2007 Spring Football Preview
March 23, 2007
Third-year coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff continue the rebuilding process in the spring of 2007, looking to take yet another step forward. The hope is that this spring will lead to an even bigger improvement on the field once the new season rolls around in the fall.
A primary emphasis will be placed on speed -- not so much 40-meter times and such, but the speed with which the players react and make plays on the field. That speed will come from more familiarity with the system and from spring practice taking on a more urgent atmosphere.
"This spring practice, because of some of the youth at some of the positions, really needs to have more of a game-like feel as often as possible," Willingham says. That would be one of the changes: how we can institute of more game-like atmosphere outside of a regular practice.
"We do have some positions that are unproven. We have some positions that are very young, most notably the quarterback," Willingham continues." Therefore, you want to give them as much game experience as possible. In the past, we've done that with a lot of situations, but you want to have it in a manner that the quarterbacks themselves have to call up the defense, and have to be involved in the thought process that goes into why this play at this time."
As is the case with football teams across the country during spring ball, there are positions with experience and others with very little. The Huskies are no different. But once again, Willingham emphasizes speed above all.
"The key thing is that we expect more in the speed of play. That's where the transition has to be seen," he says." You have to play the game much faster and much more aggressive because, hopefully you know the system. You've been in it a couple years, so that the translation is, `boom, I play faster now.' You don't have to think about what you have to do, and where are you supposed to be and so forth."
"We have got to be a more consistent run-pass team," Willingham says of his offense. "That seems so general and such a broad thought, but for us to be effective, we have got to better running the football on a consistent basis. It can't be, `this game, we can run it; this game, it disappears.' Each week, we need to count on our run game and on our passing game.
"When we have those short routes available to us, we take them, we hit them, and we make the plays. Then when we go uptown for the big plays, that we're at a high percentage. We have to be that kind. How do you get to that point? That's where your off-season conditioning comes in. If your offensive line is bigger and stronger, if your receivers are faster, if your backs are more explosive, then they go out and make the plays and that's where the consistency comes."
Washington's quarterbacks corps will feature just one player with college experience in senior Carl Bonnell, who took over as the starter for the last five games of last season. He threw for 916 yards and led the Huskies to a hallmark victory in the Apple Cup.
Joining him are sophomore Jake Locker, a highly touted recruit who preserved a year of eligibility last season and true freshman Ronnie Fouch, who will enroll for spring quarter.
"Young and exciting," is how Willingham describes the trio as they enter the spring. "Two of the three guys don't have any college experience, so it's going to be a young and exciting group."
Senior Louis Rankin is the lone tailback on the Husky squad with any experience. A starter for parts of each of the last two seasons, he gained 666 yards to lead the UW last season, despite starting in only two games. Junior J.R. Hasty has yet to see any game action, but has two years on the team under his belt.
"The word for running backs needs to be `potential,'" Willingham says. "Those guys have a lot of potential, both at tailback and fullback."
Washington's group of tight ends might represent its most experienced position as three seniors and a junior return for 2007 with at least some game experience. Seniors Michael Gottlieb and Johnie Kirton each started six games a year ago while senior Robert Lewis had one start. Junior Tim Williams also saw his first game action in 2006 while senior Tim Harris adds additional depth.
Kirton led the tight ends with 12 receptions and three touchdowns a year ago, but Willingham is hoping that one member of the group can jump to the forefront and claim the position for himself.
"If I had to put a term on the tight ends, it would be `committee,'" Willingham says. "We've been a position by committee and it would be exciting if we changed the committee approach and one guy took the job and made it special.
Wide receiver represents another relatively experienced group for 2007. While leading receiver Sonny Shackelford has graduated, four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year senior return with tons of game action under their belts.
Anthony Russo has been a regular for several years, starting all 12 games last year and finishing with 32 receptions, second on the team. Classmates Cody Ellis (four starts in 2006), Corey Williams (four starts), Marcel Reece (one start) and Quintin Daniels (one start) also have played significant roles in past season. As with the tight ends, however, Willingham is looking for potential to turn into production in a big-time way.
"The word I would use for them would be `flash,'" Willingham explains. "That whole group has shown flashes of excellence. All of them have shown flashes of being spectacular, but they need to step it up."
Washington went nearly the entire 2006 season using the same five offensive linemen for nearly every play. Only two players outside of the regular starting five saw any game time at all outside of special teams.
