Stanback and sophomore Carl Bonnell - Oregon transfer Johnny DuRocher will join the team this spring as a sophomore and is eligible to play this fall after sitting out the 2004 campaign.
Paus has the most experience of the returning veterans. He started eight of 11 games last year and has appeared in 17 games over the past two seasons. Paus threw for 1,476 yards last year. He completed 116 of 274 passes and had 17 interceptions against five touchdown tosses.
Stanback, who was used primarily as a receiver during the 2003 season, played in seven games at quarterback last year. He completed 33 of 68 passes for 389 yards. He had three touchdowns and three interceptions. He was fifth on the team with 66 rushing yards, including a pair of TD runs. Bonnell saw time in four games before a groin injury slowed him. He passed for 228 yards, completing 20 of 54 throws and had four interceptions. He ran for 104 yards and one score.
Durocher was a highly touted high school prospect at Bethel High School in Puyallup. He threw for 6,781 yards during his prep career, the ninth highest total in Washington state history. He redshirted his true freshman year at Oregon but was a member of the Ducks' travel squad during the season.
There are seven lettermen returning at tailback and fullback for the Huskies. Washington averaged 120.2 rushing yards per game in 2004, the most by a Husky team since 2000. The UW running backs combined for just seven rushing scores during the season.
Willingham pointed to the running backs corps as the top offensive unit during spring practice.
"I'd say the performance of our running backs was a team strength for us," he says. "I thought those guys did things in a more successful manner than they'd done in the past. We had quite a few turnovers last year and yet in our spring practice, we weren't putting the ball on the ground. Hopefully, that carries over into fall practice and into the season."
Leading the returning veterans is junior tailback Kenny James. The two-time letterwinner has started 15 times during 23 appearances over the past two years. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 172 attempts, finishing the season with 702 yards and five scores. James had 133 yards against UCLA and a season-best effort of 189 versus San Jose State. James enters his junior season with 1,232 career rushing yards.
Junior Shelton Sampson had 51 carries for 189 yards and a pair of scores. His best outing was 76 yards on 10 totes against UCLA. Sophomore Louis Rankin carried the ball just nine times for 35 yards. Chris Singleton, who has been slowed most of the past two years due to a foot injury, should return healthy for his senior campaign.
"Louis Rankin's explosiveness and the way he performed in the spring is very exciting," Willingham notes. "Kenny James' consistency and performance, along with Shelton Sampson's, showed that they can do some things. They all showed themselves very well. They were probably our best group on the offensive side."
James Sims had 59 carries and 212 yards as a fullback. Against Washington State, he carried 23 times for a career-best 85 yards. Mark Palaita also returns at fullback. Ty Eriks, who was used at defensive end in 2004, also returns to the position. A pair of redshirt freshman, Johnie Kirton and Luke Kravitz, will have the chance to break into the depth chart in the backfield.
The Huskies have an abundance of players returning at the wideout positions. Headlining that corps is sophomore Craig Chambers who led the team in receiving yards with 408.
Chambers piled up all of those yards during the final four games of the season. He had 100-yard games in three of UW's final four contests, including eight catches for 189 yards against California. He teamed with Paus for a 77-yard touchdown play against the Golden Bears. Chambers' emergence finally gave Washington a big-play receiver. He averaged 21.5 yards per catch.
Junior Sonny Shackelford led the team in total receptions with 21. He averaged a hefty 14.2 yards per catch. With 28 catches over the past two seasons, he has the most experience of any receiver on the team.
Another pair of wideouts should be back from injuries that ended their sophomore seasons prematurely. Corey Williams emerged as UW's top receiving threat when he had five receptions in back-to-back games against UCLA and Notre Dame early in the year before a broken wrist sidelined him. Quintin Daniels had eight catches for 121 yards in six games before a sprained knee forced him to the sidelines for the second half of the season.
Another returning letterwinner who strengthens the position is sophomore Anthony Russo, who plays primarily in the slot. He had 11 catches and averaged 12.6 yards per catch in his first year as a Husky. Sophomore Charles Smith is also back after lettering last year and sophomore Cody Ellis is expected to move to the position on a full-time basis after having played both receiver and cornerback last year.
While the tight end position has a pair of returning veterans, it loses it most productive member to a position switch. Senior Joe Toledo moves over on the line to offensive tackle for his senior season. Toledo led the position last year with 19 catches for 202 yards and a pair of scores. Another letterwinner, Jason Benn, also moved to tackle.
The two returning veterans are junior Dash Crutchley and sophomore Robert Lewis. Lewis switched from linebacker to tight end last year and had five catches in limited play. Crutchley appeared in four games and did not have any receptions.
