Aug. 2, 2006
By any measure, the Washington football program took a step forward last year.
The Huskies improved in almost every statistical category, most notably scoring a touchdown more per game than the previous season, and reducing turnovers by more than half.
Still, there are more steps to be made under second-year head coach Tyrone Willingham to return Washington football to the status one of the nation's most consistently strong programs, a label it wore for nearly three decades.
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The question then becomes, how do Willingham, his staff and the team go about making those steps?
"The main thing we have to do -- and we said this last year -- is that we have to get back to being Huskies and playing Husky-style football,"
Willingham says. "You do that by being tough. You do that by being smart. You do that by never giving up. That's what the Huskies have been known for over the years. We need to get back to that style of confident play. It gives you that swagger -- that sense that everytime you step on the field, something great is about to happen."
While the won-lost record may not have indicated the marked improvement the Huskies made last season, Washington was just a play or two away from victory in several games that resulted in losses. Willingham chooses to use that as a positive.
"We were close on four or five occasions last year," he says, "and being close is better than not being close. That should mean that we have a shorter distance to travel to get where we want to go. Hopefully, our guys can say, `We almost had it. We can almost taste what it's like. Let's go back and work a little harder.'
"We need to build that confidence and that fortitude that it takes to come out of the other side with a win."
Here's a look at the 2006 Husky football team as it heads into the fall:
Three-year letterman and senior Isaiah Stanback started all 11 games last year for the UW. In 11 games, he completed 143-of-264 passes (54.2 percent) for 2,136 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 353 yards (third on the team) and three touchdowns. He finished sixth in the Pac-10 Conference in passing yards, passing efficiency and total offense and, among quarterbacks who played in enough games to qualify for conference rankings, threw fewer interceptions than all but one.
Junior Johnny Durocher spent the majority of the 2005 season as the Huskies' No. 2 quarterback. He saw action in five games, completing 24-of-54 passes for 247 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. DuRocher will continue to provide a stiff challenge for the starting job, as he did throughout fall camp last season.
"I was pleased with what Johnny Durocher brought to our football team last year,"Willingham says. "I thought he brought that element of toughness and a take-charge mentality. So, you had Johnny creating a wonderful situation with he and Isaiah in which they were complementing each other in terms of personality and in terms of style of play. One's a more traditional drop-back quarterback and the other has the ability to run and scramble and do some things to put pressure on the defense.
"What has happened is that he's helped Isaiah grow by having another style and another model around," Willingham continues. "Isaiah has now become a better leader, a better athlete and more knowledgable of our system, and that makes him a better quarterback. Also, Carl Bonnell has started to find his way through the process and had some signs of really being a great second punch in our offense, if necessary."
Another junior, Bonnell didn't see any game action last year due primarily to injury, but provides more experience to the group. In 2004, Bonnell played in four games, including starts against Stanford and San Jose State.
Senior Felix Sweetman and highly-touted freshman Jake Locker complete the Huskies' five-man quarterback corps. Last year, Sweetman played in his first game at the UW against Idaho, but has yet to throw a pass.
"Our quarterback position as a whole has grown," Willingham concludes. "I think we're much better than a year ago at the position."
Junior Louis Rankin started the first seven games of 2005 at tailback before an injury curtailed his participation in the latter portion of the season. Rankin rushed for 485 yards on 104 carries, good for 4.7 yards per carry and 69.3 yards per game. He became the first Husky since Corey Dillon in 1996 to top 100 yards in his first-career start, going for 112 in the season-opener vs. Air Force, and also topped the century mark against Idaho (115) and UCLA (109).
Senior Kenny James didn't start any games at tailback last year, but started 10 in 2004 and five in 2003, and with more than 1,300 career rushing yards is Washington's most experienced back. Last season, an injury suffered in fall camp limited his ability to contribute early in the year, opening the door for Rankin and others to see increased time.
"We have to get and stay healthy at the tailback position because we don't have a great deal of depth there," Willingham says. "Right now, we have Kenny James and Louis Rankin, in terms of experienced players. Both of them have shown the ability to make things happen at a Pac-10 level."
Also expected to battle for playing time is senior Shelton Sampson, who returns to the backfield after spending Spring Football in the secondary. Shelton is no rookie to the backfield as he rushed for 274 yards and scored eight touchdowns in 2003 and added 189 yards and two touchdowns in 2004.
