Husky Football 2000 Spring Outlook
March 27, 2000
SEATTLE - The Washington football team returns 57 lettermen, including eight offensive starters, seven defensive starters and both kicking specialists, as the team prepares for the 2000 season with its annual spring practice session. Like most other teams in the nation, the Huskies have a typical checklist of things to accomplish this spring:
"I like the way this team works," says Neuheisel, who guided the Huskies to a 7-5 record and an appearance in the Holiday Bowl last season. "I like the fact that they like each other. The most important thing is that we don't get to the place where we think we are there, because we aren't there.
"I don't want to lose the urgency that got us to be a good team. Not a great team, but a good team. We're not physically that much better than we were a year ago. We feel better about ourselves and there's more excitement in the air about Husky football, but that's a trap if we're not careful. We have to be urgent. I don't want to say we're comfortable now and everything is normal, because we need to be primed to go to war. However you're motivated to do that, you better have some urgency about it, and that's the key. As we get ready to go, that's the biggest message I'm going to get across to these kids: 'Don't think we've accomplished anything.'"
Based upon the results of the team's off-season conditioning program, the Huskies are not resting on their laurels. Picked to finish sixth in the official Pac-10 media poll last fall, and as low as eighth in some preseason publications, Washington instead turned in a 6-2 league mark and placed second in the conference. An overtime loss to UCLA in the second-to-last game of the year cost the Huskies a chance at a berth in the Rose Bowl. Heavy underdogs in its Holiday Bowl matchup with No. 7 Kansas State, Washington proved to be a tougher-than-expected foe, falling 24-20.
"We have a lot of work to do," Neuheisel says. "We have a great schedule ahead of us with a lot of competitive teams. We know who we are, if we coach well and the players play hard. If we set the standard of how we play in the fourth quarter we are going to have an excit-ing time and be in the race again in Novem-ber."
This spring session should be much more productive than a year ago when Neuheisel and his staff had barely been on the UW campus three months.
"We will have the opportunity to get more out of our spring because we won't have to evaluate as much as we did a year ago," he says. "Certainly, this is a time for kids to earn jobs and to earn positions on the team, but we'll know who we are as an offense and who we are as a defense, at least, a great deal more than we did a year ago.
"Schematically, we are much more in touch with what we can do with the personnel we have than we were a year ago. We'll get off to a much quicker start knowing those things. The average person in the stands will not notice a lot of difference in what we finished our season doing a year ago, but there are subtle changes and things we think will help us be a better team in 2000."
On offense the Huskies will have to replace two of the most productive receivers in recent history in flanker Gerald Harris and slot back Dane Looker.
Harris was second on the team in 1999 with 37 receptions, totaling a team-high 571 yards. Despite missing two games due to a thigh injury, Harris tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (four) and led Washington in average receiving yards per game (63.4). Harris missed two seasons due to injury, but failed to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA during the off season. He completed his career with 68 catches for 935 yards and eight scores.
Looker only played two years at Washington after a two-year basketball career at Western Washington. He caught 84 passes for 949 yards and five touchdowns during his Husky playing days. A reliable receiver, especially in short-yardage situations, he at one time had a string of 16 consecutive games with a reception.
A second-team All-Pac-10 honoree in 1999, Kurth Connell will be absent from the offensive tackle position. A powerful run blocker, he helped the Huskies finish second in the league in rushing at 189.7 yards per game.
The Husky defense took the heaviest graduation losses of any unit on the team. Gone from last year's squad are defensive end Mac Tuiaea, defensive tackle Jabari Issa and backup nose tackle Toalei Mulitauaopele. Tuiaea was a rare four-year starter on the defensive line, starting 39 of the 43 games he appeared in. He registered 21 tackles in 1999 and finished his career with 28.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks.
Issa, a first-team All-Pac-10 pick in 1998, was a three-year starter on the defensive line and a team captain in 1999. He had 29 tackles last season and racked up 26 tackles for loss and 11 sacks during his Husky tenure. Mulitauaopele made tremendous strides during his senior season, appearing in all 12 games and starting four times while Tuiaea was sidelined 2 with an injury. His vo-cal leadership in team meetings and on the sidelines will be hard to replace.
