Maybe it’s not saying all that much, but I think the Washington defense made more contact in Monday’s first practice of the 2009 season – without pads – than it did in some actual games in 2008.
At times, receivers got decked. At times, minor scuffles broke out. And on almost every play during team sessions, the ballcarrier kept trying to run long after the play would have been blown dead, and grabby defenders kept trying to strip the ball from him.
With this approach, many plays seemed to end with roughly 22 players joined in a rugby scrum around the ball.
It certainly kept the blood pumping at high levels for more than two hours. And if there’s not much you can really tell from the first practice of a season, here’s one thing: Although beaten down by 14 consecutive defeats, this group at least has a discernible pulse.
The staff of very cranky coaches makes certain of that. They coach energy and details – at high decibels – and most of all, they seem to be trying to teach players to have a loving relationship with the football.
During warm-ups, as players do stretching and running exercises, coaches are firing balls at them, sometimes dribbling them in their path, bouncing them off the ground, so they have to be ready to recover it at any moment.
“The emphasis of this program is about the football,” said Steve Sarkisian after conducting his first fall practice as a head coach.
OK, that sounds like a proclamation from Captain Obvious. But his point is more specific … and valid.
“If we’re going to be a great football team, we’ve got to have a plus-double-digit turnover margin,” he said. “That’s how you get great. There’s a huge emphasis on the defensive side of the ball to get after the football, and obviously on offense you’ve got to protect it with your life.”
With two of the first three games featuring powerhouses Louisiana State and Southern Cal, Sarkisian and the staff don’t have time to ease them into the new routine.
So, practice for the new edition Huskies is conducted at a frantic tempo. There’s a great deal of chatter, and racing back and forth as units perilously change practice fields like drivers trying to merge from State Highway 520 onto I-5.
Unlike his predecessor, Sarkisian has encouraged fans to attend practices. But the public wasn’t eager to accept the invitation. There were no more than a couple hundred in attendance, although school is not in session, and it was a cool and drizzly weekday.
One alum in attendance, though, might have a direct effect on the Husky players. Marquis Tuiasosopo, a Rose Bowl quarterback for the Huskies, was hired as the assistant strength and conditioning coach. Not currently employed in the NFL, Tui is such a well-liked, highly admired former Huskies player that his presence can be only a very positive addition.
Tuiasosopo recalled a coaching change when he was at UW, and in that way said he could relate to the challenges of the new scheme current quarterback Jake Locker faces.
Locker has said he’s committed to improving his accuracy with his passes. How’d he look Monday? Not consistently accurate.
As might be expected, defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim was a blocker’s nightmare in pass rush drills. And a couple news guys had solid first days, including junior college transfer tight end Dorson Boyce, who made a couple of impressive catches, and freshman quarterback Keith Price, who has a very nice arm and quick feet, has a lot more savvy than he probably should have in his first practice.
But mostly a couple hours on a dreary Monday seemed to be an exhibition of attitude and expectations. The unit that kept clawing to get footballs loose on every play did not look like the kind that would stand for surrendering more than 40 points in five games, a la 2008.
“Today, it was scrappy, it was battling,” Sarkisian said.
How much will it mean against LSU and USC? Who knows, maybe it turns out that they just lose with greater enthusiasm, or they lose by smaller margins.
But being extremely competitive is something that has to be taught like just about anything else, and it’s clearly the main thing these guys are working on from Day One.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440