About the time most University of Washington Huskies fans will be sitting down at their office desks with a fresh cup of coffee or perhaps still battling I-5 traffic just to get to work, the team will start its fourth spring football practice under coach Steve Sarkisian at 8 a.m. today.
The morning workouts mark one of many changes this spring for the Huskies as they prepare for the 2012 season.
The most noticeable difference is the coaching staff. For the past three seasons, Sarkisian’s staff stayed intact – no departures, no firings.
That changed this offseason as Sarkisian replaced his entire defensive staff, adding defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and secondary coach Keith Heyward, while also adding offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau.
“Obviously a lot has transpired here in the last few months. To get back to a point now where we can get back onto the field is exciting,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian’s excitement is mildly dampened by the number of injuries – particularly to his offensive and defensive lines – that will keep several key players from participating in spring drills. But he also views it as a chance to for some young players to step forward and compete for legitimate playing time.
“There’s new stuff going on,” Sarkisian said. “The field, the time, the new coaches, and I think there’s plenty of newness in this thing that makes it feel fresh, makes it feel alive, makes it feel, I think, there’s a bit of excitement in the air; but yet, a little bit of anxiety in the air, quite honestly.
“I think guys are anxious to get on the field and get going. They want to prove to their new coaches that they can play. Guys want to earn spots, but that’s what spring ball is about.”
Here are five questions facing the Huskies as they enter spring practice they hope to answer after the annual spring game on April 28.
Can new defensive coordinator Wilcox and his three new position coaches repair a broken defense?
The reason Nick Holt was fired and Wilcox brought in from Tennessee was that the UW defense sank to such a level that it made beating good teams nearly impossible. As good as the Huskies’ offense was, it simply couldn’t score enough points to stay with the likes of USC, Oregon, Stanford and Baylor, who rolled up yards and points at will.
Wilcox comes in with a pedigree of success, particularly at Boise State, where he led one of the few defenses to slow down Chip Kelly’s fast-paced Oregon offense. He also brings with him a little different philosophy and much different personality.
Wilcox has said he will use multiple defensive looks, including a 3-4 alignment to maximize the talent remaining on the roster.
“We will try (to) use our people and put them in the best spots we can, based on what our strengths and weaknesses are,” Wilcox said. “We don’t want to be ramming a square peg into a round hole.”
Wilcox doesn’t have some secret plan or magic solution to make the Huskies better defensively. It’s pretty simple.
“It’s going to start with fundamentals,” Wilcox said. “If you are going to be good on defense, you have to be good fundamentally. I don’t care how athletic you are.”
There is some talent returning. Senior cornerback Desmond Trufant, junior safety Sean Parker and young linebackers John Timu, Princeton Fuiamaono and Jamaal Kearse all saw significant playing time last season.
But Wilcox will have to replace key players in middle linebacker Cort Dennison and defensive linemen Alameda Ta’amu and Everrette Thompson.
It’s a process that will take time.
“You have to be physically and mentally tough and play with great effort,” Wilcox said. “But the one thing we have to do to be good is execute because toughness and effort won’t win you games. You have to execute at a high level down-in and down-out.”
How serious are the injury issues with the offensive line?
It’s probably the biggest concern facing Sarkisian and the offense. With left tackle Senio Kelemete having graduated, only one player from last season’s starting offensive unit – center Drew Schaefer – currently is healthy enough for spring practice.
“That part is concerning to me,” Sarkisian said.
Right tackle Erik Kohler is probably the next healthiest returning starter. But a myriad of minor injuries from last season will keep him limited in practice. Meanwhile, starting left guard Colin Tanigawa and starting right guard Colin Porter will not participate at all this spring. Tanigawa tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Oregon State and is still recovering from surgery. Porter had offseason surgery on both shoulders.
Besides Schaeffer and Kohler, that leaves eight linemen. Only one of the eight – Micah Hatchie – saw any significant playing time last season.
