Saturday, August 27, 2011
Washington Huskies 2011 season preview
The Washington Huskies head into their football season as winners of a bowl game for the first time in a decade. The same Huskies that went 0-12 in 2008, found themselves, in just two short years, beating the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win the 2010 Holiday Bowl. When the Huskies hired the inexperienced coach Steve Sarkisian, some fans questioned the move. Well, in just two years, Sarkisian has the fans believing in good things at Montlake. The Huskies have plenty of hope heading into this season as they were picked to take third place in North division of the new Pac-12. The Huskies will be returning 16 starters from last season and another ranked recruiting class by Sarkisian. The program will have to prove to everyone they are indeed a program and not just the Jake Locker show.
Last season was all about Jake Locker and in some ways this year will also be about Locker. This year the Huskies will have to find a way to replace the face of their offense and face of their defense in Mason Foster. Both players have been such big parts of the Huskies' turnaround that it will feel strange not seeing either player there. The Huskies did record their first winning season last year at 7-6; the first time since 2002. The Huskies also had impressive wins over USC, 32-31, for the second straight year; Oregon State, 35-34, in double overtime, and then had to win their final three games to become bowl eligible. The Huskies then faced California. They were down 13-10, facing a fourth and goal from the one-yard line, when they decided to go for the win. The Huskies gave the ball to Chris Polk, who scored the winning touchdown; this could be the defining win of the Sarkisian era. Then the Huskies defeated the Washington State Cougars, 35-28, when Jake Locker hit Jermaine Kearse for the winning touchdown. However, the best win in over a decade, for the Huskies was when they upset Nebraska. 19-7. in the Holiday Bowl, setting up momentum heading into this season.
The team is night-and-day better than when Sarkisian took over the program two years ago. Two years ago you still had the stink of 0-12 and the stink of Tyrone Willingham. Now the fan base is pumped about Husky football and the Huskies will be facing expectations for the first time in a while. It has been nice to see the transition back to where Husky football needs to be. Sarkisian is still a year or two away from having the Huskies be like those teams of the 1990's where it was Rose Bowl or bust. Right now, for this current group, it will be bowl game or bust from here on out. In this upcoming post I'll preview each position on the team. The Huskies have some positions that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the nation.
Unlike last season, the Huskies face some uncertainty at the quarterback position. With Jake Locker, the all-time passing touchdown and rushing touchdown leader in school history, having graduated, Keith Price will be expected to take over at quarterback. After battling with Nick Montana all Spring, Sarkisian named Price the starter heading into fall camp. Price, from the practice I saw, looked like he is very comfortable with the offense.
Price is a redshirt sophomore who saw some playing time last season. Price, for the season, completed 19-37 (51.4%) of his passes for 164 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Last year, on the road against USC, Price threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, for the injured Locker, to give the Huskies the lead, 29-28. Then, with Locker later injured, he had his first career start at the #1 ranked Oregon Ducks in Autzen Stadium. In that game he was 14-28 (50.0%) for 127 yards with a touchdown. He also ran for 28 yards in the game. Price, unlike Locker, will be coming into a much better situation with tons of talent around him; he should be just fine.
If Price, for some reason, cannot perform, he will have the highly touted Nick Montana behind him. Montana is a four-star recruit who defeated Jake Heaps in a high school game in 2009. Montana is the son of the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Joe Montana. I feel like he is a year away from seriously challenging Price. Whoever is the quarterback, they will have the luxury of having plenty of weapons on offense.
The Huskies are loaded at the running back position, which is a good thing, as Chris Polk could miss the first couple of games. When Polk does return, the Huskies will have the highest rated NFL running back in the Pac-12. Polk has been the Huskies most productive back since the days of Napoleon Kaufman, Corey Dillon and Rashaan Shehee. As a redshirt freshman, Polk ran for 1,113 yards (4.9 YPC) and five touchdowns, with 25 receptions for 171 yards.
Last year Polk was even better: rushing for 1,365 yards (5.2 YPC) and nine touchdowns, with 22 receptions for 180 yards. Polk, like he did in 2009, saved his best for the end of the season. During the Huskies four-game winning streak, Polk rushed for 673 yards (6.2 YPC) with five touchdowns. He scored the winning touchdown against California, and then in the Apple Cup, he rushed for the second highest total in school history; he ran for 282 yards (9.7 YPC) and two touchdowns. In the Holiday Bowl, Polk was MVP against Nebraska, running for 176 yards on 34 carries (5.2 YPC) with a touchdown. While Polk is out due to a knee surgery, he'll have some capable backups to help with the workload.
