2012 Pac-12 College Football Preview: Washington Huskies
Steve Sarkisian built his reputation in the coaching profession as an offensive guru, but it’s the defense that has tripped up Washington during his tenure as head coach of the Huskies.
The 2011 campaign represented the low point. UW ranked next to last in the Pac-12 and among the bottom 20 in the FBS in both total defense and scoring defense. Finishing on the ugly end of the highest-scoring regulation bowl game ever, a 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor, represented the 10th time in 38 games under Sarkisian that Washington had yielded 40-plus points.
And so Sarkisian decided to make a change, dismissing defensive coordinator Nick Holt and revamping the entire staff on that side of the ball. New coordinator Justin Wilcox, a native of the Pacific Northwest, returns close to home after spending the last two seasons overseeing Tennessee’s defense.
Peter Sirmon followed Wilcox from Rocky Top to become the linebackers coach. Keith Heyward came in to coach the defensive backs and Tosh Lupoi now oversees the defensive line.
“Our new defensive coaches have done a nice job of teaching scheme, teaching technique, teaching fundamentals, implementing the defense,” Sarkisian said. “But I think one of the biggest things that they’ve done is they’ve implemented confidence and a little bit of swagger and our guys are playing with a great deal of energy. They are playing with amazing effort right now and it shows.”
Expect the Huskies to show a 4-3 look — hearkening back to the base defense used by Holt — and a 3-4 alignment as well.
Washington also has a new offensive coordinator — Eric Kiesau, who was also part of the Cal staff — but there’s greater personnel continuity on that side of the ball. Washington brings back eight offensive starters, a group headlined by honorable-mention all-conference quarterback Keith Price.
The Huskies will call an NFL venue home in 2012. Washington is playing its six home games at CenturyLink Field — the home venue of the Seattle Seahawks — while renovations at Husky Stadium are completed.
“It’s loud, so I don’t think we lose much that way except for the luxury of walking out of our own tunnel and taking the field. We are embracing it,” Sarkisian said. “I think our kids are excited to get to play in a state-of-the-art NFL stadium until our very own state-of-the-art stadium gets done.”
Sept. 1 — San Diego State
8 — @LSU
15 — Portland State
27 — Stanford
Oct. 6 — @Oregon
13 — USC
20 — @Arizona
27 — Oregon State
Nov. 2 — @California
10 — Utah
17 — @Colorado
23 — @Washington State
Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian (BYU ’97)
Record at school: 19-19 (3 years)
Career record: 19-19 (3 years)
• Joel Thomas (Idaho ’98) Associate Head Coach/Running Backs
• Johnny Nansen (Washington State ’97) Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams/Recruiting
• Eric Kieseau (Portland State ’96) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks • Justin Wilcox (Oregon ’99) Defensive Coordinator
• Dan Cozzetto (Idaho ’79) Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Jimmie Dougherty (Missouri ’01) Pass Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers
• Tosh Lupoi (California ’05) Defensive Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Line
• Keith Heyward (Oregon State ’02) Defensive Backs
• Peter Sirmon (Oregon ’99) Linebackers
As a sophomore, Keith Price (6-1, 195) capped an already historic inaugural tour of duty as Washington’s starting quarterback by outplaying Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl. Price accounted for seven touchdowns, an NCAA bowl record. That huge effort capped a 2011 season in which he set team single-season records for touchdown passes (33), completion percentage (66.9) and quarterback rating (161.9).
Matching or exceeding those numbers in 2012 will not be easy. Washington no longer has star running back Chris Polk, whose presence kept defenses honest. On the other hand, Price played most of the regular season with injuries to both knees. In the bowl game, he was healthy and showed his electric potential as a dual threat. During the spring, Sarkisian and Kiesau focused on teaching Price how to avoid unnecessary sacks — a factor that contributed to his nagging ailments last season.
“He is healthy again,” Sarkisian said. “He is utilizing his legs and running with the ball [and] provides a great deal of leadership.”
Sarkisian went on to describe Price as the “best competitive practice player I’ve been around.”
The backup job remains up for grabs. Redshirt freshman Derrick Brown (6-3, 230) came out of spring drills as Price’s understudy. Washington also signed two freshmen: Cyler Miles (6-3, 210) and Jeff Lindquist (6-3, 225), both considered among the top 20 quarterback prospects in the country. ESPN rated Miles the No. 10 QB, and Lindquist No. 17.
