Fetters: A lot is known about Washington's offensive weapons and an ever-developing offensive line; what is a lot less certain is just how well they will take to running a no-huddle, up-tempo attack full-time. Steve Sarkisian decided to give it a whirl at the beginning of spring and hasn't slowed down. He contends it's for two reasons: 1) It fits the personnel that Washington has on offense, and 2) It worked well when they tried it in limited amounts last year.
Clearly Washington's hopes are pinned on quarterback Keith Price and how well the fifth-year senior bounces back from a mixed 2012 campaign. He appears to be back to 100 percent health, and has all his weapons back around him. In fact UW is one of only three Pac-12 programs that can boast having their leading passer, rusher (Bishop Sankey) and receiver (Kasen Williams) all back. Add to the mix last year's Mackey Award Finalist in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, as well as true frosh John Ross - a player Sarkisian has mentioned in the same breath as Reggie Bush - and there's no shortage of an arsenal on that side of the ball. But Price and co. will only go as far as their offensive line will lead them, and getting junior captain Colin Tanigawa back and 100 percent from a knee injury that sidelined him from basically all of 2012 is huge.
Coming out of fall camp how would you assess the team's defense?
Fetters: Washington made gigantic strides defensively under first year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. They went from being in the hundreds statistically to 31st in overall defense in 2012. It's hard to figure the Huskies could make another quantum leap this season, but Sarkisian feels like the coaches have addressed issues that plagued the defense last year.
The biggest issue coming out of last year was the Huskies' inability to stop spread offenses. Between Oregon, Arizona and Washington State, UW gave up a total of 135 points. Considering they held top-10 teams like Stanford and Oregon State to a combined 30 points, it was easy to see where the improvement needed to come from. Having their offense go up-tempo and hurry-up throughout the spring and fall has certainly pushed the defense to be in peak physical shape, as well as taxing them mentally. Sarkisian has repeatedly said he wants practices to be as difficult as possible in every way imaginable so that the games would be a walk in the park by comparison. Wilcox and his defensive coaches have laid the groundwork and they have strength in numbers when it comes to their back seven; now it's just a matter of putting it all together.
With the 2013 season about to begin, what do you think is the team's biggest strength and what is its biggest concern?
Fetters: Washington's biggest strength right now is their depth in the skill positions on offense and also at linebacker. All of those positions are bursting at the seams with talent. They are still mostly younger players, but have been thrown into the mix and have responded in kind. But the biggest concern - as it has been for the last few years - is the lines.
The Huskies are a reflection of their coach, who is a tough-minded competitor, but recruiting the offensive and defensive lines has not been a strength. The lack of numbers and star-power at these two crucial spots has given rise to a situation where Washington has absolutely no senior starters on either line. In fact, UW has only five total listed senior starters (not counting special teams) on the team. While this bodes well for the Huskies in 2014 - they will have 11 senior starters if their current depth chart holds over - this is pretty alarming for right now, considering Sarkisian is in his fifth year as head coach.
Which players were some of the bigger surprises on both sides of the ball?
Fetters: Offensively you have to start with three players coming back from injury - Deontae Cooper, Jesse Callier, and Kevin Smith. Smith played in 12 games last year but was coming off a knee injury suffered during the 2011 Alamo Bowl practices and only caught six passes. But the senior had a whale of a camp and emerged as a starting receiver in their two-deeps. Cooper and Callier also suffered knee injuries - Cooper his THIRD tear, while Callier hurt his knee in the first series of the 2012 season versus San Diego State - but both have returned with a vengeance and are in the running back depth behind Bishop Sankey and redshirt frosh Dwayne Washington. And Colin Tanigawa's return garnered him a captain's pick by the team, a true testament to just how much he means to the program after having sat out nearly all of 2012.
Defensively it's more of the same with regard to injury returnees. The biggest name to return is Hauoli Kikaha (former Jamora), a defensive end from Hawaii that tore it up as a true freshman but saw 2011 and 2012 a wash with injuries. He came back this fall as a junior with a point to prove and has excelled to the point where - like Tanigawa - was also named a team captain. The last name is fourth-year senior linebacker Princeton Fuimaono. 'Bobo' has always been the linebacker corps' steady Eddie, but this fall he earned the rep as a guy with de-cleating ability and game to match.
With the current status of the team what in your opinion is a realistic prediction in terms of W-L record?
Fetters: With Sarkisian's seat starting to ever-so-slightly warm up, he has to do better than the last three seasons - all ending in a 7-6 record and the last two years with bowl losses. Sark knows the pressure is there to win, and with the unveiling of the $261M remodeled Husky Stadium versus Boise State, he also knows the product on the field is going to be even more important than the rest of the brand-new stadium experience. If UW gets past Boise State - a tough ask, but they beat the Broncos in Seattle in 2007 with a much weaker team - they should roll through Illinois and Idaho State.
The real test obviously comes with conference play. It's good they get Arizona in Seattle right off the bat, because playing the 'Cats will be a great measuring stick for the UW defense defending the spread. Then comes the gauntlet - at Stanford, Oregon, and at Arizona State. Sarkisian, in his four years at Montlake, has never been able to avoid at least a three-game losing streak as UW Head Coach - and if he's to break that streak he has to win one of those three games. It's an imperative. After that they have tough games at UCLA and Oregon State - but those are doable.
That's why I feel like the game at ASU will tell the tale. If they go to Tempe 4-2 and win, I think the worst they end up in the regular season is 8-4 - and that's a really conservative estimate. If they lose to the Sun Devils and end up 4-3 (or maybe with even a losing record by then), the rest of the season could be tough sledding. But there's no doubt in my mind the first seven games of the season will make or break UW.
So in conclusion, my realistic prediction for the 2013 Washington Huskies is 7-5, with a wink and a nod toward 8-4 if they can avoid injuries and stay out of their own way on the road.