Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jake in Progress | by Kevin

Note on the title of this entry: I sifted through countless Nirvana and Pearl Jam references for a groan-inducing title to the Washington preview. Found Dead In the Greenhouse, while evocative, seemed in poor taste. Young Former USC Coach Behind the Counter in a Big Town was too long and detached from the original Pearl Jam track. A Google search for "TV shows about Jake" produced the eventual winner. John Stamos played Jake, and the show was eventually pulled in favor of Bachelor re-runs. While new coach Steve Sarkisian may eventually lead a Trista-and-Ryan charmed life in Seattle, roses are not in the program's immediate future.

Steve Sarkisian, like his former USC co-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, has imported some Trojan coaching staples to Seattle. Sark has brought in a top-flight former USC defensive coach (Nick Holt), turned the Twitter volume to 11, and generally injected the Husky program with Carroll-esque optimism and energy.

However, Coach Sarkisian was not able to load all of Heritage Hall into the moving van. Traveler didn't make the trip. Neither did Keith Rivers, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, Mike Williams, Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Dominique Bird, Winston Justice, Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Mark Sanchez, Jeff Byers, Stanley Havili, Taylor Mays, Joe McKnight, Everson Griffen, or Ronald Johnson.

In short, Sarkisian has gone from a program that has "settled" for throttling Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl every January 1st to one whose former coach was proud to play Hawaii in December. In a regular season game. That they lost.

The cupboard is not entirely empty. Lest anyone forget, Jake Locker returns at quarterback. The obligatory Jake Locker compliments feel similar to telling someone from a bottom-tier academic school that they "have a great nursing program." While true -- Locker is a talented athlete and a seemingly likeable kid -- the point feels a bit empty and condescending given the context.

The context is this: Washington has been terrible. Washington might become excellent during the Sarkisian Era. With access to junior college players, they could be good reasonably soon. But they will not be good this year. I do not think Notre Dame should or will lose a home game against this team.

With the conclusion out of the way early, let's take a closer look at the 2009 Washington Huskies.

The team starts with the nursing program. Locker, the dual-threat Bellingham, Washington native, was Willingham's recruiting pearl, albeit one who dreamed of Montlake since childhood. Locker has been star-crossed since arriving at Washington. His 1,000-yard rushing campaign as a redshirt freshman was cut a game short, with an injury against Oregon State, and he missed most of last season after breaking his thumb in the fourth game, against Stanford. He has also played for a team that has won nine games in three seasons. Still, if Sarkisian's pro-style system and Locker mesh, and/or Sarkisian adapts to the speedy quarterback, Locker might finally emerge and enjoy his finest year.

The other blue-chippers on offense are redshirt freshman running back Chris Polk (also injured last year) and two tight ends, sophomores Kavario Middleton and Chris Izbicki. Polk was's 9th-rated running back in the class of 2008, with offers from USC, Cal, and Oregon, and he should be the nominal starter heading into the fall. However, he will likely share carries with some or all of Demetrius Bronson, Willie Griffin, Brandon Johnson, and/or David Freeman. Middleton and Izbicki should split time. At wide receiver, D'Andre Goodwin returns from a 721-yard campaign. Jermaine Kearse, a former four-star recruit who saw limited playing time as a true freshman, should also start. Devin Aguilar, who also played as a true freshman, Cody Bruns, Vince Taylor, and Anthony Boyle round out the receivers.

Washington's 2008 offensive line was even worse than Notre Dame's. Washington averaged just under 100 rushing yards per game last year and yielded 31 sacks. The good news for Husky fans is that two starters graduated. Some attention has focused on the big guys' weight. Though right guard Senio Kelemete and right tackle Drew Schaefer both weigh in at less than 280, the rest of the group -- particularly 335 pound left guard Ben Ossai -- is anything but svelte. Perhaps they just need assistance re-distributing that weight. Learning how to block could also come in handy.

Defense should be the way the Huskies first announce their return. New coordinator Nick Holt led the already legendary USC defense last year, and no reasonable observer questions the value he brings to the Washington staff. Every 2008 starting defensive lineman and linebacker returns. Top tacklers Mason Foster (outside linebacker), Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (defensive end), and Donald Butler (inside linebacker) are back, as is outside linebacker EJ Savannah, who had left the team before last season. Sophomore Quinton Richardson returns at corner, along with Matt Mosley and Justin Glenn, and safeties Nate Williams, Johri Fogerson, and Greg Walker.

Special teams could doom the Huskies in any close games. Neither their kicker nor punter have played Division I football. Punter Will Mahan is a Juco transfer, while kicker Eric Folk did not play in his first two seasons at Washington. Their return game is also unsettled, although Polk could become involved in that capacity.

After an 11-37 run under Tyrone Willingham -- which featured, among other ignominies, the retention of just 17 total players from the combined 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes -- at least Washington fans finally have hope. Wins may not come early. Washington opens against LSU, and USC visits on September 19th. If Sarkisian can keep morale intact, his experienced defense might pull off a surprise at some point this season. Just not on October 3rd.