For Steve Sarkisian, the questions still remain as the Washington Huskies open fall camp today on Montlake.
Many of them are the same questions that filled his mind during spring football.
“The questions are obvious,” Sarkisian said at the Pacific-12 Conference media day.
The answers are not.
Sure, he saw hints of possible answers during the spring. But complete answers really won’t be apparent until the Huskies open the 2012 season on Sept. 1 against San Diego State at CenturyLink Field.
Over the course of the next month, Sarkisian and his staff will coach and search for several answers. Here are three of the most pressing:
Can new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and Co., exorcise the defensive issues that plagued the Huskies last season?
There were signs of improvement this spring. The defense under Wilcox and new coaches Peter Sirmon (linebackers), Keith Heyward (secondary) and Tosh Lupoi (defensive line) played with a faster, more aggressive nature than under the previous regime.
“I thought the speed of our defense was definitely prevalent,” Sarkisian said. “I thought our coverage skills really jumped out at me. Justin has done a really nice job of teaching the back end, along with Keith Heyward, of covering route concepts and then covering guys man to man and then ultimately making the plays in the one-on-one opportunities and having the confidence to make those plays. It’s such a distinct difference from what we had the previous three years.”
Wilcox will use a variety of defensive schemes, including some 3-4 and 3-3-5 alignments, instead of the usual 4-3 look. The defense will be multiple in every way.
“I kind of like the ‘hybrid,’ ” Sarkisian said. “It’s a hip term in the car industry now, so we’ll keep that. There will be times when we will look like a 4-3 defense, and there will be moments where we look like we have a 3-4 defense in.”
From a personnel standpoint, the Huskies return eight starters and several other players who saw significant playing time. Players such as cornerback Desmond Trufant, safeties Sean Parker and Justin Glenn and defensive linemen Hau’oli Jamora and Danny Shelton have all-conference talent. It’s just a matter of Wilcox getting or retraining those returning into confident players.
The defense should almost certainly be better than last season. But how much better?
“I think it can be dramatically improved and I go back to one instance in our own conference when Dewayne Walker came to UCLA,” Sarkisian said. “I feel something very similar with us, we have more talent on our defense than we have been given credit for, a lot of it is young. I think they have helped us make dramatic strides and changes in a short amount of time. I don’t feel like this is going to be a long, drawn-out process. I think this thing can get turned around and turned around relatively quickly.”
What five players will make up the Huskies’ interior offensive line, and can they protect quarterback Keith Price?
Going into spring football, there wasn’t supposed to be much uncertainty surrounding the offensive line. But then Colin Porter – perhaps the team’s best offensive linemen – was forced out because of shoulder injuries and returning starter Erik Kohler was still battling offseason injuries. Couple that with the knee injury starting left guard Colin Tanigawa suffered at the end of the 2011 season and the graduation of starting left tackle Senio Kelemete, and suddenly senior center Drew Schaefer was flanked this spring by players without a single collegiate start.
Tanigawa is supposed to be ready to go from offseason surgery and Kohler is also healthy. And Schaefer, who got dinged up during spring football, is also 100 percent.
That leaves questions at both offensive tackle positions. During the spring, sophomore Micah Hatchie, who appeared in a handful games at right tackle last season, worked as the first-team left tackle. And Ben Riva, who redshirted last year, worked as the starting left tackle. Neither has started a game. And with the Huskies facing LSU and its fierce pass rush in the second game of the season, the starters at tackle will be tested.
“Obviously, that is one of our question marks: Who are going to be our five guys; where do they fit; and (how do we make sure) that our best players are in the toughest positions so we can be successful?” Sarkisian said. “You’re going to see times at training camp Drew Schaefer will be at tackle, Tanigawa at center and Kohler at center, and we will do it time and again to get the best five guys to be successful on the field, so we can run the football the best and protect this guy and so that we have the best continuity as we continue to move forward.”
The Huskies obviously can’t simply replace Chris Polk or his record-setting production, but can they still find an effective running game?
For as much as Sarkisian gets praised for his ability to mold quarterbacks and his passing-game knowledge, his play-calling is highly dependent on a viable ground game. For three years, Polk didn’t make the Huskies’ run game viable, he made it special. He also made life much easier for quarterbacks because of his ability to pick up large chunks of yards on first and second downs. His presence also opened up the play-action passing game.
Now he’s gone.
“I think that position is one we feel good about the depth,” Sarkisian said. “How he gets replaced remains to be seen.”
The onus falls largely on junior Jesse Callier and sophomore Bishop Sankey. Both saw playing time at tailback behind Polk last season.
Callier rushed for 260 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries, but he didn’t show a consistent ability to run between the tackles. Sankey, who showed better vision running inside, ran for 187 yards and a TD on 28 carries. They will split the carries.
There is hope that freshman Deontae Cooper, coming off knee surgeries in back-to-back seasons, might contribute. But it would be unfair to expect that soon.
“There’s the physical aspect of it,” Sarkisian said. “But there’s the mental aspect of it, too. (Thinking) ‘OK, now I am playing, now I have to get to playing the style of football that I am capable of.’ I don’t think there is any one guy on the team the teammates, the coaches, the administration (are) pulling for (more) than that guy because he’s such a good kid, he works so hard. I think we all want to see him get his opportunity and hopefully he email@example.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @RyanDivish