Jake Locker is back. And so is the buzz on Montlake.
When Locker unexpectedly put off the NFL for one more year, it immediately gave second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian a chance to throw the rebuilding plan into overdrive. By going 5-7, Washington made a five-game improvement from the prior year. However, the presence of Locker, a likely high first round draft choice next April, puts the Huskies in their most promising position in years. After six consecutive losing seasons, there’s finally some momentum and expectations for a postseason game.
Sarkisian and his staff did a terrific job in Year 1, gradually changing a culture that had become toxic over time. On the field, U-Dub was as competitive as it had been in a long while, shocking USC, finishing strong, and winding up just a game out of fifth place in the Pac-10. No, it wasn’t shades of Purple Reign, but it did halt the cycle of losing that was perpetuated under Tyrone Willingham and Keith Gilbertson. Now, it’s time to build on the growth spurt.
Although Washington still has holes, most notably along the lines and in the secondary, the offense has a chance to mask some of those warts. Not only is Locker back, but so are last season’s top four rushers, top seven receivers, and four-fifths of the starting O-line. While the Huskies are going to allow points, they now have the weapons to survive in shootouts with absolutely anyone in the conference.
It may only be the second year for Sarkisian & Co., but it’s a pivotal one in Seattle. A player of Locker’s caliber only comes around so often, meaning the Huskies must capitalize while he’s still on campus. After enduring a lot of pain and plenty of changes, Washington is on the verge of finally turning the corner and starting this decade with a whole lot more promise and potential.
What to watch for on offense: The shell game known as the offensive line. The left tackle was last year’s right guard. The left guard was last year’s center. The new center started games at left tackle. The new right guard was a backup center in 2009. The staff has done a lot of shifting of personnel in the offseason, hoping to get the right combination and the best talent on the field. Will it work? It better because poor play from the offensive line is about the only thing that’s going to slow down the Washington attack in 2010.
What to watch for on defense: The ends. With the graduation of leading sacker Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, the Huskies are in dire need of pass rushers, who can take some heat off a suspect secondary. As if the situation wasn’t desperate enough already, Everrette Thompson suffered an Achilles injury, Kalani Aldrich is coming back from a knee injury, and Andru Pulu has been dismissed. The Huskies are flirting with the idea of moving DT Cameron Elisara outside and banking on unproven sophomore Talia Crichton, indications of the state of things at defensive end.
The team will be far better if… the secondary decides to show up this season. It’s the one area where Washington is capable of making the greatest improvement in 2010. In seven losses a year ago, the Huskies allowed 13 touchdown passes and picked off just three. While the offense was improving, much of the gains wound up being squandered by the defense. Further progress is needed here, or else the program will wind up being forced to score 35 just to get a W.
The Schedule: The Huskies will get a chance to show that things have changed with an opening four games that could lead to disaster. Syracuse, even at home, might not be quite the layup expected, the Dawgs could be the underdog at BYU to start the season, will be the underdog at home against Nebraska, and will likely be a double-digit dog at USC. 1-3 will be expected, 2-2 would be great, 3-1 or 4-0 would make it parade time in Seattle. Things ease up a bit with three home games in the following four, but there will still be four Pac 10 road games to deal with including dates at Oregon and California before finishing up on the road in the Apple Cup game against Washington State.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Jake Locker. Had Locker declared for the 2010 NFL Draft, Washington would have been breaking in a first-time player, either redshirt freshman Keith Price or true freshman Nick Montana. Now, instead, it’ll be led by one of the country’s best quarterbacks, a barreling runner and vastly improved passer. Locker was a different player under the new staff, going 230-of-394 for 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 11 picks, and adding 388 yards and seven scores on the ground. Beyond the obvious physical gifts, he’s also a terrific leader and just the guy to lead the program out of the darkness.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Mason Foster. Foster is a next-level type linebacker, with a penchant for making things happen whenever he’s on the field. While he didn’t get nearly as much recognition as he deserved, he still crafted an outstanding junior season, delivering 85 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three picks, nine passes defended, and a school-record six forced fumbles. With a blend of explosive athleticism and unmatched intensity, he’ll enjoy a much bigger following in and out of Pac-10 circles this fall.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore CB Desmond Trufant. Trufant exceeded all expectations as a rookie, cracking the lineup and earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention. Now all he needs to do is build on that debut and become one of the league’s lockdown corners. For years, the Huskies have pined for the kind of player, who can build a fence around half the secondary for quarterbacks. If the sophomore can take another step toward becoming that player, Washington will finally be headed in the right direction in the defensive backfield.
The season will be a success if … the Huskies return to the postseason for the first time since 2002. Above all else, Washington must end the dry spell and get back over the .500 mark, hallowed ground in recent years. Faced with a tough schedule that has no gimmes, U-Dub would make a much-needed forward step by qualifying for the postseason and picking up 15 more practices in December for the young kids.
Key game: Sept. 18 vs. Nebraska. This is the kind of marquee match up that could serve as a springboard for Washington when the Pac-10 portion of the schedule begins. It’ll attract a fair amount of attention on a national level, creating quite a local stir as well. If the Huskies upset the Huskers here, go ahead and reevaluate their potential for 2010.
2009 Fun Stats:
– Fumbles lost: Washington 8 – Opponents 15
– Third down %: Washington 46% – Opponents 40%