Equally hard to re-place will be inside linebacker Lester Towns and cornerback Jermaine Smith. Towns was synonymous with the linebacker spot the past three years. He was second on the team in tackles as a senior, totaling 69 to finish his career with 259. He ranks seventh on Washington's all-time list for tackles for loss with 39.5. Smith was a skilled cover-age player who started the past four years. He broke up 25 passes during his career and added three interceptions as a senior.
In addition to the starters who completed their playing careers, Wash-ington also loses backup receiver/kick returner Joe Jarzynka, backup tight end Anthony Mizin and reserve inside linebacker Marques Hairston and safety Renard Edwards.
OffenseThe Husky offense generated a tremendous amount of excitement in 1999 when Washington's coaching staff added the option to its play lineup. Behind quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, the Huskies showed off a multi-faceted offense that was difficult to defend. In fact, turnovers and injuries did more to slow the Huskies than anything else.
With eight starters returning, Washington figures to be more of the same in 2000. The one significant change will be the play calling where Keith Gilbertson returns to the offensive coordinator position at Washington after coaching the offensive line last year. Gilbertson, who directed the Husky offense in 1991 when Washington won the national championship, takes over for Karl Dorrell, who accepted a position with the Denver Broncos in March.
QuarterbacksGilbertson inherits one of the most gifted collegiate players in Tuiasosopo. For outsiders, it is his feet and hands that make Tuiasosopo such an extraordinary player. He has proved to be a very solid passer and comple-ments that with shifty and elusive running skills. To insiders, it is his heart that set the senior signalcaller apart.
Appropriately nicknamed "The Warrior" by ABC commentator Keith Jackson, Tuiasosopo's intangibles as a team leader are what really set him apart. His command of the team on the field, along with the respect his teammates show him off the field, make him a special player. As a junior, he was elected a team captain. Last year Tuiasosopo showed tremendous resolve with his back-to-back performances against Stanford and Arizona. After suffering a severely bruised backside on Washington's first series vs. Stanford he went on to become the first player in NCAA history to rush for 200 (207) yards and pass for 300 (302) yards in a game. The next week, still hobbled by the injury, he guided the Huskies to a come-from-behind win on the road at Arizona by passing for 208 yards. A second-team All-Pac-10 pick in 1999, he set a Washington single-season total offense record with 2,762 yards. He passed for 2,221 yards to rank as the fifth most productive season in Husky history. Tuiasosopo's pass completion percentage (.580) was the best mark among Pac-10 starting QBs. He rushed for 541 yards, the second best total on the team and a figure good enough to rank 10th in the Pac-10.
"I've said it all along, I think he's got all the tools to be a great quarterback," says Neuheisel, a former Rose Bowl MVP quarterback while playing at UCLA. "The one thing he lacks is experience. Having had a productive season a year ago, his experience meter is on the climb and I think that will correlate itself into an even more productive senior year. The sky is the limit for this guy and I know his teammates look up to him, not only because he is a very talented player, but also because of his work ethic. It's fortunate we have a team leader that is as well respected as Marques."
If Tuiasosopo has an area to concentrate on, it is his eagerness to create a play that sometimes resulted in a turnover.
"It's like anything, your strengths are always your weaknesses," Neuheisel says. "Because Marques is a playmaker and has such high confidence in his own ability, he's going to try and make a play. As he keeps becoming experienced, he'll learn when it's time to take the sack and we'll play defense and get the ball back. But, he often pulls himself out of those tackles and makes the huge plays. So, we can't really get too uptight about the down side of that, if we're going to accept the positive side. I just hope that experience will make him a year wiser."
Getting more experience for junior J.K. Scott and redshirt freshman Cody Pickett is high on Neuheisel's wish list for spring practice. Scott did not play in 1999 and Pickett only appeared for three series vs. Oregon State, but was granted a medical redshirt for the season due to a back injury.
"Getting them ready to play is pivotal," Neuheisel says. "We'll give them a lot of time, I'm not sure if it will be more. The quarterback position always gets a lot of reps during the spring especially when we only have three we are looking at. That's a pivotal competition and we need to know right away who will be the best fit for our offense."
Running BacksAnother hot spot of competition for playing time will come at tailback. Neuheisel decided to move junior Willie Hurst to slot back to fill Looker's vacated position. While that moves the leading rusher from the 1999 season out of the backfield, Hurst's playing time was limited in the second half of the season due to injuries and the improved play of Maurice Shaw at the position. Shaw figures as the top back entering spring drills. At 6-1 and 220 pounds he is a powerful runner, who rushed for 440 yards in nine games last season. He tied Tuiasosopo for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.