Polk wrapped his collegiate career with 4,049 rushing yards — the second-highest total in team history — and three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Washington won’t just miss his productivity, however. Polk’s carries represent 58.8 percent of total rushing attempts by the Huskies in the last three seasons.
Callier (5-10, 203) served as Polk’s understudy last season. He battled an ankle injury this spring but, when healthy, performed well.
“Jesse’s played a lot of football for us in kind of a specialty role where he is running flies, sweeps, bubbles and different things,” Sarkisian said.
Sankey (5-10, 197) had the best overall spring of any back on the roster, showcasing his ability to gain yards after contact. He averaged a robust 6.7 yards per carry as a true freshmen — albeit in a small sample size of 28 rushes.
Junior Antavius Sims (6-2, 205), a versatile newcomer, worked at slot back this spring. Washington recruited Sims as an athlete after he amassed 4,866 total yards and 49 touchdowns in two seasons quarterbacking Ventura College in California. Originally part of the 2011 class, Sims needed some extra time to get his grades in order but enrolled in January.
Sophomore Deontae Cooper (6-0, 197) arrived at UW as a four-star recruit in 2010 but two major knee injuries have kept him off the field to date. He missed spring drills but could be ready by August. In August, the Huskies add freshman Erich Wilson II (6-1, 190), who ran for a program-record 2,106 yards as a senior at Serra High School in East Palo Alto, Calif.
In 2011, the Huskies’ fullbacks combined for zero carries and one catch — though that reception by Jonathan Amosa (5-11, 239) went for a touchdown. Amosa enters his senior year leading the way at fullback after splitting time there last season. But given the lack of production at that position, true freshman Psalm Wooching (6-3, 217) should get a look during fall camp. Wooching was a four-sport standout at Kealakehe High in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Redshirt freshman Dezden Petty (5-11, 208) has a combination of size and speed that makes him a possibility at either spot in the backfield. Senior walk-on Cole Sager (5-10, 212) ended spring as Amosa’s backup.
Washington has taken a cue from Stanford’s success using three big, talented tight ends. The Huskies’ three top tight ends, all sophomores, stand at least 6-6 and have the ability to create mismatches in the passing game.
The starter, Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-6, 258), made all kinds of history during the 2011-12 academic year. His 538 receiving yards leads all returnees and ranks as the second-highest total ever amassed by a true freshman at Washington. Add in his 41 catches and six touchdowns, and Seferian-Jenkins put together one of the finest seasons ever for a Husky tight end in his debut collegiate campaign. As if that wasn’t enough, he spent the winter appearing in 17 games off the bench for the Huskies’ basketball team — becoming the 19th student-athlete at UW to play both sports. Sarkisian thinks the Fox Island, Wash., native eventually could be an All-American.
Michael Hartvigson (6-6, 250) built on a solid redshirt freshman season by impressing during both off-season workouts and spring practice. Former walk-on Evan Hudson (6-6, 256) is more of a blocker but gives the Huskies a strong three-deep at tight end.
Last season’s two top pass-catchers, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, ended up second and seventh, respectively, in career receiving yards in the Husky record book. Their departures create an abundance of opportunities in the pass game. This spring, sophomore Kasen Williams (6-2, 216) and senior James Johnson (6-1, 198) established themselves as the Huskies’ new top tandem of wideouts.
Williams is the squad’s most productive returning wide receiver, coming on strong at the end of his freshman season to make 26 of his 36 total catches in the Huskies’ final seven games. A second-generation Husky receiver, Williams wears the same No. 2 jersey his father Aaron wore during the late 1970s and early ’80s. He’s also added about 15 pounds to his frame since arriving on campus last summer.
“I think Kasen is an All-Pac-12 receiver, and it’s about he and Keith developing that rapport,” Sarkisian said.
Johnson also worked on building a rapport with Price, spending time after almost every practice this spring catching extra balls from the Huskies’ QB. A senior who is the youngest of 13 children also should be the emotional leader of the receiving corps.
Sarkisian said the competition for the third receiver spot is wide open. Senior Cody Bruns (5-11, 180) redshirted last season knowing the Huskies would need more depth at receiver in 2012. Keep an eye on junior Kevin Smith (6-0, 209), a former four-star recruit who sat out spring drills after tearing his ACL in December. Ideally, Smith would be good to go by fall camp, but if he is slow to recover he does still have a redshirt year available.