Senior Mark Palaita emerged from occasional special teams play to regular action at fullback in 2005. While Palaita carried the ball only three times, he played in all 11 games and spent considerable time as a backfield blocker. Sophomore Luke Kravitz also earned time at fullback last year and will look to add to that in 2006.
"We're expecting our fullbacks to be our blue-collar workers," Willingham says. "We're expecting them to be leaders in terms of playing physical football and getting after it from an attitude standpoint."
Senior and three-year letterman Sonny Shackelford led the Huskies with 41 receptions in 2006, the second-straight season that he topped the team in catches. Shackelford caught a pass in all but one game in 2005 and had his best days vs. California (six catches, 124 yards, 1 touchdown) and Washington State (4-121-1).
Like Shackelford, junior Anthony Russo started all 11 games in 2005, catching at least one pass in each. Russo finished the year with 487 receiving yards on 30 receptions and, like Shackelford, also saw significant time as the Huskies' punt returner.
Willingham notes that junior Corey Williams has made great strides in returning to the form he showed as a freshman in 2003. After a significant injury in 2004 contributed to a slow return in 2005, Williams hopes to hold a more prominent role in the Huskies' passing game.
Speedy junior Cody Ellis, who has spent time at cornerback, played in all 11 games last year and shows promise as a big-play receiver, while junior Marlon Wood, whose 2005 season came to a premature end on an injury sustained at the end of a 92-yard kickoff return vs. USC, adds speed and shiftiness as both a receiver and return man.
Also returning from injury is senior Quintin Daniels, who missed all of last season after having seen regular action in 2003 and 2004.
"We're still seeking that one guy who can be a go-getter, a big-play performer in our receiver corps," Willingham explains. "But, we also still very much need those possession-type guys in our offense who we can count on for the short and intermediate catches."
"The real challenge of our offensive team is in our offensive line," Willingham says. "I've always said you don't get good until you have a good offensive line.
"We need our veterans to be a real steel-clad front line for us," he continues. "They really need to bolster up, have a great summer and be real leaders for us to make a charge."
The one "true" returning starter is senior guard Stanley Daniels, who started seven of 11 games last season and also started seven in 2004. He returns to his spot at left guard in 2006.
Fellow senior Clay Walker, however, also started four games at left guard last year. and boasts 19 career starts overall, including nine in 2004 and six in 2003. Walker will likely start at either guard or center alongside junior Juan Garcia, who has recovered from a series of injuries and can also play either position in 2006.
Tackle Chad Macklin is the only other UW lineman with starting experience. The 6-foot-8 junior earned two starts in 2006, and enters the fall as a candidate to take over that right tackle position on a permanent basis.
Besides Daniels, Walker and Macklin, the only other Husky lineman to have seen game action is junior William. Kava, who returned to the UW last year after a two-year church mission, hasn't played in a game since 2002.
Redshirt freshman Ben Ossai emerged from spring drills as a potential starter at tackle, joining redshirt freshman Morgan Rosborough and sophomore Casey Bulyca in the depth at that position. Redshirt freshman Ryan Bush will also provide depth at both the center and guard spots.
JC transfer Aaron Mason and several highly-regarded incoming freshmen provide additional strength at the various offensive line positions.
Washington returns its two most oft-used tight ends from last season, as well as two other scholarship reserves at the position.
Junior Robert Lewis started the last 10 games in 2005, and finished tied for fourth on the team with 14 receptions, for 162 yards and one touchdown.
Sophomore Johnie Kirton, who moved to tight end from running back prior to the start of the 2005 campaign, came on quickly at his new position. Kirton also caught 14 balls in 2005, for 152 yards and one score. A rare combination of size and speed, Kirton's continuing education at what is still, for him, a relatively new position could lead to big things in 2006.
Michael Gottlieb earned a scholarship last year and spent much of the year on the depth chart, but did not notch any receptions. Tim Williams, a 6-foot-6 freshman, redshirted the 2005 season and will hope to get onto the field this year.
"The tight end position could be very strong for us," Willingham says. "It could turn out to be a much-improved position than it was a year ago. Hopefully, our guys will be bigger, faster, stronger and more knowledgeable about Pac-10 football."
Washington's defensive line, or at least the starting four, remains a bit of a question as the team prepares for the fall. A number of players could play more than one position and even as the fall approaches, there will continue to be battles for the starting spots.