The guy who will be filling in for Polk against Eastern Washington, and maybe more, is Jesse Callier. Last year as a freshman, Callier ran for 413 yards (5.4 YPC) while catching 18 passes for 98 yards. Callier also returns kicks. In the first play of the Holiday Bowl game, Callier threw a 14-yard pass to Locker to set up the Huskies first score of the game. Callier was mainly used on the fly sweeps, and last year against UCLA ran for 107 yards on just 10 carries. He is a true sophomore with tons of speed so even with Polk returning, look for Callier to still get at least 10 touches a game.
The Huskies will also gain Johri Fogerson back. The former O'Dea High School standout played just one game last year where he had a six-yard run before he was injured. However, in 2009 he ran for 46 yards (3.3 YPC) with a touchdown, but he was mainly used for screens. He caught 17 passes for 191 yards including a 51-yard pass against LSU. He also caught a touchdown as well during the season. Fogerson's return should be huge when it comes to the short passing game. The Huskies may or may not use true freshman Bishop Sankey. The talented four-star recruit, who Sarkisian stole from the cross-state Cougars, could factor in, although he'll most likely redshirt as the Huskies feature a pretty deep backfield.
The Huskies, for the second straight year, are pretty deep at wide receiver. For those teams who want to eight-man box, the Huskies have fun as they will have a tons of three-wide-receiver-set combinations. The Huskies have seven guys they feel very comfortable with playing including two veterans who will be entering their third seasons as full-time starters. The Huskies have many four-star recruits at the wide receiver position, so there is plenty of talent for Price to get the ball to, leaving the passing game, despite the graduation of Locker, in good hands. The Huskies also feature one of the best playmaking wide receivers in the nation.
I'm talking about senior Captain Jermaine Kearse, who as a freshman, caught 20 passes for 301 yards (15.0 YPC) and two touchdowns. As a sophomore, he broke out with 50 receptions for 866 yards(17.3 YPC) with eight touchdowns. Then as a junior he continued his improvement with 63 receptions for 1,005 yards(16.0 YPC) with 12 touchdowns. He has been named to the second team all Pac-10 team the last two years and this year he will most likely end up on the first team all Pac-12 team. He had plenty of big games last year; in the Huskies 41-20 win over Syracuse, Kearse had nine receptions for 179 yards with three touchdowns. Later in the year, he set a Huskies record against Oregon State, catching four touchdown passes in the 35-34 double-overtime win. He had nine receptions for 146 yards with four touchdowns that game. Then in the Apple Cup he had six receptions for 178 yards with two touchdowns, including the game winning touchdown; Kearse has a total of 20 touchdown receptions over the last two seasons.
With Kearse's big play ability, that should open up the underneath passes to senior Devin Aguilar and true freshman Kasen Williams. Aguilar has been a steady rock for the Huskies, catching 90 passes for 1,191 yards and seven touchdowns in 27 games. He is typically the underneath guy and Kasen Williams was a huge asset for Sarkisian. Williams is a five-star recruit at receiver, from Skyline High School, and was named Parade Magazine's Prep Athlete of the Year. With Kearse, Aguilar and Williams the Huskies have one of the best three-wide-receiver-set combos in the entire nation.
Battling for the fourth receiver spot is Kevin Smith, who is a sophomore and former four-star recruit. Last year, he had just one reception for 18 yards, but did have 324 kickoff return yards. The fifth receiver is James Johnson, who as a freshman, caught 39 passes for 422 yards with three touchdowns. Although last year, he had just one reception for three yards. Then Cody Bruns, a former four-star recruit, is next with seven receptions for 102 yards while returning 63 yards in punts last season. The Huskies also have DiAndre Campbell who will be trying to get in the rotation. The Huskies receiving corps is pretty deep and they will make teams pay for using eight-man boxes.
The Huskies last year received zero production from their tight end position but that should change this year. This year, the Huskies feature four tight ends who are taller than 6'5", including the five-star recruit Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who stands at 6'6" and weighs 250 pounds. Seferian-Jenkins was a huge land by Sarkisian as he stayed home instead of going to the University of Texas. The Huskies will also have Michael Hartvigson who is 6'6" and weighs 246 pounds. Another guy who could factor in the rotation is Evan Hudson, who is also 6'6" and weighs 251 pounds. Look for these tight ends to come in play down in the goal line situations on play action passes. It will be nice for the Huskies to finally have some talent at tight end which they haven't had since the Rick Neuheisel days.