Aside from sophomore DiAndre Campbell (6-1, 195), the rest of the wideout candidates have zero collegiate experience. Redshirt freshmen Josh Perkins (6-3, 213) and Jamaal Jones (6-2, 185) and true freshman Marvin Hall (5-10, 176) were all part of the 2011 signing class, but Hall delayed his enrollment until January. ESPN rated Hall as one of the top 40 receiver prospects in the country. Jones hasn’t seen a live snap since 2009; he missed his senior season of high school ball because off injury and then redshirted.
Sarkisian thinks two incoming freshmen, Jaydon Mickens (5-11, 175) and Kendyl Taylor (5-10, 180), have a chance to step in and play right away.
The Huskies went into spring with only one vacancy in the starting lineup, but a second spot opened when a degenerative shoulder condition forced veteran guard Colin Porter to hang up the pads for good.
Even without Porter, Washington has a seasoned trio in senior center Drew Schaefer (6-4, 287), junior Erik Kohler (6-5, 296) and sophomore Colin Tanigawa (6-3, 286). Kohler started all 13 games last year at tackle but currently slots in at Porter’s old spot, right guard. He spent time at tackle, center and guard during the spring. Health is the only thing preventing Tanigawa from retaining his status as the starting left guard; he’s still recuperating from knee surgery.
Redshirt freshman Dexter Charles (6-4, 293) got the first-team work at left guard in Tanigawa’s absence during the spring. Sophomore Micah Hatchie (6-5, 299) is the frontrunner at left tackle. Another sophomore, Ben Riva (6-6, 305), looks to be the new starting right tackle. Sophomore James Atoe (6-6, 337) provides versatility and depth; he can play tackle or guard.
Sophomore Mike Criste (6-5, 282) is another option at center behind Schaefer. Redshirt freshman guard Siosifa Tufunga (6-2, 313) broke his hand near the end of spring ball but should be fine by August.
Washington signed five offensive linemen in February. Sarkisian didn’t rule out that a freshman would enter the mix, but with nine other scholarship players available up front, redshirting this quintet would be preferable.
Sophomore Josh Shirley (6-3, 235) led the team in sacks with 8.5 in 2011, tallying three of those during the Alamo Bowl. Shirley carried over that momentum to the spring, where he dominated. He’ll play the rush end spot in new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme, which should turn him loose on the passer more often. He’ll also drop back at times as an outside linebacker.
At the one true end position, senior Talia Crichton (6-3, 252) and sophomore Hau’oli Jamora (6-3, 256) look like the top candidates. Crichton was the most consistent player at the position this spring. Meanwhile, Jamora was a spectator after blowing out his knee last September against Cal. A healthy Jamora would give the line a big boost.
Sophomore end Andrew Hudson (6-3, 240) appeared in all 13 games last year as a redshirt freshman. He may even see time at tackle as a 3-technique, if the Huskies want to create a speed mismatch in a four-down alignment.
Contrary to popular wisdom, going to a 3-4 defense requires one great player at the nose tackle — rather than a four-down system where two solid but unspectacular interior linemen can split the burden. Sophomore tackle Danny Shelton (6-1, 323) is vital if Washington is going to be as multiple as it wants up front. He already has the frame to be the type of gap plugger needed in a three-down defense. If he can force opponents to throw two blockers his way, it frees up a teammate to come off the edge and make a play.
At the other tackle spot, junior Sione Potoa’e (6-2, 280), redshirt freshman Taniela Tupou (6-1, 275) and junior college transfer Josh Banks (6-3, 290) are all possibilities. Potoa’e is the veteran, appearing in 22 games the last two seasons, while UW coaches expect Banks to contribute immediately after he led San Joaquin (Calif.) Delta College in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (15.5) in 2011.
Remaining multiple is still key, but in the long run, Washington may shift to a 3-4 base defense. The Huskies prepared accordingly by shuffling their personnel in the spring.
Three players — junior Taz Stevenson (6-1, 215), senior Nate Fellner (6-1, 218) and redshirt freshman Evan Zeger (6-2, 221) — moved from safety to linebacker. Fellner capitalized on the change and goes into fall camp as a potential starter. Sophomore John Timu (6-1, 236), a regular starter on the strong side last season, moved inside, where three-year starter Cort Dennison must be replaced. Timu bulked up to prepare for the position change and played consistent football this spring.
Timu, Fellner and incumbent weak-side linebacker Princeton Fuiamaono (6-1, 215), a junior, form a solid starting trio. Otherwise, the Huskies have numbers but very little proven experience.
“After that, there is a lot of uncertainty, and that’s the stuff that we have to continue to try to figure out,” Sarkisian said.