Junior Greyson Gunheim, who saw plenty of action as a freshman in 2004, started all 11 games last year at the end position opposite Mateaki. He'll battle senior Brandon Ala and junior Caesar Rayford at that spot. Ala started one game in 2005 and has six career starts entering the season.
"The key thing is to find a pass rusher," Willingham explains. "We get excited because we know that Greyson Gunheim can one day be one of those, but it's got to stop being `one day.' It has to be today. He has marvelous talent and marvelous skill to get it done. He needs to recognize how good he can be."
Two experienced players will compete for one of the two tackle spots: Wilson Afoa and Erick Lobos. Afoa, a junior, started the last seven games in 2005 to take a firm hold on the job, but Lobos saw regular action off the bench and could compete at either tackle position.
Finally, the Huskies will hope for the continued recovery of tackle Jordan White-Frisbee. After starting eight games as a true freshman in 2004, White-Frisbee sat out all of last year due to injury.
"We have to get some grunt work done in the middle," Willingham says. "We need to find some nose guards and tackles who can really be horses to provide a push in pass rush and stuff things up against the run game."
The most experienced linebacker is senior Scott White. White started every game last season and nine the year before. His 79 tackles in 2005 ranked him fourth on the team while his two interceptions were second.
At one inside spot, senior Tahj Bomar hopes to pick up where he left off as he started the final two games of the year in place of an injured Lobendahn. After White, Bomar is the Huskies' next most-experienced `backer. He'll fight it out with sophomore Trenton Tuiasosopo, who will return to the field after recovering from a non-football injury that kept him out of last season.
At the other inside spot, a youthful group will contend for playing time. Sophomore Chris Stevens, who saw significant playing time as a third-down specialist as a freshman in 2005, will attempt to win the spot with competition from redshirt freshmen E.J. Savannah and Joshua Gage.
"We lost two of the three starters," says Willingham, "and it won't be quite a youth movement, but there will be some youth added to it. Chris Stevens, who had some playing time last year, mostly as a third-down rush specialist, is expected to step up and really be a leader for us. Hopefully, the addition of E.J. Savannah after resting his injuries will allow him to be a major player in the group. Tahj Bomar has been solid and continues to improve and it's great to have Trenton Tuiasosopo back in the mix.
"Hopefully," continues Willingham, "the combination of Dan Howell and Scott White will give us a strong SAM linebacker -- a guy that we can depend on not only for his athleticism but for his leadership."
Goldson, who made 80 tackles at safety last fall, made a successful move to corner in the spring, and enters the 2006 season alongside former high-school teammate Lewis as the leading contenders at the two cornerback spots. Wallace and JC transfers Jason Wells and Ashlee Palmer are strong candidates to start at safety.
"The secondary is an area that may hold the greatest improvement of our team," Willingham says. "If we can develop Dashon Goldson and Roy Lewis to be our corners and our safeties come along with Jason Wells, C.J. Wallace and/or Ashlee Palmer, we'll start to have a much more aggressive and secure secondary."
A senior strong safety, Wallace in 2005 was second on the team with 86 tackles. In addition to newcomers Wells and Palmer, he'll have to hold off challenges from sophomore Mesphin Forrester and junior Chris Hemphill -- both of whom were singled out for praise in the spring -- as well as Harris and Moss, two juniors who have played both safety and corner during their UW careers.
Goldson, Lewis and Fountaine -- each of whom started at least eight games in 2005 -- will anchor the corner position, while Moss, Okeobor and JC transfer Jordan Murchison will also figure into the mix.
Douglas ranks at or near the top in nearly every UW single-season and career punting statistic, and ranked 22nd in the nation with a 42.7-yard average in 2005.
"Special teams and kicking should turn out to be a strength for us if everything works out well," Willingham says. "You have to get excited about Sean Douglas' great leg and great potential. When he really learns to zero in and make himself a weapon by getting his punts down inside the five or 10-yard line, then the punting game is much stronger."
Braunstein, meanwhile, hit three field goals as a true freshman in 2004, and has shared UW's kickoff duties in each of the past two seasons.
"Hopefully, Braunstein can be that veteran player who really comes on and establishes himself as a good kicker," Willingham says.
Thanks at least in part to the addition of long snapper Danny Morovick (who enrolled in January after attending, but not playing at, junior college last fall), Willingham has reason to believe that his kicking game can indeed be special.
"In Danny Morovick, we think have a young man who, once he gets the blocking down, will be an excellent long snapper," Willingham says.