Running with the Pac and beyond

It's one of the things that you always hear championship teams say after the end of a tremendous season. They always refer to how a large number of players hung out together during the summer and how hard they practiced on their own time.

Former UW running back Greg Lewis mentioned it to me recently regarding the '90 team that beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl. Former UW Safety Jim Rodgers once gave me examples of certain players from the '84 team that deliberately didn't practice with the main group during the summer, and how in his opinion that subsequently came back to haunt the Huskies that year in their lone loss to USC.

Now this 2003 Washington team is most definitely at a critical crossroads in its history. I firmly believe that the next decade of Husky football success, or lack there of, will be determined by what is achieved on the field this fall. The team has senior Cody Pickett and junior Reggie Williams leading the way, along with an improving and experienced defensive unit. Talent-wise, this is the best collective foot that Washington has been able to put forward since the '97 squad that had 10 players selected in the NFL draft. With scholarship rules having changed awhile back and the Pac-10 getting stronger top to bottom each year, any hopes of Washington reemerging as a national powerhouse reside in the span of three months of this coming fall.

Currently however, the long-standing reputation of physical dominance by Washington players has eroded in the eyes our Pac-10 rivals. The reputation for Husky defensive tenacity has frittered and blown away like dust in the wind. Adding insult to injury, the first six hours of Saturday's NFL draft came and went without a single Husky being drafted- or expecting to be. Schools such as Tuskegee, Pine Bluff and Bethune-Cookman all had players selected, but not Washington.

Before seeing the Husky beer stein as half-full, let's face the facts- the continued anemic condition of Washington's ground game is an alarming concern. It was not so much the paltry numbers put up by the temporarily thinned-out running back corps during the spring game. The concern there really is whether the two key guys that missed spring practice- Rich Alexis and Kenny James- can achieve any notable signs of development by August 30th.

And it must be briefly said that Rich Alexis took more than his fair share of criticism last season. He still is certainly a "work in progress", and his ability to read blocks and anticipate sharp cuts hasn't been where it needs to be. However, to be fair to #24, often during the last two seasons has taken a handoff, only to encounter a swarming wall of defenders closing in on him. Regularly there were times where I wasn't sure if even Emmett Smith in his prime could have done more much than get back to the line of scrimmage.

The deepest concern to me was shown again on Saturday, via continued futile attempts at straight forward run blocking, which yielded little to no results. The push is still not being achieved and running lanes are still not being created. We knew going into the 2001 season that this could be the Achilles heel, when Washington lost four of five starters from the offensive line that dominated Purdue in the Rose Bowl. We knew that youth would need to be served and that there would be the inevitable growing pains that come with newbies up front.

Nevertheless, this is the 2003 campaign. We now have experienced guys on the offensive line, so youth cannot be cited as the key culprit. The destiny of UW football rests on the O-line's off-season weight-room dedication, cohesiveness and development. We know that they are brilliant in giving Cody time the throw the ball. But we have also seen first-hand what happens when a team has no running threat at all. So the O-line's off-season dedication will go a long way in determining whether Washington will be spending the holidays in Pasadena or in the likes of El Paso.

Defensively, the extra emphasis on toughness and stout play is showing itself. The arrival of Phil Snow has seemed to inject some attitude into the collective psychology and style of play. If the defense's development is truly even higher than the optimistic anticipated levels heading into spring practice, then perhaps the offense's output has been hampered by the stranglehold play of the evolving UW defenders.

The bottom line is that Washington's big uglies need to get down and dirty. They need to get to the point where they know in their collective bones that they are superior and tougher than their opponents. They need to work so hard that can have the satisfaction in seeing their opponents beaten down and wearing out in the fourth quarters. The whole team needs to feel sheer love of playing football again.

Washington has the ability to beat Ohio State, and if it happens, would rank as one of the most meaningful and symbolic victories in the history of Pac-10 football. I feel convinced that regardless of the outcome, Ohio State phenom Maurice Clarett is in for a struggle against Washington. But if the Huskies themselves aren't able to move the ball on the ground in Columbus, a one-dimensional passing attack then will not be enough to stave off a fired up Ohio State team playing before a national audience and sellout crowd.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories