There’s an expression used around the Montlake Cut, in effect for nine months, that if coach Steve Sarkisian has taken a special interest in you as a Washington Huskies football player, you’re fortunate. You’re in for extra attention in the tough-love department.
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A few returning players have been in that situation this offseason with the first-year coach as he became familiar with his personnel – none perhaps more prominent than tight end Kavario Middleton, the sophomore from Lakewood.
Middleton came in as a consensus top-five tight end prospect nationally from Lakes High School, started the first two games of last season as a true freshman but as the season wore on, his contributions diminished and he was reduced to watching from the sideline.
Publicly, coaches praised his skill set but pointed out his lack of strength-and-conditioning dedication. From his end, Middleton said the staff stopped communicating with him, and subsequently, he got lost in the shuffle.
After UW finished its season 0-12, Middleton admitted he gave some thought to leaving the team.
Enter Sarkisian, who knows a thing or two about how to not only utilize a tight end – he had sparkling success with them in seven years as offensive assistant at Southern California – but how to cleverly motivate them.
Middleton became one of Sarkisian’s early projects. At the outset of preseason camp, which concluded Friday, Sarkisian noted that Middleton had become “more of an impact guy.”
And in this offense, Middleton could become a star-in-the-making, as soon as this season.
Highs and lows
It didn’t take long for former Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff to realize what they had brought on campus last summer, with Middleton flashing a blend of skills possessed by some of the UW greats at that position.
Middleton showed the soft hands of a Dave Williams, the size and athleticism of a Jerramy Stevens and the winning desire of an Aaron Pierce.
He got the starting nod against Oregon and Brigham Young, catching four passes in each game. Some thought this was his position to occupy for the next four seasons – or less, if the NFL came calling earlier.
“I think he went after it, and did a number of good things,” said Reggie Middleton, Kavario’s father. “He was a true freshman. (Michael) Gottlieb was hurt. He had more catches in the first two games than anybody (but receiver D’Andre Goodwin). He matched whatever they asked of him.”
Middleton came out of the BYU game with soreness in his right knee. As the season went along, it became a reason coaches gave as to why the true freshman’s role had been reduced in favor of senior Gottlieb, a better blocker.
“I mean, I don’t know what you’d call it. I wasn’t really told anything – what my role was or why I didn’t play as much last year. It was real confusing, going from starting the first two games to rarely playing,” Middleton said. “It was really kind of weird.”
By late October, the criticism began. When asked about Middleton, then-offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said the talented local product had to improve his overall conditioning.
“There was a lot of pointing fingers,” Middleton said. “It kind of pushed me away. I didn’t really want to do things as much, and didn’t want to go as hard because I didn’t know anything. I felt like I was out there to be out there, and not actually part of the team.”
Frustrated, Middleton – who finished the season with 12 receptions for 82 yards and no touchdowns – said he thought about getting out of football to pursue other options.
“At those times, who wouldn’t want to think that? We were 0-12,” he said. “It challenges your character.”
Next up: Sarkisian
Sarkisian was hired a few days after the UW season ended. Since many of the players went home, including Middleton, chances for sit-down meetings with the new coach were limited.
But in March, Middleton and Sarkisian finally came face-to-face before spring camp opened.
“He laid the ground rules with me,” Middleton said.
The three things at the top of the agenda were: improved effort, increased energy and better offseason workouts.
“There are a lot of different ways to motivate people,” said Sarkisian, who declined to share specific details about early meetings with Middleton. “We’ve tried a lot of different ways with Kavario because he’s talented and he’s very bright.”
Early in spring ball, Middleton was slow to catch on. He was coming off an illness and appeared lackadaisical. For that, Sarkisian spent time “yelling at me every day,” the Lakes High School graduate said.
Finally, midway through camp, the two had one more talk, which proved pivotal to Middleton’s growth as a player.
“He told me I needed to be the guy to step up as a young player,” Middleton said. “From then on, I kind of changed.”
Coming into his own
The second half of spring ball, and after Middleton whittled some of the extra weight off his 6-foot-5 frame during summer workouts, Sarkisian’s yelling turned into effusive praise.
While he’s not a finished product by any means, Middleton and tight end Chris Izbicki have shown vast improvement in their blocking.
That is the way to stay on the field. Proof of that comes from Sarkisian’s tenure at USC. He tutored four tight ends who earned all-Pacific-10 Conference honors, including Fred Davis, the 2007 Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end.
Since Sarkisian was hired by USC coach Pete Carroll in 2001, the Trojans have never been outside the top three in the conference in passing efficiency, and only once outside the top three in rushing (2006).
“In this offense, it’s a position you have to know a lot of stuff with blocking and pass catching,” Izbicki said. “But I think from the practices we’ve had, we can tell and fully understand how important it is.”
As for all those great players Sarkisian had at USC, he considers Middleton a bigger version of them – more like current Trojans tight end Anthony McCoy, a 6-5, 250-pound senior from Fresno.
“Kavario is starting to see there’s a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel now,” Sarkisian said “The motivation is right there for him.”
Not to worry, coach – he sees it just fine.
“If somebody tells you they need you, and are counting on you, then you want to be accountable for your actions, and be able to step in and make that person proud,” Middleton said. “That is what I’d like to do for Coach Sark.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442