Complementing Shaw's punishing running style is 6-1, 200- pound sophomore Paul Arnold. One of six true freshmen to see playing time in 1999, Arnold showed plenty of promise in his limited role while adapting to the college 3 game. He averaged a team-high 6.3 yards per carry on 40 attempts. He displayed breakaway speed with an 80-yard scoring run against Washing-ton State and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Air Force. Arnold should carry an additional 10 to 15 pounds for the 2000 season after entering last fall's camp slightly on the light side after a summer of track competition.
Also returning to the backfield is junior Braxton Cleman (6-1, 215). He was establishing himself as the Huskies' top ground gainer before suffering a partially collapsed lung in UW's loss to Arizona State that kept him out of action for the remainder of the regular season. Cleman was averaging 5.3 yards per rush before the injury, including a 100-yard effort against Air Force. Sophomores Jelani Harrison (6-1, 210) and Matthias Wilson (5-11, 215) are also ready to make their first contributions. Harrison has sat out most of the past two years due to a nerve problem in his back. The position promises to be one of the most interesting during the spring. Who will emerge as the top back?
"I think competition is the best way to answer that," Neuheisel says. "We are going to watch how it unfolds and we know what we've got. We'll see how Paul develops. Mo Shaw was very consistent as a ball carrier last year. Although he doesn't necessarily give you the big play, his running against Stanford showed he is capable of that. Best of all, he is very secure with the ball. Those two kids are exciting. Braxton Cleman, who was having a good year, got hurt, so we don't really know how he'll contribute this season. We're going to take a look at Willie Hurst as a receiver so we can spend more time evaluating those other guys. We'll just have to wait to see how it unfolds."
The fullback position, almost an afterthought in the college game with so many one-back and spread offenses, figures to be a strong area for the Huskies. Senior Pat Conniff (6-1, 245), returns after ending the 1999 campaign on a high note with his performance against Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl. He rushed for 15 yards and one score, but more importantly, caught four passes for 57 yards against an aggressive Wildcat defense. Junior college transfer Albert Tuipulotu (6-1, 245), who originally enrolled at Washington in 1997, will give the Huskies a solid backup at the position. Junior John Hart (6-1, 235) has also lettered at the position.
"Defenses are like offenses," Neuheisel says. "It is important for us, as we look at our offense, that it has the weapons to counteract those defenses that are designed to stop Marques or the option. The emergence of our fullback position is an answer. Our fullback is becoming a threat in our offense both as a pass receiver and a ball carrier. The emergence of our tailbacks is key to next season, and we think that's a big one-two punch with Mo Shaw and Paul Arnold. Competition will see if there is another name involved and we are a little bit more multi-faceted that we were a year ago."
Offensive LinemenAnother key component to the resurgence in the Husky rushing game was the rapid development of Washington's offensive line. Four starters, and a key reserve return from last year's unit, which might rank as one of the best in the nation.
Headlining the offensive line is senior Chad Ward (6-5, 330). A two-year starter at offensive guard, Ward will see some playing time at offensive tackle during spring drills. A second-team All-Pac-10 pick in 1999, Ward's strength and blocking skills could merit his consideration for national honors in 2000.
"Moving Chad is a thought, but nothing is in concrete yet," Neuheisel. "We're just trying to get our best five guys on the field. He is an unusual athlete, in that he weighs 335 pounds, and he runs a sub 5.1 40-yard dash. He bench presses over 500, he cleans over 400. These are all numbers that have NFL scouts' tongues hanging out and now he's just got to have that same production on the field. He is certainly a capable player and I'm hoping he has a great senior year. He loves to play the game and it shows with the attitude he brings to our practices and games."
Joining Ward as returning starters on the offensive line are junior center Kyle Benn (6-3, 305), senior left tackle Elliot Silvers (6-6, 305) and senior left guard Rock Nelson (6-5, 290). Senior guard Dominic Daste (6-3, 320) started five times during the 1999 season when Nelson was slowed by a neck injury. His decision to return for a fifth season of play, despite being hampered by a painful ankle injury, provides a huge boost to the entire unit. With Ward's trial run at tackle, senior Matt Fraize (6-4, 300) assumes the right guard position. He has alternated between guard and center during his career and brings plenty of experience to the position despite his lack of starting assignments.
