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Unleashed: They’re Back! A Primer to Huskies Fall Camp
Release: 07/31/2013
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“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be in position to compete for a division championship,” Sarkisian says of a team that will have will have Austin Seferian-Jenkins on the field Monday when it begins 24 practices of training camp.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE -- Keith Price is out for redemption.

“Oh, man, there are a lot of people sleeping on me,” the Huskies quarterback told me this month.

Bishop Sankey is out to build on a 1,400-yard rushing season he had as a surprising sophomore.

The offensive line is out to prove last season was an injury-filled anomaly.

The defense is out to be even more productive than it was in its impressive, turnaround 2012.

And Steve Sarkisian is out there having proclaimed it’s time for his Huskies to win a championship with what he calls his best of the five teams he’s led at Washington.

“I'm excited about this team. This is a great group of guys that has a chance to be pretty special,” Sarkisian said before the 2013 team begins fall camp on Monday.

Four weeks of grinding work remain until the Aug. 31 opener and “Retake Montlake” unveiling  of glittering, $250 million Husky Stadium against Boise State.

After three straight 7-6 seasons and appearances in the Holiday, Alamo and Las Vegas bowls, Sarkisian believes this Huskies team can challenge for the Pac-12 North Division title, a place in the conference title game and a chance at the Rose Bowl – where UW has played 14 times, but not since 2001.

Why?

Simple, Sarkisian says.

“The reality is we are a better football team.”

Better, because of added depth with another recruiting class that should yield immediate contributors this fall, such as cannon-legged, Washington high-school record-setting kicker Cameron Van Winkle. Better because of Price, who is poised to hold many UW career passing records.

“It’s always good to have a fifth-year senior quarterback in our conference,” Sarkisian said.

Better because of the return of 17 starters from December’s MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, and the return from injury of key linemen plus running backs Jesse Callier and Deandre Cooper. Because of the huge advantage of returning to playing on campus in supremely redone, $250 million Husky Stadium.

Hurdling that “hump”

Here are the three best ways the Huskies can get over what coach Steve Sarkisian calls the “hump” of three consecutive 7-6 seasons. The process begins Monday afternoon on the East Field with the first of 24 preseason practices than run there and in new Husky Stadium through Aug. 24:

1. Getting Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams back on the field – and in the offense

2. Reconstituting the healing offensive line

3. Rediscovering a pass rush

Better, yes, despite still being bitter at giving away the final two games to end 2012, at Washington State and against Boise State in that December bowl game. That denied the Huskies of a 9-4 season.

“In our heart of hearts we were better than 7-6, but we didn't get it done,” Sarkisian said Friday in Los Angeles at the Pac-12’s annual media day. “In turn it's left a bad taste in our mouths. And it's been an offseason where these guys, our coaching staff and the entire team couldn't wait to get back on the field.

“I feel confident we can get over that hump. But, ultimately, until we do it we're a 7-6 football team -- and that's what we have to change.”

There it is: The boost that fueled the Huskies all winter and spring, what pushed them through 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions, late-morning conditioning drills and the late-afternoon, players-only workouts that Price led.

“I can’t wait to get this season started. I feel like I have a lot to prove, that we as a team have a lot to prove,” Price said.

“And I feel like that’s when I play my best, when I have a chip on my shoulder.”

Here are the three best ways the Huskies can get over their “hump,” in a process that begins Monday afternoon with the first of 24 preseason practices on East Field and inside Husky Stadium through Aug. 24:


 1. Getting Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams back on the field – and in the offense

Sarkisian has been clear: His top two receivers will be on the field Monday, following much-publicized traffic citations.

Seferian-Jenkins, a finalist last season for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, was ordered to spend a day in jail following an arrest for drunken driving in March. Williams, who led UW with 77 catches and 878 yards last season as a sophomore, paid a fine for driving in May after consuming alcohol while under the age of 21.

“For both of these young men, it was out of character,” Sarkisian told ESPN last Thursday. “They have been great in our community. They’ve done a tremendous job on campus, in the classroom and for us in our program.

“As much as the law has put punitive stuff on them, we are looking at it from a rehabilitative standpoint.”

That means any further punishment from the Huskies would be internal, team matters. So if Sarkisian deems Seferian-Jenkins or Williams must sit out part or all of the opener, we won’t find out until the Boise State game has kicked off on the new Fox Sports 1 network just after 7 p.m. on Aug. 31.

Practically speaking, Sarkisian’s approach keeps Boise State guessing on whether a potential All-American who already owns most of UW’s receiving records for a tight end entering his junior season plus Washington’s top, physical wide out will be running routes through its defense.

