2000 Football Outlook
July 12, 2000
The 2000 Washington Husky football season sounds like a classic Charles Dickens' novel.
Thumb through the pages of the numerous college football annuals and you quickly realize there are "Great Expectations" for this Husky team. Armed with multi-talented senior quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington appears to be preseason favorites when it comes to the Pac-10 race.
Husky players would do good to remember Ebenezer Scrooge's experiences with The Ghost of Christmas Past. In 1997, the preseason pundits tabbed the Huskies as favorites to win the national championship. Instead, the team finished 8-4.
Second-year coach Rick Neuheisel knows firsthand the pitfalls from lofty expectations. They can be "the best of times" or can lead to the "worst of times."
The Washington football team returns 52 lettermen, including eight offensive starters, seven defensive starters and both kicking specialists from last year's squad that posted a 7-5 record and lost to seventh-ranked Kansas State 24-20 in the Holiday Bowl.
The Huskies will need to replace several key players at wide receiver and on the defensive line, and conquer a challenging schedule, if they will be contenders for a Rose Bowl berth.
Neuheisel will make sure that his team does not get too caught up in the preseason hyperbole.
"If they are picking you near the top, then that means there are some good things happening," Neuheisel says. "You have to make the team understand that does not mean they have accomplished anything yet. Predictions are just on paper. Winning it, that's real. The most important thing is that we don't get to the place where we think we are there, because we aren't there."
Much of the anticipation for the 2000 season is a result of the team placing second in the Pac-10 in 1999. 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.
"I don't want to lose the urgency that got us to be a good team. Not a great team, but a good team," Neuheisel says. "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.'"
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 with an injury. His vocal leadership in team meetings and on the sidelines will be hard to replace.
Equally hard to replace will be inside linebacker Lester Towns and cornerback Jermaine Smith. Towns, synonymous with the linebacker spot the past three years, 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, a skilled coverage player who started the past four years, broke up 25 passes during his career and added three interceptions as a senior.
In addition to the starters who completed their playing careers, Washington also loses backup receiver/kick returner Joe Jarzynka, backup tight end Anthony Mizin, reserve inside linebacker Marques Hairston and safety Renard Edwards.
With eight starters returning, Washington figures to be more of the same in 2000. The one significant change will be the play calling, with Keith Gilbertson returning 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.
Appropriately nicknamed "The Warrior" by ABC commentator Keith Jackson, Tuiasosopo's intangibles as a team leader, 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 also 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, which 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."
Junior J.K. Scott, redshirt freshman Cody Pickett and junior-college transfer Ryan Porter will battle for the backup position behind Tuiasosopo. The competition between Scott and Pickett during spring drills did not produce a solid number-two signalcaller. 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.
Willie Hurst (5-10, 210), the team's leading rusher in 1999 with 546 yards, was moved to slotback last spring. The results were mixed and he will rejoin his running mates at tailback in the fall. One reason for Hurst's return to running back was the announcement that senior Maurice Shaw would not in play in 2000. A recurring back injury slowed him during the spring and he opted not to play this season. Shaw rushed for 440 yards in nine games last season, and tied Tuiasosopo for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.
With Hurst at slotback and Shaw on the sidelines, that opened the door for sophomore Paul Arnold (6-1, 200) to emerge as Washington's top runner during the spring. The lightning-quick prep All-American added 10 pounds to his frame last year without losing a step of speed.
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 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 Washington State and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Air Force. Arnold ran for 107 yards on seven carries in Washington's annual Spring Game.
Also returning to the backfield is junior Braxton Cleman (6-0, 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, 205) and Matthias Wilson (5-11, 220) 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, but looked sharp in the spring, running for 75 yards on five carries in the Purple and Gold game.
"Paul Arnold had a great spring and we hope he carries that over into the season," Neuheisel says. "I believe that competition brings out the best in you and our tailbacks are capable of pushing each other. Willie will be back at the position and we appreciate the fact he gave receiver a try in the spring. We know what he is capable of. Jelani Harrison was a real pleasant surprise. I had not seen him play to that point and he ran with great determination. Braxton will be back at 100 percent and we know he can be a great contributor."
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 (6-0, 240), 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 we have a great combination of backs to work with."
Headlining the offensive line is senior Chad Ward (6-5, 335). A two-year starter at offensive guard, Ward will probably see more time at offensive tackle this season. 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 result of trying to get our five best linemen on the field," says Neuheisel. "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 (6-7, 320) and senior left guard Rock Nelson (6-5, 290). Senior guard Dominic Daste (6-3, 305) started five times during the 1999 season when Nelson was slowed by 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. A nagging back injury also has Nelson's playing status in doubt for the season.
With Ward's trial run at tackle, senior Matt Fraize (6-4, 300) and sophomore Elliott Zajac (6-4, 310) figure to share the right guard position. Fraize has alternated between guard and center during his career and brings plenty of experience to the position despite his lack of starting assignments. Zajac was a backup last year who has spent most of his time at tackle.