Junior Thomas Tutogi (6-1, 255) and sophomore Jamaal Kearse (6-2, 223) provide depth behind Timu. Stevenson and Zeger, the other converted safeties, came out of spring backing up Fellner at strong-side linebacker.
There’s some exciting potential at the offensive skill positions, but Sarkisian thinks the secondary has the greatest and deepest array of talent of any position group on the team. The Huskies lost just one player of significance from last season’s defensive backfield and add a couple of intriguing pieces like touted true freshman Shaq Thompson.
Senior cornerback Desmond Trufant (6-0, 185) has been a starter since the midpoint of his freshman year and led the 2011 team with 16 passes defended. Sarkisian thinks Trufant, junior Gregory Ducre (5-10, 180) and redshirt freshman Marcus Peters (5-11, 195) provide the Huskies with three quality options at corner. Peters is particularly exciting. At times, he was so impressive on the scout team that the coaching staff nearly pulled his redshirt.
Junior Tre Watson (5-10, 180), a transfer from Central Washington, has solid potential. Senior Adam Long (5-10, 176) should be good to go after an ACL injury cost him all of last season. Sims also could see time at defensive back. Add in senior Anthony Gobern (5-11, 192) and sophomore Ken Egu (5-10, 185), and the Huskies are well-stocked to run nickel and dime coverages even before adding the new recruits.
Junior Sean Parker (5-10, 200), who snared a team-high four interceptions in 2011, is the top returning safety. A strong spring put senior Justin Glenn (5-11, 209) atop the depth chart at free safety heading into preseason camp. Redshirt freshmen Travis Feeney (6-4, 205) and James Sample (6-2, 202), sophomore K.C. Herren (6-0, 207) and junior Will Shamburger (6-0, 193) are also competing at safety.
The rotation at safety will receive a jolt when Thompson (6-2, 210) hits the field for fall camp. The true freshman out of Sacramento, Calif., is one of the most ballyhooed prospects to sign with Washington in quite some time. ESPN rated Thompson a four-star prospect, and considered him the third-best safety in the 2012 class. Thompson also may have a future on the diamond; the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 18th round of the June amateur draft.
Smith, Washington’s leading kickoff returner in 2011, could miss at least part of this season because of his knee injury. Callier has experience returning kickoffs, but that may be too much to ask if he takes a major role in the rushing attack.
Things are more set at punt return, where Williams has experience and in 2011 averaged a decent 9.6 yards per attempt. The return duty may fall to one of the speedy true freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the roster, however.
Hudson and incoming freshman offensive tackle Taylor Hindy (6-4, 290) are the top candidates to fill the vacant long snapper job.
Sarkisian expects special teams play to improve in 2012.
“Because of us recruiting the type of athletes we are recruiting, I see a real distinct change in our ability to block guys, to get off blocks and cover, to create running lanes on returns, to get down and cover kicks,” Sarkisian said. “That can be a winning phase of the game for us.”
Johnny Nansen, previously the defensive line coach, survived the staff purge on that side of the ball but now exclusively oversees special teams.
The 2012 signing class included two specialists, and junior transfer Travis Coons (6-2, 195) is the best bet to inherit kicking duties from four-year starter Erik Folk.
Coons arrives out of Mt. San Antonio College in California. Another strong candidate is true freshman Korey Durkee (6-4, 195), a promising in-state prospect who grew up in Gig Harbor, Wash., less than an hour from Seattle.
The coaching staff expects Korey Durkee to come in and win this job during preseason practice. He averaged 45.9 yards per punt as a senior at Gig Harbor High School. Travis Coons also could do the punting.
Whoever takes over faces the tall task of succeeding Kiel Rasp, whose 44.4-yard career average stands as the best in program history.
Washington has yet to enjoy a breakout season since Sarkisian arrived, and Husky fans are hungry to see that happen.
“We’ve got some front-line guys, but you don’t just win with front-line guys. You need depth, and I think this is as deep as we’ve been as a football team since we’ve been here,” Sarkisian said.
The schedule may not cooperate. The docket includes a trip to LSU, which has won 37 consecutive non-conference regular-season games.
This is still a fairly young team. The majority of the roster consists of players with two or fewer years’ experience in the program. Washington should be better on defense if spring ball is any indication. The opportunity exists to make a move in the Pac-12, but contending hinges on an Oct. 6 road game at Oregon. The Ducks boast eight straight wins over Washington, with an average 25-point margin of victory during the streak.