Washington Huskies eyeballing next step

Washington's dramatic improvement and blossoming promise since going winless in 2008 yielded to a frustrated "what if?" and "not yet" in 2012 under fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

Yet when you roll together the mixed bag of red-letter wins and bad losses and the lessons both entail, and then toss in impressive returning talent, there's reason to believe the program might turn the reopening of renovated Husky Stadium into a welcome-back party for a program that's been off the college football map for more than a decade.

Washington features 20 returning starters with A-list talent on both sides of the ball. After three consecutive seven-win seasons, which have grown progressively less satisfying for fans, the Huskies seem poised to take the proverbial next step.

"I'd say so, without a doubt," said Sarkisian when asked if this was his most talented team. But then he added, "If we'd finished the last two games, we'd have finished last season as a 9-4 team. But we didn't get it done."

Not getting it done -- at least not yet -- is why some seem intent on putting Sarkisian on the hot seat.

Washington, despite playing one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2012 -- six top-20 and four top-10 teams -- seemed on the cusp of a nine-win season in November. All the Huskies had to do was hold on to an 18-point fourth-quarter lead against Washington State and then win a bowl game.

Neither happened, and the Huskies' worst fourth quarter in Apple Cup history left an ugly smudge on Sarkisian's generally strong résumé.

Further, the 2012 season played out in surprising ways, positively and negatively.

The Huskies' biggest questions before the season were defense and running back. But the defense was vastly improved under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox, and Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,439 yards. Meanwhile, the biggest certainty was QB Keith Price, who'd ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency in 2011, with 33 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 67 percent completion rate.

Price was touted as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. But he started slowly and never found his rhythm. He finished eighth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with 19 TDs and 13 picks.

That had many folks wondering if he'd keep his job in 2013. Before spring practices began, Sarkisian essentially said it was Price's job to lose, but he certainly could lose it if he got outplayed.

After six practices -- Washington returns to the field on April 2 after spring break -- Sarkisian said Price looks more like his 2011 self, particularly after the Huskies concluded their first session with a scrimmage.

"That was probably the best practice he's had in over a year," Sarkisian said. "He played really well."

A lot of Price playing well has to do with his health. His legs seemed shot much of last season. Not only was he not running well, he wasn't moving in the pocket and his throws lacked velocity and accuracy, two qualities that are often connected. The offseason priority has been getting Price's leg strength back.

"Not that Keith is ever going to be a runner, but he's at his best when he can avoid the initial pass rush and is able to buy time and keep his eyes downfield and create plays," Sarkisian said. "We've definitely seen that this spring."

It's not all on Price, though. The Huskies were beaten up on the offensive line last fall, and the lack of depth showed -- see 38 sacks surrendered. Further, there were times when the Huskies didn't seem mentally tough. They seemed intimidated at LSU, which fell into a pattern of woeful performances on the road -- see Oregon, Arizona and Washington State.

The difference between teams that win six or seven games and those that win nine or 10 or more is often consistency of performance.

"There are a couple of key things for taking a next step, for this to be our best team," Sarkisian said. "Yeah, I know it's our most talented team. But are we really going to be a team that goes on the road and it doesn't matter what time, or what the weather is, or who the opponent is, or what their record is? That stuff can't matter to us anymore. We've got to play our game."

When asked if he feels like he's on the hot seat, Sarkisian said, "Not at all."

On paper, hot-seat talk should give way to high hopes. The grounds for optimism are solid. The Huskies have the talent and experience to end up in the top 25.

But Washington needs to eclipse being a team of "not yet" and "what if?"