Curious to know how the Washington Huskies assess their chances heading into 2010 football season?
For now, they’re letting their improved, sculpted physiques do some of the talking.
“We look good,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said during the Pacific-10 Conference media day last month. “I’ve seen guys coming in and out of my office, walking around. More guys are wearing tank tops this summer, kind of proud of their bodies.
“To me, we’re a better-looking football team.”
Looks may or may not translate into victories, but the players appear to be enjoying their summer in padless, flattering apparel.
“I worked hard for these arms,” said linebacker Mason Foster, pulling up his sleeve and smiling. “The big guys on the team who were heavy, they’re skinny and athletic.”
Today marks the start of fall camp at UW. Here are five key questions waiting to be answered:
1. Is a winning season good enough?
In a word – hardly.
Sarkisian’s recall for minute details, such as where the media picked his team a year ago – ninth – is sharp. He casually mentioned that at the conference media day at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., as a reminder of how much his team surpassed those measly expectations.
And now, being picked sixth? Sarkisian has publicly feigned satisfaction about middle-of-the-conference expectations. On the inside, he’s been in a constant simmer about the perceived slight.
“I said it the very first press conference (in December 2008), I don’t think it’s going to take us long, and I firmly believe that,” Sarkisian said. “We expect to do well. We expect to win.”
Being winless on the road last season, and facing his toughest tests away from home in 2010 – starting Sept. 4 at Brigham Young – Sarkisian still thinks anything short of an 8-4 or 7-5 mark by early December would be a disappointment.
2. Who could become the next surprise impact performer?
Last season was a breakthrough for many players: Receiver Jermaine Kearse, running back Chris Polk, Foster, cornerback Desmond Trufant, quarterback Jake Locker – even placekicker Erik Folk.
This season, the pick is 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu.
He played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2008 – Tyrone Willingham’s final season as coach. Last season, he started 11 of the 12 games on the interior of the defensive line, finishing with 41/2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
With all the hybrid defensive formations UW will utilize to offer different looks – such as moving Cameron Elisara from inside to defensive end occasionally – it is imperative Ta’amu be the one to occupy the tight spaces on the interior full time.
The Rainier Beach graduate left his mark during spring drills.
“Alameda is a new man,” Sarkisian said. “He dominated the spring game, playing like a guy who is 330 pounds with his size and speed.”
Other candidates include receiver James Johnson, offensive tackle Senio Kelemete, linebacker Cort Dennison and safety Will Shamburger.
3. Can this be a reliable, big-play defense?
Gone to the NFL are linebacker Donald Butler and defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, two of the best in the Pac-10 at their positions a year ago.
With them in defensive coordinator Nick Holt’s first season, the Huskies ascended from the bottom in nearly every Pac-10 defensive category in 2008 to seventh in total yards given up (389.5 yards per game) and fourth in turnovers forced (23).
Shamburger’s emergence in the spring gives UW three top-quality safeties, and true freshman cornerback Gregory Ducre is arguably the most anticipated newcomer in this recruiting class. He can have the same impact Trufant did a season ago.
“I feel we’re working hard and improving because we know we have a chance to be really good this year,” Foster said. “The offense pushes us, and we push the offense. We want to be accountable to the whole team – they don’t want to let us down, we don’t want to let them down.”
4. How prolific can the passing offense be?
The who’s-the-scariest-attack-to-face question was posed to UCLA safety Rahim Moore, last season’s conference leader in interceptions (10), at Pac-10 media day.
“Washington and Arizona,” Moore said. “Jake Locker and Kearse, I know a lot of them guys, and they do a good job. They blend well. They’re like a family. … This year, they will be even better (because) they’ve all been with each (other) for a while now.”
Sarkisian said he expects Locker’s completion percentage to improve to “65 to 68 percent,” with a 3-to-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions thrown this season.
5. What is the biggest worry?
With Locker, the Huskies are a fringe contender for the Pac-10 title.
Without him? The fall could be a steep climb.
The four other quarterbacks – sophomore Keith Price, true freshman Nick Montana and walk-ons Mike King and Erik Wilson – have never seen action in a college game.
Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are astute enough to close some of the learning curve with coaching, but nobody wants to depend on anybody but Locker to lead the offense in 2010.