A year ago the offensive line figured as the most challenging position for the Huskies, especially due to a lack of depth at most every position. This year, it is probably one of the deepest areas on the team. In addition to the four returning starters and Daste and Fraize, backup senior tackle Wes Call (6-7, 305) and reserve sophomore guard Elliott Zajac (6-4, 305) have seen considerable playing time. Call, a junior college transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, may redshirt the 2000 season. Matt Rogers (6-5, 290), a senior transfer from Iowa, will see his only time as a Husky this year. Three redshirt freshmen, tackle Nick Newton (6-5, 315), center Todd Bachert (6-4, 305) and walkon guard Jason Simonson (6-4, 310) are also going to be put into a rotation to see playing time.
"Our offensive line is a strength on our team right now," Neuheisel says. "I hesitate to say they are the best around, although I think they can be because what caused them to come together and be as productive as they were a year ago was that urgency. Maybe we don't have the most talent, so we have to play harder. We can't lose that. We look at our offensive line, with four starters returning, we've got Matt Rogers, who's got a chance to provide depth there. We've got Dom Daste, Nick Newton in the wings, we've got Wes Call, who played when Kurth got hurt last year. A year ago, we were wondering whom our seven best guys were. We've got depth this year and hopefully can maintain it. We'll just have to stay healthy."
Tight EndsComplementing the play of the offensive line is Washington's outstanding staple of young tight ends. After being named a second-team freshman All-American last season, Jerramy Stevens (6-7, 240) returns as the incumbent at the position. Last season he caught 21 passes and tied for the team lead with four touchdowns. His reception total was the most ever by a Husky freshman tight end.
Playing behind Stevens is sophomore Kevin Ware (6-2, 260), who played as a true freshman in 1999. Ware only had one reception in eight games, but he has strength to be an effective blocker in two tight end sets and should show more progress as a receiver this year. Senior John Westra (6-5, 250) will return next season after suffering a knee injury in 1999, but he is expected to see only limited practice time this spring.
"I think Jerramy Stevens' upside is huge," Neuheisel says. "He is becoming a force as a receiver and we need to use that to our advantage. It's important now that he becomes a force as a blocker and to do that, he's got to spend a lot of time in the weight room. He has to continue to work on all the little things that fundamentally will make him a better player. We're hopeful that we can get a lot out of Kevin Ware. He is the gifted person who experienced some of the typical transitions a freshman experiences in his first year at college. Hopefully, he can get out of that this season and fit into the mix of our offense."
Wide ReceiversAlthough the Huskies lost two wide receivers to graduation, last year's top pass catcher, junior split end Chris Juergens (6-3, 210) returns. His classmate, Todd Elstrom (6-3, 200), will move over to flanker after seeing the majority of his playing time as the backup to Looker at slot back last season. Hurst's move from tailback will fill that position.
Developing depth and adding speed to the position are the focus in the spring. Juergens topped all of Washington's pass catchers with 42 receptions in 1999. He averaged 12.3 yards per catch, but managed just one touch-down during the season. He appeared in just over nine games due to an sprained ankle he suffered against Arizona. At 6-3, Juergens has proved to be a good target for Tuiasosopo and he knows how to use his size to his advantage in the air.
Like Juergens, Elstrom is also 6-3. While not as experienced, he has showed a knack for big plays in his first two seasons. Last year he pulled down a short pass and turned it into an 83-yard scoring play against California. He finished the season with 11 catches for 234 yards and two scores. Elstrom may also see playing time at slot back.
Of Washington's other returning receivers, only one, Manuel Austin (6- 1, 185) made a reception in a game last season. The most likely candidates to see playing time are sophomores Quentin Morgan (6-0, 185) and Wilbur Hooks (6-0, 185). Patrick Reddick (5-9, 190) may return to the lineup at slot back after missing the 1999 season while recovering from a knee injury.