The Huskies offensive line returns four guys who started games last year. The Huskies offensive line is anchored by two-time Captain Senio Kelemete who is 6'4" and weighs 301 pounds. Kelemete, who will be a senior at Washington, has started 24 games on the offensive line including all 13 games last year at left tackle. In 2009 he earned honorable mention All Pac-10 when he played guard. Kelemente began his career as a defensive tackle where he started four games his freshman year. This year, he will be protecting the quarterbacks' blind side for the second straight season.
Starting at left guard is Colin Tanigawa who will be a redshirt freshman. Tanigawa is 6'3" and weighs 297 pounds and will be playing in his first career college game against Eastern Washington. At center the Huskies will return junior Drew Schaefer. Schaefer is 6'4" and weighs 301 pounds and started 17 games the past two seasons; he has started 11 games at center and six at tackle. At right guard, the Huskies will start true sophomore, Colin Porter, who last year, as a true freshman, started 10 games. Porter is a big NFL prospect as he is 6'4" and weighs 322 pounds. Porter was the guard the Huskies ran behind as he pulled against California on the game winning score. At right tackle you have true sophomore Erik Kohler who played in 11 games last year while making five starts. Kohler, standing at 6'5" and weighing in at 298 pounds, along with Porter, are the Huskies future on the offensive line.
Not only does this offensive line have experience with 56 career starts, they have youth as four guys should be returning for next season as well. The Huskies also have some height and weight on their offensive lines. The average height for the Huskies offensive line is 6'4-1/4" and the average weight is 304 pounds, which is pretty good. Sarkisian has brought in some tall linemen, but unlike the Willingham linemen, they are physically ready to perform. This offensive line should be another year better as Porter and Kohler could make up a pretty good combination on the right side of the line.
This could be the strength of the Huskies defense. Unlike the past two years where there were several questions about just how many Pac-10 players the Huskies have on the defensive line they appear to be deep this year. The Huskies figure to have eight guys in the rotation which is a good thing to hear. The Huskies defensive line, which struggled last season, came on strong in the final four games of the season, especially in the 19-7 Holiday Bowl victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The defensive line put pressure on the quarterback and stuffed the run of Nebraska which was a far cry from the first meeting when Nebraska won 56-21.
The man who is anchoring this defensive line is Captain Almeda Ta'amu, who some have projected to be drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Ta'amu is a big body at 6'3" and weighing 337 pounds. In his career he has started 29 games and has played in 37 games in his career. He earned honorable mention All Pac-10 last season. Joining him somewhere on the defensive line is fellow senior Everrette Thompson, who is 6'6" and weighs 272 pounds. Against bigger teams, Thompson plays a lot of defensive end, but against smaller quicker teams, he plays some defensive tackle. In his career he has 19 career-starts and has played in 34 games. Another Husky who will factor in the defensive tackle rotation is Lawrence Lagafuaina; he is 6'0", weighing 329 pounds and redshirted last season. You'll also see four-star recruit, Danny Shelton, who is 6'1" weighing 334 pounds. Like Thompson you'll also have Sione Potoa'e who is 6'2" weighing 276 pounds. Against smaller teams, Potoa'e will play tackle and against bigger teams, he will play end. Last year he played in 11 games making two starts. The Huskies are deep at the defensive tackle position anchored by two seniors.
The Huskies, at defensive end, feature true sophomore Hau'oli Jamora who is projected to be first team All Pac-12 defensive end. Jamora, who is 6'3", but only 247 pounds, played last season in all 13 games while starting the final seven games. Against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, Jamora recorded four tackles, three for loss and and one for a sack. Thompson will be most likely the other starting defensive end, but if he starts at tackle, look for junior Talia Crichton to start. Crichton, who is 6'3" and weighs 255 pounds, has played in 15 games making 10 career starts. Another guy who will factor in the rotation is Andrew Hudson who redshirted last season and is 6'3", weighing 231 pounds. Finally, we have highly-recruited Josh Shirley, 6'3", 229 pounds, who will pretty much play every third and long situation. Shirley is a bit of a hybrid who can eventually play outside linebacker or defensive end. For right now he'll play a ton of rush end.