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, Fraize and Zajac, backup senior tackle Wes Call (6-7, 310) has seen considerable playing time. Call, a junior college transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, may redshirt the 2000 season. Matt Rogers (6-4, 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, 310) and walkon guard Jason Simonson (6-3, 315) 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 (Connell) got hurt last year. A year ago, we were wondering whom our seven best guys were. We've got depth this year and hopefully we can maintain it. We'll just have to stay healthy."
Playing behind Stevens is sophomore Kevin Ware (6-3, 260), who played as a true freshman in 1999. Ware only had one reception in eight games, but 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 after suffering a knee injury in 1999. Converted tackle Joe Collier (6-7, 260) and Geoff Shelton (6-4, 245), an outside linebacker, could see time at the position.
"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."
Juergens topped all of Washington's pass- catchers with 42 receptions in 1999. He averaged 12.3 yards per catch, but managed just one touchdown during the season. He appeared in just over nine games due to a sprained ankle he suffered against Arizona. At 6-3, Juergens has proved to be a good target for Tuiasosopo and 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.
In addition to Davis, the most likely candidates to see playing time are sophomore Wilbur Hooks (6-0, 185) and junior Patrick Reddick (5-10, 190). Reddick returns to the roster after missing the 1999 season while recovering from a knee injury. Several freshmen are also expected to play.
"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. Wondame Davis showed some nice abilities at the position this spring. I like his quickness. That could allow us to stretch the field a little more. There hasn't been a lot of consistency at that position, so hopefully we will develop that this season."
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 veterans, to make the defense a competitive unit. A chief concern is shoring up the rushing defense and putting more pressure on opponent quarterbacks. Last season Washington 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.
As a sophomore he had a solid debut as a starter, earning 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, 260) 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, 270) will fill the nose tackle position. He appeared in all 12 games last season at both nose and defensive tackle. True freshman Jerome Stevens (6-3, 295), who enrolled at the UW in January, is a solid figure who was impressive during spring drills in his first experience practicing with the Huskies.
Senior Ryan Julian (6-6, 275) is the most experienced player returning at defensive end. After missing the 1999 season due to tendenitis in his knee, he could work his way into a starting role if he does not suffering any recurring medical problems. In 1998 he started twice at the position and made six tackles in a game against UCLA.
Junior college transfer Marcus Roberson (6-4, 285) is one highly-touted recruit the Huskies hope can immediately contribute on the defensive line this fall.
Senior Jeremiah Pharms (6-1, 250) 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 pressure 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 productive 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."
Sophomore Geoff Shelton (6-4, 245) saw action in 11 games last year and could factor into more playing time unless he moves to tight end. Senior Odell George (6-1, 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 and Marcus Roberson, our JC transfer, 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 together 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 295-pound kid that can have an impact with us. Ossim Hatem is another name that deserves mention in there."
In an attempt to fill the other vacated inside linebacker position, the Husky coaching staff moved junior Jafar Williams (6-0, 230) from the outside linebacker position where he was a starter in 1999. He was a steady player for Washington, 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) came away from spring drills having made very favorable impressions at inside linebacker.
Another veteran with playing time at inside linebacker is junior Jamaun Willis (6-2, 245), a part-time fullback for the first two years of his UW career.
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 found 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 (6-2, 220) 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.
"I like how the move with Jafar worked out and both Tyler and Ben made a lot of progress at their positions," Neuheisel says. "We have created a lot more flexibility at the position. We won't have the biggest linebackers on the planet, but they have shown a knack for getting to the ball. Anthony Kelley needs to have a big year for us and he is capable of that. "
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), who sat out the 1999 season due to knee problems, but 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 totaled 52 tackles. Redshirt freshman Chris Massey (5-11, 175) should see his first playing time at the position.
Juniors Omare Lowe (6-1, 205) and Lenny Haynes (5-10, 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 in 1999.
Washington's returning starting safeties are one of the best duos in the nation. Junior free safety Hakim Akbar (6-1, 210) 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.
Strong safety Curtis Williams (5-10, 200), who started at free safety last year, is 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 with 69 total tackles, including 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. Sophomore Owen Biddle (5-10, 185) put in a strong performance in the spring and is expected to see his first varsity playing time. True freshman Joey Thomas (6-2, 185) participated in spring practice and will also compete at safety.
"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. We are hoping that some freshmen can come in and help us at the position."
"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 scrimmage at Evergreen, to hitting the 56-yarder at the Rose Bowl, it was just downright 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 (6-2, 180). Fleming ranked sixth in the Pac-10 last season with a 40.2-yard average, tying 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."
"We have a lot of work to do. 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 exciting time and be in the race again in November.
"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."
The 2000 Huskies hope they can write an ending to their season that would be as happy as a scene from a Dickens' novel.