"The wide receiver position is a question mark," Neuheisel admits. "Chris Juergens started the season off going gangbusters, but had a bad knee and had an ankle injury at Cal. He wasn't the same guy at the end of the season. He has not had a great off-season due to the knee surgery. Elstrom is the most productive guy coming back and certainly we are hopeful he will continue to make the big plays he did a year ago. We have a bevy of young players who need to emerge because we need to have big play players at that position, which we haven't had in a long time, although Gerald Harris and Dane Looker have done good things for us. There hasn't been a lot of consistency at that position, so hopefully we will develop that this season."
DefenseThe Husky defense features seven returning starters, including three members of a much-improved secondary from last season. The coach-ing staff will experiment with moving several individuals to new positions this spring in an attempt to get the best combination of players onto the field and into backup positions. Washington needs to fill two spots on the defensive line, one inside linebacker position and one cornerback assignment. There are a solid number of players who saw action last season, along with several returning injured vet-erans, to make the defense a very competitive area this spring. A chief concern is shoring up the rushing defense and putting more pressure on opponent quarterbacks. Last season Washing-ton finished last in the Pac-10 with 13 sacks. However, the defense ranked in the middle of the conference in pass defense, rushing defense and total defense.
Defensive LineOnly junior Larry Tripplett (6-2, 295) returns from the top four interior defensive linemen last season. A nose tackle for most of the season, he also played a defensive tackle spot due to an injury to Tuiaea. This year Tripplett is expected to start spring drills at tackle. As a sophomore he had a solid debut as a starter. He earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors while racking up 35 tackles and six tackles for loss. His tackle total was the highest among the defensive linemen. Sophomore Ossim Hatem (6-3, 255) figures to be Tripplett's backup at defensive tackle. He saw enough playing time in 1999 to letter, but recorded only one tackle.
Sophomore Spencer Marona (6-2, 265) is the most likely player to fill the nose tackle position. He appeared in all 12 games last season at both nose and defensive tackle.
True freshman Jerome Stevens (6-2, 290), who enrolled at the UW in January, is a solid figure who will participate in spring drills and is expected to play this fall.
Senior Ryan Julian (6-2, 275) is the most experienced player returning at defensive end. After missing the 1999 season due to tendentious in his knee, he could work his way into a starting role if he does not suf-fering any reoccurring medical problems. In 1998 he started twice at the position and made six tackles in a game against UCLA.
Junior Nick Feigner (6-4, 255) is also returning this spring after missing a portion of the 1999 season due to a sore back. Junior Joe Collier (6-7, 260), is a converted offensive lineman who will be given a look at defensive end. Senior Roger Faagata (6- 4, 250) is another veteran who will compete for time at the position.
Junior college transfer Marcus Robertson (6- 4, 285) is one highly-touted recruit the Huskies hope can immediately contribute on the defensive line when he joins the team this fall. Senior Jeremiah Pharms (6-2, 260) returns to man the one outside linebacker spot that lines up in a down position. Pharms has the speed and quickness to have an outstanding senior season. A two-year starter, he finished the 1999 campaign with 49 tackles, led the Husky defense with 10 tackles for loss and tied for the team lead with two sacks. He will have to improve his ability to pres-sure the quarterback for the Husky defensive line to reach its potential.
"Jeremiah Pharms has a unique intensity for this game," Neuheisel says. "For him to be produc-tive we need to let him go. While we're playing a 3-4 front, I would envision him having his hand down at least a great majority of the time so we can come off the edge with some ferocity and go after the quarterback and get a pass rush that was not consistent last year."
Junior Jamaun Willis (6-2, 240), an inside linebacker and part-time fullback for the first two years of his UW career, may move to the outside position. Willis could give the Huskies more speed and athleticism at the position.
Sophomore Geoff Shelton (6-4, 240) saw action in 11 games last year and could factor into more playing time if he can improve his size and strength. Senior Odell George (6-2, 245) returned to off-season workouts this year after being out of the lineup since the end of the 1998 season due to a knee injury. Sophomore Houdini Jackson (6-1, 250) will make his Husky debut this year after sitting out the 1999 season as a transfer from Hawaii, where he was a starting outside linebacker.