Two of those starting five -- guards Stanley Daniels and Clay Walker -- are gone to graduation, but the other three -- fifth-year senior right tackle Chad Macklin, fifth-year senior center Juan Garcia and junior tackle Ben Ossai -- return. The only other players to see game action were senior tackle Eric Berglund and junior guard Casey Bulyca, meaning that the line will have at least two nearly new faces and numerous others competing for spots on the two-deep.
As always, the ability of the new and the old to come together as a cohesive until will be a matter of some importance in the spring and on into the fall.
"We need to develop some maulers," says Willingham. "They have to come of age really fast for us to be a good football team."
By any account, Washington's defensive solidified into a more solid group in 2006. In 2007, however, Willingham hopes to surpass "solid" to become a big-play unit that can do more in terms of big plays.
"The number one thing is, if we took our team and looked at it defensively and say, `where do we need to go to make things really happen?'" Willingham explains. "Probably the most glaring area is that we haven't produced many turnovers. We have to become a defensive team that can produce turnovers. There are a couple of ways to do that.
"You can do it by becoming a pressure defense," he continues, "or you can become a team that really sees the ball and flies to the ball. The driving thought has to be that we have got to produce turnovers. If you're producing turnovers, you've got a better change to produce negative plays. And if you're producing negative plays even if you didn't get a turnover, you're putting your opponent in disadvantageous positions where they can't dig there way out.
Washington welcomes back four regular starters on the defensive line, as well as a host of other players with game time under their belts. It's easily the most experienced group on the defensive side of the ball, and perhaps on the team as a whole.
Fifth-year seniors Wilson Afoa, who started 11 of 12 last year, and Jordan Reffett, a five-time starter, return to the two defensive tackle positions. Junior Daniel Te'o-Nesheim started all 12 in his first season of action last year while two-year starter and senior Greyson Gunheim, started 10 of 12 last year.
With their age, and their time spent together as a unit, the defensive line will naturally be counted on to provide the bedrock of the 2007 defense.
"I would say that they're experienced," Willingham comments, "but now it's time to show that they're prime-time players, as individuals and as a group."
"At linebacker, the term is `transition,'" says Willingham. "We have one really experienced linebacker in Dan Howell, but we're looking for E.J. Savannah, Chris Stevens, Donald Butler and Trenton Tuiasosopo to step up and take over."
However, the other four players Willingham mentions all saw a significant number of snaps last year and each of them provided a glimpse of very promising futures along the way. Conventional wisdom would hold that any number of starting combinations could emerge, but that more than just a starting three figure to contribute significantly.
Similar to last spring, the defensive secondary will likely be a major talking point for Husky football fans. The position was thin on depth going into last year and lacks experience once again in 2007.
Free safety Jason Wells, a junior who started six games last year, and fifth-year senior Roy Lewis, who started all 12 at cornerback, return. Mesphin Forrester also earned two starts at safety, but after those three, Washington has no current players who've seen on-field action in the secondary. The search for a new strong safety and a cornerback, as well as backups across the board, will be a top priority in the spring.
"We have Jason Wells and Roy Lewis as returning starters, but other than them, we don't have much experience there," Willingham confirms. "The word for our secondary is `productivity.' It's time for them to be productive back there. We have to come up with interceptions. We have to come up with batted balls and big plays. That's something we haven't really done.
Washington enters the spring with no experienced kickers on its roster, but several candidates for both jobs. Junior Ryan Perkins, who missed last season after suffering a knee injury in the spring game, could compete for both the starting punter and placekicker positions. Junior college punter Jared Ballman will join the team this spring to try and win that job, while freshman Eric Folk will enter the fall to compete as the kicker.
Sophomore Danny Morovick, recruited as a specialist long snapper, performed that role through his entire freshman season and returns in 2007.
"Our whole kicking game, except for our snapper, is going to be new," Willingham says. "It's going to be brand, spanking new, and it should be exciting."
Each year, spring football serves as a preview of the coming fall and, as always, hope and optimism are rife nationwide. Things are no different at Montlake, where the Huskies will be eager to take yet another step forward in their return to the top of the Pac-10. With each bit of improvement the team makes in the spring, the excitement for the Dawgs' season opener at Syracuse builds.
"There has been a gradual improvement in our football team, both in our play and in the attitude," Willingham says. "Has that improvement been fast enough for me? No. Has there been a big enough increase in our confidence? No. But I think that's where finishing last season in the manner that we did is impressive. We had an extremely sub-par performance and we're staring the Apple Cup in the face. That's an opportunity for a team to head further south and our guys didn't do that. Our guys stepped up and played a heck of a football game, and that surprised a lot of people. That kind of resiliency and focus will help us and add to that momentum of us being a much better team going into this season."