After an abysmal 2008 campaign, the Washington Husky football team can only get better. For perspective, even a single win—just one—this year will be a significant improvement. After last year’s effort, the Husky AD cleaned house, and imported some coaching talent from one of the premier programs in the land at the University of Spoiled Children. (Their recent NCAA violations aside, their coaching, tactics, and execution of the past decade has been impressive).
With the new coaching staff, and few changes in the roster, the question is—what can a purple-and-gold fan expect for this year—other than the assumed Apple Cup victory?
Based on the activity this offseason, the coaches clearly have a plan and players are either on board with it—or out. The tempo at practices has significantly changed, the attention to detail has increased, and bottom line – the emotion has returned. New Head Coach Steve Sarkisian has brought a disciplined approach to the whole team, and a new pro-style offensive playbook. His energy appears to have penetrated the 2008 hangover in the players, and started to plant the seeds of hope.
Defensive Coordinator, and former linebacker, Nick Holt appears ready to go toe to toe with any defensive player who doesn’t want to give a full effort. The addition of Doug Nussmeier as Locker’s coach/mentor is targeted specifically at moving him from a talented improviser to a disciplined playcaller. In addition, this coaching staff has clearly made an impression on some high school talent, as their 2010 recruiting class will be the highest ranked incoming Husky class in years.
Overall, I believe that this coaching staff is better for this young team than the prior staff. The expectations of structure and execution have already had an impact on the team. This season, when the chips go against the Dawgs, the expectation is that this coaching staff will lean on their detailed preparation, make some adjustments, and their boys should deliver.
To state the obvious, Jake Locker is the player who faces the highest expectations for this year. The raw talent he showcased last year creates the perception that he is ready to take the step to that “next level”. He has succeeded so far by being a man against boys in one-on-one on field challenges. However, that didn’t win a game before his injury last year. He must now make the change from being the best player on the field to being the best quarterback on the field.
Outside of the quarterback, expectations will be raised across the board for any of the players. With last year’s team, things got so bad so quickly, single players or plays were rarely singled out. Willingham’s style was not to attack a particular player, nor isolate specific instances. The players played well in spots, but with injuries and roster moves - there wasn't a consistent Husky unit at any point in the season.
In adjusting to the new coach, both sides of the ball have to learn the new terminology, schemes, and audibles, the quarterback Locker, and defensive captain—perhaps a Tuiasosopo or Savannah—have the biggest book to memorize. The adjustment to a new playbook in the NFL can take a couple of years, let alone a pro-style playbook for a group of 19 and 20 year olds. So that challenge will affect the Dawgs in 2009.
One item that tempers expectations—across the board—the Huskies are young. Out of their 98 current players, only 35 are Juniors or Seniors. The other 63 guys are either redshirt freshman or sophomores. This youth has a yin and yang for Sark and friends – the yin is that they are inexperienced, and don’t have a lot of quality college football experience to draw from. The yang is that they are effectively blank clay that Sark can sculpt into whatever he wants them to be.
Sark will put his best eleven on the field, and will watch their every play. Failure is not acceptable. Every player on the roster will need to be ready to fill in for someone who forgets an assignment or misses a play. The entire roster will have to adjust to the new scrutiny. Over the coming year's, Sark will change the Husky culture and gradually build a team of "his guys."
Husky Expectations 2009 –
For 2009, the Huskies cannot get any worse than they were last year. However, in Seattle, the standard for Husky performance is pretty high. Husky fans (and the Tyee club of boosters) expect bowl games and Pac-10 titles. Steve Sarkisian played vs the Huskies (and lost) and felt the impact of Husky fans first hand.
Based on the intensity of the spring practices, Coach Sarkisian and his staff focus on two core items—the fundamentals of the game and raising the players' intensity. For the players, repetition at a higher intensity level took an adjustment in the first few practices, and one can hope this translates to better on the field execution.
In 2009, the Huskies should climb out of the cellar and be one of the middle of the Pac teams. They may surprise some of their Pac 10 foes. However, a non-conference list that includes an opener vs LSU and Notre Dame may temper that enthusiasm. One thing is clear—2009 will begin the return of the Dawgs to their rightful place at the top of the conference.
Bottom line, the 2009 expectations are for a long overdue improvement and an Apple Cup win!! In 2010 and beyond the Dawgs will be ready to challenge the top teams in the Pac-10.