“We haven’t gotten to the point in deciding to make a final decision of what’s going to happen with games and times and all of that,” Sarkisian said last week. “When we get to that point, if it comes that they are going to miss time on the field or not, we will make that decision. But it will be kept internally.”


2. Reconstituting the healing offensive line

Yes, the No. 1 key to the Huskies’ season is their quarterback getting back to being the Keith Price of 2011.

Or better.

“I believe I'm going to be better than I was 2011 season,” Price said, before adding wryly, “but that's just me.”

Yet there is a priority 1A, one that’s been true each season Price has started and will be true again this fall: The QB, the offense – and thus, largely UW’s season – will depend on how well the offensive line plays.

Entering 2011 the Huskies had a fourth-year center, Drew Schaefer, with over 30 consecutive starts anchoring a line that had a senior left tackle, two other seniors and four veteran starters returning to it. Price had time and room to be at his improvisational, scrambling best. He set UW records with 33 touchdown passes, a completion rate of 66.9 percent and a pass efficiency mark of 161.9. In his first season replacing Jake Locker, Price out-played Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in a galactic Alamo Bowl.

In 2012, the Huskies lost starting guard Colin Porter in the spring when he retired because of chronic shoulder injuries. By the time the second game ended at LSU they had lost two more blockers, guard Colin Tanigawa and tackle-guard Erik Kohler, for the season to knee injuries. Then first-year starting tackle Ben Riva got hurt. For much of the season 80 percent of the starting line was out.

That left Price running – and fearing – for his well-being each time he dropped back to pass. He admitted he lost his comfort and sometimes his poise behind the makeshift line, rushing throws and trying to make plays that were there in 2011 but weren’t last year. The result: 38 sacks and 13 interceptions against 19 touchdown throws. Doubters of Price emerged and hounded incessantly like Seattle’s winter rain.

Now, on the eve of 2013 training camp, Sarkisian sees a more-positive by-product to last year’s struggle and pain on the offensive line. He sees James Atoe, Shane Brostek, Dexter Charles, and Mike Criste, among others.

“The end result is we now have eight offensive linemen who have multiple career starts under their belts,” Sarkisian said of the returning linemen.

Plus, the Huskies have Tanigawa returning on schedule from reconstructive knee surgery, perhaps in time to begin the regular season back at left guard. He may not be fully practicing next week, but hopes to be by camp’s end. Kohler is already back. He returned in April from a dislocated knee, a torn knee ligament and a torn quadriceps.

“We revitalized our defense last year. The goal is to do that with our offense this year,” Sarkisian said. “The goal is to put those two things together and make a great run.”

The only way to do that is if the offensive line solidifies.


3. Rediscovering a pass rush

The Huskies had 27 sacks in 13 games last season, a number they want and need to improve in order to play the aggressive pass coverage that second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox has installed to revitalize the defense.

Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson, c’mon down!

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Shirley is a long and speedy rush end. Wilcox schemes to isolate him in favorable one-on-one matches against slower pass blockers. After eight sacks as a freshman, Shirley had 6½ in 13 games as a sophomore. He has double-digit sack talent. UW needs him to match that talent with production.

Hudson was a revelation last season as a previously overlooked sophomore when he had 6½ sacks. Wilcox also often moves him, from end inside to opposite a rush tackle on passing downs against slower interior offensive linemen.

Hudson, 6-3, 249, spent the offseason working with a personal trainer to increase his strength and foot speed, plus his hand-to-hand and footwork techniques in warding off and getting past blockers. His learning curve seems steep and his upside huge. His versatility could become more dangerous if other pass-rush threats emerge. That would leave Hudson and Shirley in even more one-on-one matchups.

Seferian-Jenkins calls Travis Feeney the most underrated Husky defensive player. He would know. The tight end has to block the speedy, 209-pound outside linebacker every day in practice. Feeney had four sacks last season as a freshman. He is likely to spend August blitzing off the edge from all angles as Wilcox finds more ways to use him as a pass rusher.

If Shirley, Hudson, Feeney fulfill their vast potential and redshirt junior end Hau’oli Jamora returns successfully from a knee injury that cost him all of the 2012 season, the Huskies will have the pass rush they need.

That would mean the defense will become more than just improved. It would become a weapon. One that could make competing for a 16th conference championship in school history more real than the current summer optimism.

“Obviously Oregon has been a hurdle of ours,” Sarkisian said of the archival and huge division roadblock UW hosts its sparkling new stadium on Oct. 12. “But I think we have the roster in place to take that step, and to do it consistently.

“I don't see why we wouldn't be in position to compete for a division championship. That's really the goal.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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 GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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