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August 12, 2008

Early Washington Preview

Last time out, we previewed a team whose coach is on the hot seat in Arizona. This week, we go from one to another, the Washington Huskies. Tyrone Willingham is entering his fourth season in Seattle, and the natives are restless. The 2007 tilt got off to a pretty decent start, but the second half of the Ohio State game started a free fall that enveloped the Purple and Gold. This year, expectations are low, and there is open speculation that it will be Willingham's swan song. Can uber talented QB Jake Locker lead the Huskies out of the wilderness and in doing so, save Willingham's job? Here's a look at Washington.

Last Season

The Huskies started out with a bang by blowing out the hapless Syracuse Orangemen on the road by 30. The next week, they handed Boise State their first loss in fifteen games, holding the Broncos to a measly 10 points. They were right in the game with Buckeyes at the end of the half, but got buried in the second half by a superior team. That's when things went down the tubes. The Husky defense got shredded by an awful Bruin offense. The Trojans kept the Huskies in the game with multiple penalties and turnovers before putting the game away with a late field goal. A contest in Tempe resulted in another offensive clinic for an opponent as the Sun Devils lit the scoreboard with 44 points. Then the defense collapsed again under the weight of Oregon's juggernaut spread option in a 55-34 loss. At midseason, the Huskies stood at 2-5 with little chance at a bowl game.

Then the embarrassment of the year happened: a 48-41 home loss to Arizona where the Wildcats passed for 510 yards. UW snapped their long losing streak with by running for nearly 400 yards against Stanford. In Corvallis, Locker was injured early and the Huskies fell behind by 16 in the fourth quarter. Carl Bonnell helped to stage a dramatic comeback, driving the team into Oregon State territory trailing only by six. An incompletion on fourth down ended UW's hopes. Still, they bounced back the next week with a stunning upset of a floundering Cal team, a game that the Huskies dominated. However, the season ended with two competitive losses to Washington State and an undefeated Hawaii team. Washington finished 2007 at 4-9, 2-7 in Pac-10 play.

Quarterback

Locker is the star of this show. He is a big guy with great speed, and he has the arm strength to become a top flight passer with some more experience. He set the world on fire early in the season, dominating the first two opponents. The better defenses bottled him up and forced him to pass, and that's when thing got tough, because Locker is not a polished passer yet. He failed to complete 50% of his passes, and threw more TDs than INTs. He did run for almost 1000 yards and led the team with 13 TDs. For the Huskies to take the next step, Locker will have to become an efficient passer as guys like Dennis Dixon and Vince Young did before him.

The back-up position took on some importance because Locker injured his hamstring last week in practice. He is expected to be ready for the opener, but hamstring problems can be recurring. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch is the current #2 QB. Needless to say, he has no experience, and he was not a big time recruit. He is backed by fellow redshirt Taylor Bean, a walk-on who only got Division III offers. I think it's safe to say that the Huskies need Locker to stay healthy.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Now you start getting in to some real problems. Washington has had a history of putting out great receivers like Reggie Williams, Mario Bailey, et al. They are not in good shape at the position now. Sophomore D'Andre Goodwin is the team's most experience player. He had six catches for 29 yards last season. That's right. Six catches for 29 yards from your top returning guy. Former Trojan commit Chris Polk is slated to start as a true freshman. Now, he's a talented player, but he played running back in high school. Redshirt freshman Alvin Logan should man the other spot. Sophomore Curtis Shaw is fighting to get in the mix, and the Huskies are hoping that some other true freshmen can help right away. That doesn't bode well for a team that is hoping to improve its passing game. The Husky receivers are green and green can be.

Michael Gottlieb is an experienced tight end for Washington with 12 starts in his career, but he only had 12 catches last season, and is not the kind of player that defenses have to gameplan for. Chris Izbicki was a heavily recruited player in the class of 2007, so he should figure into the equation. This position could be crucial for UW because Locker needs a guy he can trust to be a secondary receiver while the young guys learn the ropes.