Washington's offensive line returns four starters and a host of backups. A total of eight letterwinners return in addition to the move of Toledo and Benn to tackle. Senior Tui Alailefaleula is also back after redshirting the 2004 season. The Huskies were a solid pass blocking group last year, finishing second in the Pac-10 with just 23 sacks allowed.
"Our offensive line holds great potential for us," Willingham says. "They have sufficient size and athleticism to do some good things. We just have to let them bring it home."
The interior of the line will be the strength of the offensive unit. It is anchored by senior center Brad Vanneman and guards Clay Walker, Tusi Sa'au and Stanley Daniels. Vanneman started all 11 games while Walker, a junior, had nine starts, Sa'au, a senior, five and Daniels, a junior, eight.
Senior Brandon Leyritz figures as the backup at center while junior Juan Garcia can play either guard or center. Alailefaleula returns to the lineup and redshirt freshmen Ryan Bush and Casey Bulyca will get their first playing time at the guard spots.
Sophomore Chad Macklin will compete with Toledo for the weakside tackle position vacated by Ryan Brooks. Senior Robin Meadow returns at the strongside tackle position. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Nathan Flowers and Jovon O'Connor will back him up.
As the Huskies adjust to a new coaching staff and schemes, the Washington defense could be the strength of the team. There are nine starters returning, including the front seven and interior of the defensive backs. Staffing the cornerbacks position continues to be a concern after the loss of two veteran starters and a dearth of returners at the position.
During spring practice, on the defensive side of the ball, Willingham was most impressed with the line. The Huskies return an incredible 12 lettermen for the four line spots. While that experience may indeed serve the UW well in 2005, Willingham is quick to point out that continued improvement is still expected.
"I tred to emphasize to our players that having a letter jacket or coming back with 12 guys that played last year, means nothing if we're not better," he says. "That experience is a tremendous plus - if we're better."
Senior All-America candidate Manase Hopoi will anchor Washington's veteran defensive line from the tackle position. Last season he had one of the top years ever by a Husky lineman and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors along the way. Playing both tackle and end due to injuries on the line, Hopoi had 22 tackles for loss to lead the Pac-10. He was fifth in sacks with nine and finished the season with 54 tackles.
Hopoi has the strength to line up at tackle and the speed to rush from the end position. He tied a UW single-game record with six tackles for loss at USC, including three sacks. Hopoi has started all 36 games during his Husky career.
Hopoi is joined on the defensive line by senior Mike Mapuolesega. A defensive end who can also play inside like Hopoi, Mapuolesega had 16 tackles, including three for loss, last year. A junior college transfer, he redshirted the 2003 season and appeared in seven games last year before a knee injury forced him to miss four games.
Junior Brandon Ala returns as Mapuolesega's backup at one end position. He made 18 tackles in 11 games last season and started the first four games of the season. Junior Donny Mateaki also returns after playing in 17 games over the past two seasons at defensive tackle.
The Husky defensive line saw four true freshmen forced into significant roles last year. Jordan White-Frisbee started eight of the last nine games of the season at defensive tackle while Greyson Gunheim was the starter at defensive end for the final seven contests. Erick Lobos was a regular in the rotation at nose tackle and Caesar Rayford played in the final six games of the season.
White-Frisbee, a massive 6-6, 330-pound run stopper, finished his rookie campaign with 26 tackles while Gunheim was credited with 16 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. Lobos accounted for eight tackles.
Nose tackle Dan Milsten, who suffered a dislocated ankle and broken leg against Oregon State, returns for his junior season. Milsten had started the first six games of the season before suffering his injuries. Sophomore Wilson Afoa benefited by Milsten's absence by gaining valuable playing time in nine games. Redshirt freshman Walt Winter could also see his first playing time at defensive end.
Willingham had assumed that Washington's experience and talent at linebacker would be the highlight of the spring. However, injuries to two of his three returning starters (Joe Lobendahn and Scott White) muddied the picture while also giving an opportunity to younger players to step up.
All three of Washington's starting linebackers return along with several experienced backups at those positions. The trio of Lobendahn, White and Evan Benjamin were Washington's top three tacklers last year, combining for 288 stops.
Lobendahn and White (both expected to be healthy this fall) return as UW's inside linebackers in the Huskies' 4-3 scheme. A team captain as a junior, Lobendahn was second on the team with 100 tackles in 10 games. He missed the Apple Cup due to a broken wrist he suffered in the home finale against California. He finished the year third in the Pac-10 by averaging 10.0 tackles per game. He also accumulated 13.5 tackles for loss.
