April 27, 2011
REMINDER: Spring Game is Saturday at 11:00 a.m. Listen live on KJR Radio, with coverage beginning at 9:00 a.m.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - John Timu is chasing quarterbacks from sideline to sideline. He wasn't yet enrolled in college five months ago.
Sean Parker is hawking the ball while on the last line of defense. The sophomore safety has zero career starts.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins seems to be catching everything thrown within the same area code, and he's making heads-up plays on special teams. The huge tight end was in high school last month.
Weeks into the encore year to Washington playing a school-record 14 freshmen last season and then winning its first bowl since 2001, the Huskies are even younger at key spots as spring practice comes to an end.
Youth isn't just being served at UW. It's being featured.
"Yeah," senior-to-be middle linebacker Cort Dennison said, chuckling and shaking his head that as he gets older his Huskies seem to keep getting younger.
But that's what has made the 15 spring practices so advantageous for UW. They end with a final practice Friday and then the spring game on Saturday at Husky Stadium (11 a.m. Pacific time, with a live chat here on GoHuskies.com and live radio broadcast on 950 KJR AM in Seattle).
These Dawgs have been nurturing and growing their pups without the pressures of an opponent to study or game plan to implement as in the regular season or of having to determine starters, as they will in preseason camp come August.
"Spring ball is huge for that," Dennison said after Tuesday's practice. "The thing with a lot of these young guys, the last four or five weeks they've really grown as players. The mistakes they were making in Week One they aren't making any more. When you see that, you know the right things are happening."
"I noticed it the most when I looked to my left and to my right at the start of spring ball and I didn't have Mason and Victor out there, like I had for all the other years," Dennison said. "I looked behind me and I'm used to (safety and 2010 co-captain) Nate Williams, and he's not back there.
"There are a few new faces. But these young guys are doing a good job. Obviously, most of these guys are very highly touted recruits, and they are very highly touted for a reason. They are all great football players. The thing is for them to just get more experience. The more experience they get, the better they will be, and the better the team will be."
Dennison leads a rapidly developing defense that at some points during scrimmaging Tuesday had nine freshmen and sophomores on the first unit. That included Timu, who enrolled in January, and Parker, who played as the fifth or nickel defensive back in passing situations last season as a true freshman. Parker is taking the place of the graduating Williams, who was watching Tuesday's practice with Aiyewa from the sideline.
Dennison said those freshmen and sophomores have taken it upon themselves to correct mistakes immediately, such as by staying on the field after practice for a few minutes for extra instruction.
"I'm really proud of them," the 2011 team leader said. "And they only way they are going from here is up."
They have a road map for getting there.
Coach Steve Sarkisian says the next evolution in this UW youth movement is adding awareness and savvy to the new guys' experience.
"We have played a lot of young football players the last two years, a lot of true freshmen have gotten opportunities to play. And that's great, we've gotten some experience. But we need to raise our football I.Q.," Sarkisian said at the start of his third spring practice leading Washington. "Our football awareness needs to get better, understanding of the special situations within the game ... not just running the play."
So Sarkisian has had his players run third-and-8 plays from midfield, from the red zone or from inside the defense's 20. He's had them run fourth-and-1 plays, third-and-forever ones, first-and-10 from their own 1, first-and-goal from the 9. They've practiced 2-minute drills and running out the clock while holding a lead. They've even practiced field goals when the opponent calls successive time outs to "ice" the kicker.
You name the game situation, the Huskies have run it this spring. Even in - especially in - April, Sarkisian has simulated what his young players will come across specifically when the games get real this fall.
When Houston coach Kevin Sumlin visited practice this month, he marveled at all the special situations Sarkisian had the Huskies working, rather than just running a list of plays in order off a scripted sheet.
Sarkisian said his approach, learned like much of his coaching philosophy when he was an assistant at USC to Pete Carroll immediately before taking his first head-coaching job, has produced results this month.
"I like our awareness in the situations we're in, when we are in third down especially in our defensive coverage, understanding routes and recognition and things of that nature," Sarkisian said. "Also, when we are getting in some 2-minute drills. It's just playing smarter football."
The coach then praised Seferian-Jenkins, an early enrollee last month from Gig Harbor, Wash., High School, for heady plays Tuesday on kickoff returns. He batted one short sideline kick out of bounds and out of the potential possession of the kickoff team, then fair caught a short popup kick to avoid the chance of a sudden hit and fumble trying to return it.
"I like the fact that our youth is starting to grow up and show their experience," Sarkisian said. "We are not just playing."