Sept. 20, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Most Husky practices last two hours and end with a manager pulling a tire-spinning, ball-throwing machine from a storage container onto the East Field. He then plugs it in.
Kasen Williams habitually takes his place about 10 yards away from the machine. He then stands there snaring dozens of zooming fastballs with outstretched, magnet-like hands.
This happens on those days when Williams is not joining Keith Price for extra routes and throws. On those days, the quarterback and wide receiver are the last two Huskies to come off the field.
"As long as our camaraderie between Keith and our wide outs gets better, as long as that's improving every day, you can see the improvement in him," Williams says. "That's going to bring his stats up, and that's going to bring our stats up.
"And, ultimately, we're going to win more games because of it."
It's a statement of how physically gifted and accomplished he is that after starting as a true freshman last season, finishing second on the Huskies in touchdown catches and providing the highlight play of Washington's 2011 in the Apple Cup, Williams is working harder and staying later for extra drills than he ever has in his athletic career.
He isn't close to being satisfied. Or even comfortable. He doesn't feel he is nearly as prolific or dominant as he - and the Huskies - think he should be.
And it's a statement of how big Washington's plans are to feature the sophomore - for now and for years to come -- that coach Steve Sarkisian has challenged Williams to be one of the best wide receivers in the nation.
As in, now, beginning next Thursday night when the Huskies (2-1) return from their bye against ninth-ranked Stanford (3-0).
"I'm progressing," the thoughtful, introspective Williams said after 15 catches for two touchdowns through three games. "But I still feel like I have a long ways to go."
Williams' self-awareness is as big an asset as his hulking, 6-foot-2, 216-pound body, the one that at times overpowers opponents that try to cover him one on one.
"There are things I can see in my game that are changing, for the better. There are also those little things that I need to work on," he says.
Those little things are the finer points to his game. The main target for Price, along with sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, feels he needs more discipline running his routes. If the pattern calls for a 90-degree cut at seven yards, don't do it 89 degrees eight yards downfield. That's what he's done off and on over his first year-plus as a Husky.
He wants to be more physical and effective breaking through coverage near the line of scrimmage against man-to-man coverages. He wants to be smarter and more adept at finding the open spots in zone defenses, which he may see a lot of next week from Stanford. He wants to prepare better and more consistently for defenses and for his own offense's game plans.
These are nuances the son of former Huskies standout receiver Aaron Williams didn't have to worry much about while he was becoming the first Parade magazine national player of the year from the state of Washington. That was in 2010.
At Skyline High School in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish, he was simply better than everybody else.
Williams was the Gatorade state high school player of the year in football and in track and field as a senior as Skyline. Skyline won three state football championships and reached the state finals in all four seasons Williams played that sport for the Spartans.
So he's not used to defeats like Washington's disappointing one two weeks ago at LSU.
"Yeah, it's different. I was thinking about that after the LSU game," he said. "It's different not winning every single game, working harder and preparing harder than you ever have -- and still not seeing the results. Even in high school when we did lose, I still had a pretty good game. This is kind of the opposite.
"So I'm just growing, taking these experiences and growing from them."
Physically, he's towered over his colleagues for years. He finished among the top four in state high-school history in all major career receiving categories. He was a star in basketball at Skyline. And he won the Class 4A state track titles in the triple jump - with a state-record leap of 50 feet, 9¼ inches - plus in the high jump and long jump.
Of course, a lot of the guys he's going up against now from LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC can claim similar high-school domination.
"Now I just have to take it on another level," Williams said. "I am playing on another level so I have to take my game to another level. Yeah, in high school that was the case (of being superior to most everyone else).
"Now, I have to work on being more technically savvy, and to let my physical ability take over after I have become a better wide receiver and am better at getting open."
Getting open for huge plays is what made his father a Huskies star for Don James from 1979-82. Aaron Williams' career average of 16.6 yards per reception is sixth-best in Huskies history for those who have caught a minimum of 50 passes.
Ask him if it was his father having played here or being able to stay close to home that led him to sign with Washington over LSU and just about every other school in the country that issues shoulder pads, and Williams says: "It was a combination of both of those.
"I like the coaching staff. I felt like we were going in the right direction."
Kasen is wearing the same jersey number his father wore at UW, number 2. And he's already made some wow plays like dad did as a Husky.
Kasen's leap of a stunned, bent-at-the-waist Washington State defensive back in the open field, his athletic landing and run for more yards in last November's Apple Cup is still being relived. It's on countless Huskies' video highlights. It adorns posters across Seattle and framed pictures on the UW campus. People even use it for their Twitter-page backgrounds.
It was the signature play from Williams' breakout game of last season. But 36 catches in 13 games while sharing prime-target status outside with 2011 seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar left Williams feeling unsatisfied.
Those numbers also left Williams driven for 2012.
"With Kasen, about halfway through spring ball something clicked with him," Sarkisian said. "He had a great offseason. He looks in tremendous shape. He's been strong. He's been physical. He's been confident.
"He's really knows what he's doing, so he's doing it confidently."
It's early, but one quarter of the way through this regular season entering tonight Williams is already almost halfway to his total for all of 2011. He's feeling like a bigger asset in the offense -- if not all the way to meeting Sarkisian's challenge of joining the nation's elite.
Not yet, anyway. Then again, he's only a sophomore.
Williams only sounds and looks older.
"(The difference this year) is just being more involved in the offense, for one. Just being stronger. And I'm making more plays than I was last year," he says. "Yeah, it's still early and there's still a lot more playing to go, and I didn't feel like I started off the way I wanted to. But we are still just bonding in trying to figure out how and what we are going to do to get those numbers back up."
Asked what he needs to work on most to perfect his game, beyond those little things, Williams simply said: "To get open more.
"In reality, that's what it comes down to," he said. "Just make the catches and get open."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: The offense continued to drill the changes in line play and passing schemes against Stanford's 3-4 defense that uses more zone pass coverage. UW has primarily faced 4-3, man-to-man teams so far. Thursday's practice also featured situational work, including a 42-yard field goal simulated as a last-second kick that Travis Coons made to end the day. Teammates celebrated Coons' make as if it was a game ender - and celebrated the start of a day and a half off. The players return Saturday afternoon to prepare for the Thursday night game. "We got some early game-plan stuff for Stanford. We addressed some issues that needed addressed," Sarkisian said. ... Huskies coaches left campus following practice to spread up and down the West Coast and as far east as Texas to recruit high-school games. College football programs are allowed one weekend in season that an entire staff can go out on recruiting visits en masse. This bye weekend is UW's, and the coaches were boarding flights soon after practice. "I love it. This is our livelihood. I love being out," said Sarkisian, who was headed to Southern California. "I don't get to go out in the spring and recruit (per NCAA rules for a head coach). I want to hit it as hard and fast as we can."