As he prepares for his fourth fall camp, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian is confident his program is “knocking on the door of something special.”
With the way his roster is currently constructed, Sarkisian believes he has a top-25 program primed to take the next step. However, even when a program is heading in the right direction, there are questions. And, when the Huskies take the field for their first practice Monday, Sarkisian and his staff will begin trying to find the answers.
Sarkisian sat down earlier this week to delve into five key questions facing his program as Washington prepares for the 2012 season.
1. With the graduation and injuries causing concern about depth along the offensive line, what are your expectations for that group?
“I love the fact that we have great senior leadership in Drew Schaefer. I’m really excited to get Colin Tanigawa back healthy, cleared for training camp and Erik Kohler, now heading into year three after starting for two years as a true freshman, true sophomore, now healthy, having his best offseason, I think gives us a really solid foundation of three experienced players. Now, what happens with the other two spots and where do they fall?
“Is it going to be James Atoe, who is starting to come into his own at guard? Is it Micah Hatchie at a tackle spot? Is it Ben Riva at a tackle spot? Is it one of our true freshmen coming in now with the potential of a Shane Brostek, a Jake Eldrenkamp, these types of guys, that’s the stuff we have to get answered in training camp.
“You’re going to see some guys moving around in training camp. You’re going to see Schaefer at center, but you’re going to see him some at left tackle. You’ll see Tanigawa at guard, but you’ll see him some at center, because those are our two most important positions. Left tackle and center in our system are vitally important. We just want to make sure that we have our bases covered at those two spots and then let the chips fall where they may and make sure that we get an offensive line in there that plays the brand of football that makes us proud, with great continuity and tough, physical, smart football. We need to get those questions answered, and answered quickly, so that continuity can get formed heading into the season.”
2. How much improvement will be seen from the defense in Justin Wilcox’s first year as defensive coordinator?
“I think there are great expectations there. They had a tremendous spring and that’s a real credit to Justin Wilcox, our defensive coordinator, and the staff on that side of the ball. There is still a lot of nuance within the defense that we’re working through to get to a point where we feel really good about it, but I would say that we’re probably more talented defensively than we get credit for which, sometimes, isn’t a bad thing.
“I think that our players have really responded to the new coaches and their style of coaching and the scheme that we’ve implemented, but it’s a very aggressive style. It’s one where we’re attacking the quarterback. We do a tremendous job in the back end, which is Justin’s expertise of matching routes, being aggressive on receivers, getting hands on balls much more than we did before and I think we have the pieces in place within the scheme to really defend the run the way that you need to defend it.
“I’m excited to watch our guys continue to grow on the defensive side of the ball, not only within the scheme, but from a maturity standpoint. We had a lot of young players the last two years playing on that side of the ball, starting as true freshmen, that gained valuable experiences on the field. Now bring that together with the new scheme, the new coaches, their maturity level, it should be time for us to really start moving in the right direction on that side of the ball.
“A couple of names that I’m looking forward to really watching this year, John Timu is one of them at linebacker, a guy who started last year for us as a true freshman and has really matured into one of our leaders. Sean Parker is another one who has been playing for two years and is now a third-year guy showing so much maturity. I can’t wait to watch Desmond Trufant go this fall. It’s great to have Hau’oli Jamora back, a guy who was an impact player for us. The continued emergence of Josh Shirley on the other side and then some young guys to watch that were fantastic redshirt players for us last year that I think could have a big impact for us this year. Travis Feeney at safety, Marcus Peters at corner and Jarett Finau on the defensive line, those are three guys I’m looking forward to watch go this training camp.”
No. 3 With Chris Polk moving on to the NFL, who are you leaning on to run the ball?
“We had the luxury of Chris Polk for three years, but there were these other two guys who, every time we seemed to put them in, would make things happen. Obviously, Jesse Callier, what he’s done for two years with us, and then Bishop (Sankey) last year as a true freshman. It seemed like we’d put him in and it was a gain of 8. But it was hard to take No. 1 out of the game to give those guys more carries.
“I know they were both champing at the bit to try to earn that starting spot. It remains to be seen if we’ll be kind of a lead-dog running back team or if we do it by committee. I know that everybody in our organization is excited to watch Deontae Cooper (who has missed back-to-back seasons with knee injuries) get his opportunity to get back in the fold and what he can do there.
“It’s going to be a fun battle to watch these guys compete, not only with one another, but against our defense. There are some cool storylines for people to look to and to watch, but also, for us, some question marks that we need to get answered as we head to that season opener against San Diego State.”
“This is a unique time for those guys. They came in with so much expectation as true freshmen and I thought they both had solid years. What I’ve seen out of them is they’ve realized this might have been a little more difficult than what I thought it could be and they’ve had awesome offseasons. They’ve both worked extremely hard. They are two of the more competitive guys I’ve been around and I’m excited to watch these guys go and to really battle, to really be the guys on this offense that can become the go-to guys for us."
No. 5 How have the additions to the coaching staff assimilated to the program?
“They’ve been great. To their credit, they came in very willing to be Washington Huskies and, sometimes, that can be hard to do. When you come into a new job, and you’re recruiting and you’re trying to get the scheme together, it’s been cool to see these guys wearing UW gear every day to work and being proud of where they’re at and the opportunity that we have here.
“I’ve leaned on them for some new ideas, so I think that has helped bridge the gap to get to some things they feel comfortable with from what they’ve done in their past, whether it’s from a functionality standpoint, a scheduling standpoint, even scheme standpoints but, at the end of the day, I think they realize this is a great opportunity, we’ve got a pretty dang good football team and they’re proud to be part of it.”