“We are going to move some guys around to get some guys experience in some spots and see where our versatility may be, and not just pigeonhole guys,” Sarkisian said. “A guy we might think is a tackle, we throw him in at guard and he performs really well.”
Hatchie will get the chance to replace Kelemete at left tackle, while Dexter Charles will start out at left guard, James Atoe at right guard and Ben Riva at right tackle.
“So, is it ideal not to have Porter and Tanigawa and a not-100-percent Erik Kohler?” Sarkisian said. “No. But I think this will help us, in a sense. It’s a great opportunity for Drew Schaefer to really assume a leadership role up front this spring. So there’s some real benefits to it, but not ideal.”
Will one player step forward to replace Chris Polk’s production at running back? Or will it be by committee?
The likely answer is that Polk’s production can’t be replaced by any one player. It will be up to Jesse Callier, Bishop Sankey and others to try to replicate Polk’s hard-running presence.
Sarkisian has maintained that Callier possesses the ability to run between the tackles. But he has never flourished in that aspect while serving as Polk’s backup. In Callier’s two seasons, he has served mostly as a change-up to Polk specializing in fly sweeps and runs to the outside.
Sankey played in 12 games as a true freshman. He had 198 yards on 28 carries, and showed hints of explosiveness. Washington also has redshirt Dezden Petty, who at 5-foot-11, 200-plus pounds, brings a different type of running style to the equation. The wild card may be former quarterback Antavius Sims, who will work out at running back and slot back.
“We’ll see how Jesse Callier looks without Chris Polk on the field. Can he really take a hold of this thing?” Sarkisian said. “What does Bishop Sankey look like now, heading into year two? Is he an explosive back? What does an Antavius Sims look like when he’s 7 yards back there and not catching a shotgun snap like he was at quarterback? Getting a handoff, can he be the same runner? What does Dezden Petty look like now as a big back for us with the opportunity to do those things? We’ll see. The luxury we have is we’re accustomed and are able to play with multiple backs, but we also know that we can have a feature back and that guy can do it – if we have one who’s physically capable of doing it.”
Is Derrick Brown ready to be the back-up quarterback to Keith Price?
With Nick Montana transferring to a junior college, the Huskies have some uncertainty if Keith Price gets hurt.
A redshirt freshman, Derrick Brown will get his first chance to claim the spot while heralded signees Cyler Miles and Jeff Lindquist won’t be on campus until the fall.
Brown has the size and the arm strength to be successful, but he looked raw at times last season. Will his progress make a leap similar to that of Price following his redshirt season?
“He will get plenty of work,” Sarkisian said. “We only have two scholarship guys this spring so he will get plenty of work and probably get more reps when it’s all said and done than Keith does this spring because we’ve got to get him prepared to play, knowing that we’ve got a couple more guys coming in this fall in (Jeff) Lindquist and (Cyler) Miles, who are talented.”
What are the best position battles this spring?
With so many new coaches on defense, only Trufant and Parker seem to have their positions locked up. Sarkisian pointed to the cornerback position opposite Trufant as an interesting battle.
Junior Greg Ducre played in every game last season and is having a great offseason, but freshman Marcus Peters has shown hints of outstanding play-making ability. The free-safety position, which could be awaiting prized recruit Shaq Thompson in the fall, will still have senior Nate Felner and junior Will Shamburger vying for time.
While there are plenty of linebackers who saw action last year, no roles have been defined – particularly with the 3-4 scheme. Timu, Fuiamaono, Kearse and Thomas Tutogi will be in the mix along with converted safety Taz Stevenson and redshirt Scott Lawyer.
There will be some opportunity at wide receiver with the graduation of Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.
Kasen Williams established himself as a starter late last season, but the other two spots are up for grabs. Senior James Johnson seems like a solid candidate, but he struggled late last season. Cody Bruns is back after redshirting in 2011 and is dependable, while sophomore DiAndre Campbell impressed early last season but then didn’t play. Redshirt freshmen Jamaal Jones and Josh Perkins and speedy newcomer Marvin Hall could also figure into the mix.