UW football preview: Speed is what Huskies need

Tired of finishing 7-6, the Huskies are hoping a shift this season to a full-time up-tempo offense will get them back into the national conversation

Staff writerAugust 28, 2013 

Washington quarterback Keith Price (17), leading teammates in a drill Aug. 5, will run the Huskies’ new full-time up-tempo offense starting this weekend.

ELAINE THOMPSON/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEATTLE — The flat screens, in-ground ice baths and barber chair aren’t the only new things inside renovated Husky Stadium.

One of the more noticeable changes this fall is Keith Price’s screaming.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Hustling practice referees run up the sideline to spot the ball while Price is lording a few feet behind center. Signs flash on the sideline. Price turns slightly to take a peek at the call, then the snap is off in a snap.

Washington’s move to a full-time up-tempo offense this season is a result of personnel and philosophy change. The Huskies hope the rapid snapping of the ball with brisk desperation finally vaults them past the 7-6 record they have had in three consecutive seasons.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian learned the offense from mentors with links to the “Air Coryell” school, named after passing-game innovations developed by former Washington cornerback and San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell.

Sarkisian’s junior-college coach, John Featherstone, was on staff with Coryell at San Diego State after playing for him in the late 1960s. Featherstone installed the single-back, play-action approach at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., for Sarkisian to run as quarterback in the early 1990s.

When Sarkisian left El Camino for BYU, LaVell Edwards ran a similar spread system. It’s an approach Sarkisian knew and was hardened into by the time he arrived at Washington in 2009.

He adapted some that year because of the skills — namely, freakish speed and size — of quarterback Jake Locker. Sarkisian didn’t have a tight end the next season, which made him turn to other adjustments.

In 2011, when quarterback Keith Price excelled, the Huskies used most of those pro-style spread techniques to help with a wide distribution of passes.

Last season against Stanford and its stern defense built around high-IQ lumberjacks, the Huskies tinkered with the pace of the game by using a faster offensive approach.

They went on to use it in other spots throughout the year, often seeing effective results during a down offensive season.

This year, it’s a full shift into football’s latest trend.

The majority of the Pacific-12 Conference uses the manic approach. Texas A&M used it to upset Alabama last season, when the Aggies were one of just two teams to score more than 20 points against the national champion Crimson Tide.

“If you look at us when we struggled last year, we were trying to match up,” Washington offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto said. “When we started going fast pace, we eliminated the thinking, the guessing. Then you just go.

“There’s no what-ifs sitting in your stances. You just load it up. When that snap’s over, you just go to the next snap. You have to learn how to play one at a time because you can’t waste time worrying about what you did the last time.

“I think it helped Keith, too.”

Sarkisian agrees.

“I think it was effective for us in minimizing the paralysis-by-analysis aspect of it for the quarterback,” Sarkisian said. “I think that it allowed him to just go play the game in a setting he’s comfortable in, which is where he’s more spontaneous, reactive-type player and not over-analytical.”

The Huskies previously used constant motion for deception. This offense will look to the pace to force defensive misalignment and confusion.

Price said he’s all for it, and that the core formations Washington uses are similar to the past.

“It’s a little different, but it’s the same pro-style concepts,” Price said. “It’s just at a faster pace. It doesn’t really change anything for me. I still have to make the right reads and the right decisions.”

A more cynical view of the shift would prompt the cliché: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Washington recently has been pulverized by up-tempo spread teams, most notably villainous Oregon, which has beaten the Huskies in nine consecutive seasons.

Last season, Arizona and Oregon each scored 52 points on the helpless Huskies with the no-huddle spread offense. Even stodgy LSU has mixed in the no-huddle.

However, having the offense flip to a warp-speed approach is a mixed bag for the defense.

The upside is daily work against one of their greatest weaknesses. Yet, when the games start, heavy rotations will be needed.

Yardage allowed will inevitably go up because of the increase in snaps. The pressure on the defense will be increased by its own offense.

“You have to be ready to substitute,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “I’d love to sit here and say (nose tackle) Danny Shelton is going to play 84 snaps of his best football. I think that’s a lot to ask for a guy who weighs (327) pounds.

“I think if you’re only playing with 11 in this day and age, as much as you might like to, it’s counter-productive.”

The coaches had to make changes. Summer-long conditioning programs for offensive and defensive linemen were altered. Aspects of practice were redesigned. For instance, Washington now stops in the middle for a walk-through — a built-in breather.

The difference between Week 1 of camp and this week is noticeable.

“It’s much easier,” middle linebacker John Timu said. “We’re able to think. Breathe a little bit. We’re ready for it.”

On Saturday night, when 19th-ranked Boise State becomes the first menace to enter revamped Husky Stadium, they’ll find out if that’s true. The Broncos also like to use no-huddle spread looks.

Washington’s diving full bore into one of the nation’s hottest trends to try to advance to its biggest stages.

“There’s a reason why everybody is doing this,” Wilcox said. “People aren’t dumb.”

todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas

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