"Larry Tripplett has got to be a defensive force on the front," Neuheisel says. "Of all of them, we are hoping Spencer Marona, Ryan Julian, Marcus Roberson, our JC transfer, that those guys can come in and give us some quality minutes. There's also a chance we might move some of our other players into the front line. Jamaun Willis has been a quality player who might fit best on our depth chart. A year ago we moved Curtis Williams from tailback to safety and Anthony Vontoure from safety to corner and both of them have had quality playing time. So, we may have some tinkering to get our front to-gether because the graduation toll is heavy. The other guy who is interesting there is Jerome Stevens, who joined our program in January. He comes in as a 290- pound kid that can have an impact with us. Ossim Hatem is another name that deserves mention in there. We'll also have to see if Geoff Shelton is big enough to play in there."
LinebackerSenior Derrell Daniels (6-1, 215) is the in-cumbent at one of the inside linebacker positions. Last season he led the defense in tackles with 81 and had the second highest total of solo tackles with 46. He topped the Huskies in the Holiday Bowl with eight stops against Kansas State. Sophomore Derek Noble (6-2, 220) and senior Chris Waddell (6-1, 230) are two other returnees at the position.
In an attempt to fill the other vacated inside linebacker position, the Husky coaching staff will look to move junior Jafar Williams (6-0, 220) from the outside linebacker position where he was a starter in 1999. He was a steady player for Wash-ington, totaling 28 tackles. His move could give the Huskies their quickest combination of inside linebackers in a number of years. Redshirt freshman Tyler Krambrink (6-1, 210) and sophomore Ben Mahdavi (6-2, 235) are other players who will compete for playing time at the position. The move of Williams inside opens the door for junior Anthony Kelley (6- 2, 220) to take a more active role at outside linebacker. Last season Kelley seemed to find a way to be around the ball when he was on the field. His speed and athletic ability gives the Huskies an excellent pass rusher off of the edge of the line. Kelley finished the 1999 season with 22 tackles, including two sacks and four for lost yardage.
Sophomore Levi Madarieta (6-3, 210) has moved from safety to linebacker and will compete with junior Sam Blanche (6-1, 220) for time at the position. Madarieta started as a true freshman in 1999 and was a significant contributor on special teams. Blanche, who has also played the inside linebacker position, had a pair of tackles last season.
"There's a chance we might make some movement with Jafar," Neuheisel says. "We may look at him as an inside linebacker to see if has the ability to go inside-out from both ways and to use that great speed that he has. He looks like a prototype linebacker. Derrell Daniels could move over to inside middle linebacker. Anthony Kelley and Levi Madarieta could secure the back-up spots. We'll just have to wait and see how that all pans out."
Defensive BackWashington's secondary should be a strong spot for the Husky defense. In a conference like the Pac-10, with a number of outstanding passing quarterbacks and top-flight receivers, it is a necessity. Three starters return along with several experienced backups. The amount of talent and skill at the position may allow the Huskies to put more pressure on opponent quarterbacks. Last year's unit intercepted 14 passes after registering an all-time low of five in 1998.
Based upon his performance in 1999, junior cornerback Anthony Vontoure (6-1, 190) should get strong consideration for all-star honors. Last year he moved from safety to cornerback and promptly intercepted six passes, returning two for touchdowns. His interception total ranked him second in the Pac-10 and tied for seventh in the nation. A pulled hamstring late in the season slowed his play down the stretch and in the Holiday Bowl. Returning to play this season will be senior Toure Butler (5-9, 170). He sat out the 1999 season due to knee problems. He is now back to speed and participated in the Huskies' off-season conditioning program. Butler was a starting cornerback in 1998 who broke up nine passes and to-taled 52 tackles that season. Redshirt freshman Chris Massey (5-11, 170) should see his first playing time at the position.
Senior Roderick Green (5-11, 180), who was a part-time starter behind Vontoure last season, will push for Smith's vacated cornerback spot. A junior college transfer, he became an effective coverage back for Washington in 1999 as his confidence grew during the season. He accumulated 29 tackles during the season and added five more against Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl.
Juniors Omare Lowe (6-0, 200) and Lenny Haynes (5-9, 195) are a pair of two-year lettermen who also return to the defensive backfield. Lowe is the more experienced player and had 20 tackles, three pass defenses and one interception last year. Washington's returning starting safeties are one of the best duos in the nation. Junior Hakim Akbar (6-1, 205) moved from free safety to strong safety last fall and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors. A former freshman All-American, he finished tied for second on the team with 69 tackles to go with six pass defenses and one interception. Akbar is an outstanding athlete, who recorded a 38.5-inch vertical jump, 350-pound bench press and 493-pound squad during the team's annual off-season testing day.