White had 83 tackles in 10 games, including 15 stops vs. Stanford. He finished third on the team with 12 tackles for loss, including three against the Cardinal. White managed five quarterback sacks, recovered a pair of fumbles and intercepted one pass.
Benjamin led the team in tackles in 2004 after moving from safety to inside linebacker. He completed his first year as a linebacker with 105 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His abilities as a safety allowed him to do a good job in pass coverage where he led the defense with three interceptions while also breaking up four passes. Benjamin also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles.
Sophomores Dan Howell and Kyle Trew figure as the backups at inside linebacker while junior Tahj Bomar is the top reserve at the outside spot. Trew and Howell both appeared in nine games last season while Bomar played in the season's first four contests.
Dashon Goldson started all 11 games last year at free safety while C.J. Wallace started the final nine games at strong safety. Goldson, a junior college transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining at UW, had 64 tackles in 2004 and led the team with five pass breakups. He had two interceptions during his first season on Montlake.
Wallace was fourth on the team with 66 tackles. He led all defensive backs with five tackles for loss while also picking off one pass and breaking up three passes.
Sophomore Darin Harris, who was a regular on special teams, enters the spring as Goldson's backup. Harris played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman. Sophomore Chris Hemphill, an imposing figure at 6-6 in the defensive backfield, played in eight games at safety and had 10 tackles.
The most experienced of the returning cornerbacks is junior Matt Fountaine. He played in all 11 games, frequently as a nickel back, and started twice. Fountaine had 22 tackles during the year and one interception. Junior Kim Taylor did not play in 2004 after earning a letter as a redshirt freshman in 2003 when he saw time in four games.
The cornerback position will benefit from several transfers. Sophomore Roy Lewis sat out the 2004 campaign after transferring from San Jose State, but did participate in the spring. Junior college transfer Josh Okoebor should be back this fall after recovering from knee surgery. In the fall Nevada transfer Chris Handy will join the team as well as Pasadena Community College transfers Qwenton Freeman and Marlon Wood.
With only three scholarship cornerbacks available in the spring, there are still questions to be answered at the position - the answers to which might come from those newcomers.
"To have three scholarship cornerbacks in spring practice was a frightening situation," Willingham concedes. "We have to get some in and get them to stay consistent and give us the kind of performance we need from a corner. They can't be up one moment and down the next. We need consistency."
Washington's top three kickers return from last season. Junior punter Sean Douglas averaged 42.6 yards per punt last year, which figures as the second best single-season average in UW history. Douglas boomed a 78-yard punt at Washington State and averaged 48 yards on six kicks against Arizona. The strong-legged Husky dropped 19 of his 63 punts inside the 20 yards line. He also participates as UW's kicker on kickoffs. The punt protection was a problem for the Huskies as opponents managed to block five kicks.
Senior Evan Knudson handled the majority of the field goal duties in 2004. He converted seven of 10 kicks and finished the season with 24 points. Sophomore Michael Braunstein made three of seven field goals and was 11 of 12 on PATs.
Russo led the Huskies in both punt and kickoff returns. He averaged 17.6 yards on 15 kickoff returns and ran back eight of the team's 18 punt returns.
Willingham, however, has concerned himself with what he considers and often-overlooked position.
"What's so important about our special teams is the hidden guy -- the long snapper," Willingham explains. "That is the most critical player, because he shapes everything that happens. If he can consistenly snap the ball back there on the punts at a great time, then the linemen don't have to block as long. They can hit their man and then get downfield. We then become a better coverage team."
Washington has the rare good fortune of opening a season with a road game that will be played mere miles from the UW campus. The Huskies start the year against Air Force in a game that was moved from the Academy's campus in Colorado to Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.
"It is extremely nice," Willingham says of his "road" opener.""We could be on a plane to Colorado Springs. If we can find a way to be successful against Air Force, it has a chance to springboard us forward to a good season. That's going to be a really tough opener for us since no one on this team has defended the option. We're going to have to be extremely disciplined and tenacious."
Willingham's primary task as the season approaches is to instill that discipline and tenacity into a team that struggled its way through the 2004 season. Since being introduced as the new UW head man, he has stressed getting back to what many college football fans regard as traditional "Husky Football."
"I would like it to be said that the qualities of the Husky football team were the initial focus of the team -- the toughness and tenacity -- that those were the things that led us to a successful season," Willingham says.
"I don't think we have to wait for victories," he continues. "If we do things right as a football team, we can win now. But we have to do things right. We have to execute the process and not worry about the end result. If you execute, you guarantee yourself victories.
"We have to have a cultural change from the mindset of a 1-10 team. We can't think like, act like and respond like a 1-10 team. We have to change that mindset and that culture. That will lead us to victories."