The Huskies defensive line projects to have three All Pac-12 players, including two on first team. They will have eight guys who can play, which should keep the defensive line fresh. The Huskies also have versatility, which will be a huge strength. The Huskies have big guys up the middle and quick speed rushers on the outside. The Huskies should be able to stop the spread teams and the smashmouth power teams. Just a matter of playing an entire season like they did those last four games of the year is the key.
This unit is probably the biggest question mark the Huskies face including the quarterback position. Over the last two years, the Huskies have lost graduating seniors Donald Butler(starting in the NFL), E.J. Savannah, Mason Foster (starting in the NFL), and Victor Aiyewa. The Huskies, for the second straight season, will have to replace two linebacker positions. They have also had to replace the face of the defense for the past three seasons with the loss of Holiday Bowl defensive MVP, Mason Foster. Foster was a terrific player for the Huskies and will be hard to replace. Last year the Huskies had to replace Butler who was also a terrific player.
The guy who replaced Butler was Cort Dennison who is a senior Captain at middle linebacker. Dennison, in his career, has played in 34 games and has made 17 career starts. Last year, he started 12 games at middle linebacker where he recorded 92 tackles with two sacks and two interceptions. Dennison will be the anchor of a young linebacking core. The other starters will be Princeton Fuimaono, who as a true freshman last year, played in all 13 games, including a start at Oregon. The other starter will be John Timu who will be a redshirt freshman this season. Other guys, who will factor in, are Garret Gilliland who last year, as a true freshman, played in 12 games, including starting against Nebraska. Thomas Tutogi will be backing up Cort Dennison at middle linebacker. Tutogi was a JC player last season and will be a true sophomore this year. The Huskies linebackers are very young and eventually could be the team's strength next season.
The Huskies will feature plenty of experience at their cornerback position this year. They will have some talented, but inexperienced, safeties this season as well. Starting with the corners, the Huskies will feature junior Desmond Trufant who is the brother of Washington State Cougars great, and current Seattle Seahawks Marcus Trufant. Trufant, in his first two years, has played in 25 games, making 22 starts. He has three career interceptions and half a sack. Trufant is projected to be first team All Pac-12 this season. On the opposite side is senior Quinton Richardson. Richardson has played in 37 games, making 30 career starts. He has three career interceptions, including a touchdown last year against UCLA. Richardson, though, could miss the start of the season. Replacing him will be the interesting battle as there is a big drop off. Gregory Ducre will compete for that spot. Last year, as a true freshman, he played in all 13 games including an interception against Syracuse. Anthony Gobern, junior, has played in just 15 games (all on special teams)and will compete with Ducre to fill in for Richardson. When healthy, the Huskies have two corners who have combined to play in 59 games, with 52 starts, so Nick Holt could do some blitzing.
At safety, the Huskies will be replacing last year's Team Captain, Nate Williams, with Sean Parker. Parker is a four-star recruit who chose the Huskies over USC at the last minute. Last season, as a true freshman, Parker played in nine games, as the nickelback, while recording the interception. Then there is a heated battle with Nate Fellner and Justin Glenn, who is back from injury. Fellner is a junior who has played in 22 games with 16 career starts, including all 13 last season. He led the Huskies with five interceptions last year, including one in the Holiday Bowl and one in the Apple Cup. He'll be competing with Glenn who is also a junior. Glenn has played in 13 games with five starts as a freshman before getting injured. During his freshman season he scored a 51-yard touchdown against Stanford. With Glenn healthy, the Huskies have three good safeties.
It is nice to see the Huskies have a veteran secondary that will allow Nick Holt to take more chances with blitz packages. The Huskies have three talented safeties and two corners who could be playing in the NFL. It is nice seeing the Huskies having a handful of guys on defense who could be playing in the NFL. The secondary, like the rest of the defense, came on strong down the stretch. They'll be tested early against Hawaii, who basically throws on every single down. The Huskies strong defensive line play should make life easier on this group.
The Huskies have a strong kicking game that features three seniors. The Huskies field goal kicker is Erik Folk who is pretty clutch as he's made back-to-back game winning kicks against USC. Plus, he sent the Notre Dame game into overtime his freshman year. In his career, he is a perfect 68-for-68 on PAT's while making 31-41 field goals, which is 75.6%. Last year, he hit a 54-yarder and a 52-yard field goal showing off his leg strength. This senior helps the Huskies offense out with his strong long and accuracy as most teams are force to punt Folk can cash those in for three points.
