The awkwardness in the University of Washington’s football motto for this season, “Take the Next Step,” is that it’s a bit mindful of those rehab programs that have 12-step models. But I suppose when a team has been 0-12, the unintentional irony is almost clever.
Unfortunately for fans the Washington Huskies, as with college football fans everywhere, growth is rarely a steady climb up, which is tough in an industry whose benchmark for progress is often instant gratification. So when the Huskies finish 6-6 this season, it’s going to seem like a step back in the narrative arc of Sark.
That’s unlikely to be a fair judgment. The schedule is what has stepped up, and even if the new defensive coaches and schemes work well, rehabbing from 467 points surrendered in 2011 takes a lot more than one football season.
The most helpless D in Washington annals can’t be fixed by a coach or single player such Shaq Thompson, the freshman DB/LB/BMOC from Sacramento who seems to be as good as his hype. That means it will be up to quarterback Keith Price, again, to outscore the opposition, probably in a fashion like coach Paul Westhead’s old basketball teams at Loyola-Marymount.
What if last season’s preposterous Alamo Bowl outcome, 67-56, is around the average score this season? Betcha DirecTV signs up the Pac-12 Network with apologies and bonuses.
In the run-up to Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. non-conference opener at the Clink against San Diego State, coach Steve Sarkisian made plain his desire to open the explosives kit and hand it to Price.
“I know that we won’t be nearly as conservative the first game around as we were last year,” said Sarkisian, referring to to the 30-27 win over one-step-down Eastern Washington that nearly went the other way, at outcome that would have been a crushing seasonal face-smash. “We’ll do some things that will hopefully give us a chance to take some shots down the fields.
“Last year there was a bit of the unknown (with Price, in his first year as starter). I think we know what to expect out of him. For myself, calling the plays, I know who he is.”
He is the best player the Huskies have, and when healthy, a legit Heisman Trophy candidate. But keeping him healthy is largely the province of an offensive line that has two tackles, Micah Hatchie and Ben Riva, who are sophomores in their first starts. If Price goes down, the drop-off is steep with either backup, redshirt freshman Derrick Brown or freshman Cyler Miles.
The Huskies are that way at a lot of spots. As much as Sarkisian likes to talk up the roster’s improving depth, this is still a team that has only 13 seniors, including seven holdovers from the last Tyrone Willingham team who have 0-12 tattooed on their psyches in more fluorescent colors than from the best tattoo parlor ex-coach Jim Tressel could have offered his Ohio State players.
Sarkisian estimated he will give five freshmen playing time Saturday, not to mention numerous others of minimal experience. That helps explain why Sarkisian did an odd thing at his Monday presser: He ran through the names of players too injured to play so fast that it sounded like one word. He was so hard to understand that the first question was whether he could repeat the names. Again, a single breath, no punctuation.
At least it was a tad better than at Washington State, where new coach Mike Leach won’t tell anyone anything about player health. He could be running a leper colony, for all anyone knows.
But a forensic breakdown of Sarkisian’s audiotape revealed that two starters on defense, end Hau’oli Jamora and safety-turned-linebacker Nate Fellner, are out, as well as linebackers Jamaal Kearse and Cooper Pelluer. Missing from the offense are RB Deontae Cooper and WR James Johnson.
Nearly all absences are from injuries in fall camp, which is the fault of no one, but the last thing a relatively thin team needed, and why Sarkisian was trying to nervous-cough his way through the infirmary list.
Regarding the defense’s 2012 approach after the 2011 walk through the fires of Mordor, Sarkisian said all the predictable things.
“I think they really respect their coaches and the new style of defense that we’ve inherited,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think they want to play well for themselves, for our football program, for our university and for our fans.
“I’m sure there’s a bit of a chip on their shoulder because they feel like they were better than they were last year. But man, our program isn’t about what just happened. It’s about where are we going and what are we doing.”
Which is coach-speak for, “We still don’t have enough talent to be average.”
With so many high-end teams (Louisiana State, Stanford, Oregon and USC) in the first six games, the defense won’t really have much time to dwell on 2011, given the freight trains coming downhill in front of them. After a 2-4 first half, finishing 4-2 in the second half against the Pac-12’s second tier would be a commendable achievement, presuming Price is not on a pitch count.
But 6-6 won’t appear commendable to anyone who is expecting the Huskies to take the next step. The rewards in big-time college sports for running in place are few, especially for anyone in denial that 0-12 is still as close as the next drink.