A first-year starter at free safety in 1999, Curtis Williams (5-10, 195) demonstrated that he could be one of the hardest hitting players on a college gridiron. He led the defense in solo tackles with 48 and tied Akbar for second on the team lead in total tackles with 69. He had a 13-tackle day against UCLA. Williams also had four pass defenses and recorded his first career interception.
Redshirt freshman Domynic Shaw (5-11, 200) and junior Nick Olszewski (5-10, 190) figure as the most prominent reserves at the safety position. True freshman Joey Thomas (6-1, 180) will also take part in spring practice and compete at the free safety spot.
"A year ago the defensive secondary was a real concern and yet we feel like we still need a great cover corner," Neuheisel says. "Losing Jermaine Smith is a big loss. Anthony Vontoure needs to be more consistent. Toure Butler hopes to return and hopefully we can get a lot out of him. Omare Lowe has got to have a big year. He's fast, he's big, he's got strong arms and he's got a chance to be a real gifted player. Roderick Green is a very solid player. And again, we are hoping that some freshmen can come in and help us."
Special TeamsThe Husky special teams return both kickers from last season. Sopho-more placekicker John Anderson (6-1, 185) earned freshman All-America honors thanks to his strong first-year showing. Anderson converted 13 of 18 field goals attempts and missed just one of his 35 PATs. He tied or set numerous Husky kicking records and had one of the best long-distance kicking seasons of any freshman in the college ranks. Anderson kicked a 56-yard field goal at UCLA to tie the UW school record after earlier booting a 50-yarder against the Bruins. He also had a 50-yarder earlier in the year against Oregon. He was twice honored as the Pac-10 special teams' player of the week. In the Holiday Bowl, he booted the longest field goal by a Husky player in postseason competition with a 47- yard kick.
"John Anderson was a great addition to the team," Neuheisel says. "I don't want to say it was a surprise, because he was great when he came in. From where he started on the opening day of camp, to the last scrim-mage at Evergreen, to hitting the 56-yarder at the Rose Bowl, it was just down right impressive. He's an impressive young man and we are going to enjoy watching him over the next three years."
Back for his third season as the Husky punter is senior Ryan Fleming (6-3, 180). Fleming ranked sixth in the Pac-10 last season with a 40.2 average. He tied the UW record with a 73-yard punt in the season opener at BYU. He saw 13 of his 50 punts downed inside the 20-yard-line. As a senior, the Husky coaches are looking for him to become more consistent, especially with his hang time. Fleming may take over the role as the holder on special teams this season. Both long snappers, Mahdavi and Zajac, are expected to return to those roles. With the graduation loss of Jarzynka, the Huskies will have to find a new punt and kickoff returner. Butler handled some of those duties in 1998 and Massey could join him in that area. Arnold, who was used as a kickoff returner in 1999, may continue that role depending on his development at tailback.
"It's possible that Paul Arnold returns kicks this year," Neuheisel says. "We want the ability to be explosive and there are some incoming freshmen who I am excited about watching. If the freshmen are ready to go, then they'll play. The bottom line is we want the best players on the field."
SummaryNeuheisel plans on an active 15-practice spring session with plenty of position trials that should fuel competition among players for starting assignments. Just like the request he has for his players, he also wants to maintain a sense of urgency to continue to develop the program.
"When you tinker, all the sudden you find out something might have a real chance and then you'll expand on that particular niche of your offense, like the option last year," he says. "That wasn't something we would have predicted, but because of its success, it grew and it might be a real big piece of our puzzle this particular year. Whether that actually happens, no one can predict as this time.
"Obviously, we are light years ahead in terms of knowing who we are, having some understanding of what our roles are, what our capabilities are and so forth. But, you can't automatically consider that as light years ahead of where we were a year ago from the talent standpoint. It's important we maintain the urgency that led us to seven victories last year and with that urgency, we've got to try and be even more successful this year. Without it, we'll have a hard time achieving the same things we did a year ago."
Starters Returning (17)(Min. of 7 games started)
Offense (8) - 1999/Career Starts
Starters Lost (7)(Min. of 7 games started)
Offense (3) - 1999/Career
2000 Husky Personnel BreakdownLettermen Returning (57)