University of Washington

5 Key questions: what the Huskies face as they enter camp

Zap the players’ memories, “Men In Black”-style, all you want. But it’s the steadfast supporters of the University of Washington’s football program who won’t forget last season’s 0-12 record, which ended Tyrone Willingham’s tenure.

New coach Steve Sarkisian, the renewed health of quarterback Jake Locker – along with the presence of the Washington State Cougars –were the big reasons the Huskies weren’t the media’s pick to finish last in the Pacific-10 Conference in 2009. But with seven bowl teams from a year ago on the 12-game schedule, including an opener against LSU (Sept. 5), few believe UW will approach the .500 mark.

Sporting News has the Huskies 97th in its preseason poll, just ahead of Louisiana-Monroe.

After a step-in-the-right-direction spring camp, and a disciplined effort in offseason conditioning, Sarkisian is anxious to see how the team responds to this next phase – 24 fall practices in an 18-day span.

“I want to see how guys changed – how their movements change, are they more explosive, more powerful and stronger? I’m also looking at, ‘Are they understanding what we’re trying to get done from a schematic standpoint?’” Sarkisian said. “Third thing we’re looking for, ‘Who has really bought into the idea of effort ... down after down after down?’ Because ultimately those guys with the effort, that is how we change a football team.”

No. 1 > STEP FORWARD FOR LOCKER?

Sarkisian is a former college quarterback who racked up gobs of passing yards. So was UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who starred at Idaho. Together, they will try to unlock the true quarterback in junior Jake Locker.

Foremost, Locker needs to stay healthy. He played four games before suffering a season-ending thumb injury against Stanford. To help with that, the UW staff has emphasized that Locker needs to stay more patient in the pocket on passing downs and temper his instinct to run.

In the spring game, Locker appeared to make great strides with a 16-of-18, 200-yard, two-touchdown performance. In the offseason, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in baseball, but Sarkisian contends contract negotiations won’t be a distraction in fall camp.

No. 2 > BIG-MAN TARGET

The receiving corps is a year older, and Sarkisian should find enough weapons to make the passing game go.

What it needs is a more consistent middle-of-the-field target – say, sophomore tight end Kavario Middleton, the Lakes High product. Middleton and Chris Izbicki will duke it out for the starting spot vacated by Michael Gottlieb, but the Huskies would greatly benefit from a motivated Middleton, who has the ability to become an all-Pac 10 tight end but at times appears aloof and lackadaisical on the field. At the end of spring camp, he received high praise from the first-year coach for marked improvement.

No. 3 > SECONDARY NEEDS

Nobody wants to see a replay of how the Huskies’ secondary fared last season, surrendering 24 touchdown passes – the second-worst total in the Pac-10 – including 11 of 25 or more yards.

Their 8.1-yard average per completion on pass defense was last in the conference.

Defensive coordinator Nick Holt thinks enough of his defensive-back pool, which has no seniors on the first- or second-team units, to allow Johri Fogerson, a starting free-safety candidate after spring camp, to return to running back. Newcomers Alvin Logan, a converted receiver, and junior college transfer David Batts are part of the mix.

And five cornerbacks – Dominique Gaisie, Justin Glenn, Anthony Gobert, Vonzell McDowell Jr. and Matt Mosley – should compete for the starting cornerback spot opposite Quinton Richardson.

No. 4 > RUNNER ALERT

Sarkisian said one of the most frequently asked questions during the UW coaches tour this summer was, “Can Locker be a quarterback and not a running back?”

That concern would be eased if the Huskies found a reliable running back in a group of hopefuls.

Last year’s leading returning rusher, Terrance Dailey (338 yards), has left the team. That’s OK, because the UW will incorporate a by-committee approach, with two freshmen leading the way. Projected starter Chris Polk is a big-play threat, while Kentwood High’s Demetrius Bronson, one of spring’s pleasant revelations, used as possibly the goal-line rusher.

No. 5 > SUDDEN CHANGE?

This is a long-haul revival project for Sarkisian, who told reporters at the Pac-10 media day that he’d like to “raise the bottom half of this conference.” He backed off that later, remarking he doesn’t want to put a ceiling on what the UW can accomplish in 2009. As difficult as it might be for fans to fathom, wins – at least in the short term – will take a back seat to effort and energy, which will be two staple elements in the Sarkisian era. Culture change does not happen overnight, and look for the UW staff to harp on that over and over and over starting Monday.

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