Running Back

Brandon Johnson is the team's starting running back right now. He averaged under four yards per carry last season as a true freshman, which didn't inspire anyone. I'm not sure he's an upgrade right now from the departed Louis Rankin. He might not even be as productive. As a result, Polk is also listed as the #2 running back. Don't be surprised if he ends up the starting running back by the SC game, and someone else plays wide receiver. The Huskies could have used J.R. Hasty's talents, but his tenure was marred by academic problems. Paul Homer is the team's fullback when they line up with two backs. I think Washington needs Polk to emerge as a playmaker, or teams will continue to key on Locker in their zone read option.

Offensive Line

The Huskies do return an experienced group here that flourished in this offensive scheme. Sophomore Matt Sedillo is not one of the experienced players. He is currently looking to clinch the starting center job. He is looking over his shoulder at Juan Garcia, who started at the position last year and was second team all conference. A foot injury sidelined him in the spring, and he is hoping to make an early comeback and be ready for the season opener. That's an ambitious goal though. Other than a healthy Garcia, left tackle Ben Ossai is the team's best lineman. He will be bookended by sophomore Cody Habben, who made three starts last season at left tackle when Ossai was injured. Casey Bulyca and Ryan Tolar return to man the guard positions. The Huskies expect and need great production from this group as they break in some new skill position guys, and as Locker att empts to master the passing game instead of making one read and running.

Defensive Line

The mighty have fallen here. Remember when the Huskies were known for dominant defensive linemen. Those days are gone. Their best player is Daniel Te'o-Nesheim at defensive end. He has a solid season last year with eight and half sacks, but he regularly got beat up in run support. After him, the group is a mess. Sophomore De'Shon Matthews played three games and didn't log a tackle last season, and he is slated to start at tackle, unless redshirt freshman Tyrone Duncan can beat him out. Sophomore Cameron Elisara has more experience than Matthews. He had two tackles last year. The other end spot is in disarray. Junior Darrion Jones is not a Pac-10 level player. Walk on Conrad Remington is actually in the current two deep. Washington is REALLY counting on freshmen Everrette Thompson to immediately step into a starting role. If he can't, expect Te'o-Nesheim to get do ubled regularly with the back. At this point, you're looking at a group that will likely be steamrolled by Pac-10 offenses.

Linebacker

This unit has far more experience than the DL, and they're going to need it. E.J. Savannah made a lot of plays them for last year, and he will make some more this season. They like to use him as a blitzer on the the outside. Donald Butler returns as the middle linebacker, where he managed only 52 tackles in three starts. He will platoon with Trenton Tuiasosopo, who is used on passing downs. Mason Foster and Chris Stevens will battle it out for the last spot. Improvement must come with experience, because Washington wasn't good at stopping the run or the pass last season, and failure here was a big reason for that.

Secondary

Three of four starters return, but that may not be a good thing. The Huskies were awful against the past last season despite a healthy number of sacks. Former UCLA Bruin Byron Davenport just got beat up last year, and he's back for more in 2008. He will be flanked by Mesphin Forrester who spent his time last season as the starting strong safety. There are some serious questions as to whether he can play CB. If not, we may see tiny Vonzell McDowell there. He is a converted receiver. Jason Wells enters his third season of starting at free safety, but he's just a guy. The strong safety position will likely be inherited by Darrin Harris, a senior with starting experience. No one will confuse this group with the SC secondary any time soon.

Special Teams

Ryan Perkins did a decent job at kicker last season, but he did has three kicks blocked, and he doesn't have the leg of some of the other Pac-10 kickers. As a result, Jared Ballman handles kickoffs and long field goals. Ballman also is the punter, and he kicks the ball high, which forces a lot of fair catches. It's anyone's guess who will handle returns, although I expect Polk could play a part in this aspect of the game. Johnson returned some kickoffs last season, but didn't stand out. Kickoff coverage last season was terrible.

Outlook

Not good. Right about now, the Huskies are feeling the effects of coaching instability. There is a real dearth of valuable upperclassmen in this group, and areas like running back, wide receiver, defensive line, and the secondary are in complete and total flux. Locker is a great talent and a clear playmaker, but with the exception of maybe Polk, he might be the only one on the offense. The defense is a shadow of the great Husky teams of the past, as they gave up 31 points and just under 450 yards per game in 2007. Things could be worse on that side of the ball. Add a schedule that features BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame along with road trips to Oregon, USC, and Cal, and you've likely got the worst team in the Pac-10. Expect Willingham to join Mike Stoops on the unemployment line this winter.

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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