The Huskies have a punting battle that is going to be a tough decision for Sarkisian to make. First, we'll start with senior Will Mahan, who was the punter in 2009. In 2009, he had 52 punts where he had just two touchbacks and averaged 40.6 yards per punt. Last year against BYU he had six punts where he averaged 45.2 yards a punt, including a 64-yard punt. Then, in practice, Mahan was hurt so Kiel Rasp, who was just a walk-on, took over. Well, Rasp did pretty good as well with 69 punts for a school record 43.8 yards per punt average. He also completed a fake punt pass to Kearse in the Apple Cup, which helped the Huskies score a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Huskies, Rasp is also a senior and neither he, nor Mahan, can be redshirted.
The good news for the Huskies is they should have a great kicking game this season. With Mahan or Rasp they have one of the better punters in the conference, which should help the defense out. For kicking, Folk, with his leg and accuracy, can reward them with three points when drives stall. Having a good kicking game can be the difference between winning and losing. Had the Huskies, in 1995 and 1996, had a good kicking game they would have been in the Rose Bowl. The Huskies will be hurting next year as both guys are seniors, but for this year, the Huskies kicking game should be very strong.
For the first time since 1954, the Huskies return their entire coaching staff for the third straight season. On paper, Sarkisian is a losing coach with a 12-13 record and going 9-9 in Pac-10 play. That is why you can't measure success based on paper, as Sarkisian inherited an 0-12 mess; a program that was 12-47 during the previous five seasons. The Huskies were the worst program in the nation during that five-year stretch which saw them losing nine plus games in four of those seasons. Sarkisian has done a good job of having his teams play their best ball at the end of the season, which has been the case the past two years.
With Sarkisian, the Huskies have a young coach who is recruiting hard. He has brought in back-to-back ranked recruiting classes, which hasn't happened since the Rick Neuheisel days. The Huskies also brought over the bulk of the USC coaching staff which included their defensive coordinator, Nick Holt. Holt took over a disaster of a defense for the Huskies and there has been some improvement since he has arrived at Washington. The defense allowed just one touchdown in three of the final four games of the season. The coaching staff is recruiting well, and most important, they are winning. They took an 0-12 mess to a Holiday Bowl win over #18 Nebraska in just two seasons.
The future looks very bright for this program. If the Washington Huskies football program were a stock, this is a stock you'd want to buy a lot of shares as they are a program on the rise. The Huskies had a five-win turnaround two years ago and last season went 7-6 while winning the Holiday Bowl. For this year, the team knows how to win the close games as they won four games by seven points or less last season. This group no longer expects to compete, but expects to win, regardless of the opponent. I feel like the days of hoping for a bowl game are over as they'll start making a bowl game every year. I think in a year or two the Huskies will seriously compete for the Rose Bowl. Sarkisian currently has another ranked recruiting class which would give him three-in-a-row and there are some pretty big fish that are still available in the Huskies backyard.
As for this season, I think the Huskies should win no fewer than seven regular season games. I predict the Huskies will go 8-4 in the regular season and that is mostly due to their tough schedule. The Huskies will play three teams who are currently ranked in the top 10 in the nation, with two of those games being road games. I do think the Huskies will upset one of those three as Sarkisian has shown the ability to upset opponents in the past two years. I think the Huskies are poised to show the nation that they aren't just a Jake Locker program, but instead a legitimate program. The Huskies will take another step forward in what is ultimately the main goal of reaching the Rose Bowl. I say 8-4 with another trip to the Holiday Bowl as the Huskies take third place in the Pac-12 North Division.
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed my season preview of the Washington Huskies. I'm excited for this season as the Huskies return several key players while bringing in some new fresh faces. I'm excited that I'm no longer hoping for success with the Huskies and now I'm expecting success. I'm happy that losing-season streak has finally snapped and the Huskies can become the Huskies again. This season will have some bumps and bruises along the way, but the program is going in the right direction, for sure. I'm still amazed at how, in just two years, the Huskies went from 0-12 to a bowl victory over a ranked opponent. The program is in good hands with Sarkisian and the talent continues to increase each and every season. The Huskies begin their season Saturday, September 3, against defending FCS national champions Eastern Washington. Hopefully Husky Stadium is packed and ready to go!