Coach's Corner

I know there are still four months before the season even starts but I wanted to go on record right now. I say the Huskies will get a piece of the Pac-10 Championship this coming season, and will advance to the Rose Bowl because they will have tied the USC Trojans for the title.

Because they will have beaten the boys from USC earlier in the season, the Huskies will get the nod and play, yes, the Ohio State Buckeyes, for the second time. They'll beat them and wind up finishing third in the nation.

Would you take that now? I know Dawgman wouldn't, but I sure would. But then we're not going to be playing so I doubt we'll have much to do with it except for watching how it all develops.

From what I saw this spring, there is plenty of depth. I promise to you that it won't be another Husky team with no one getting drafted into the NFL. I think there will be five to six draft choices, depending on who comes out early. This Husky team will win in the double figures, including the bowl win, but will suffer a couple of upsets along the way.

The combination of depth and excellent skill players will make this an exciting and explosive team, but the primary factor in their championship run will be their defense.

You heard me right – DEFENSE.

Defensive tackle Terry Johnson will get out of his funk and become the dominant defensive lineman that has been missing since Larry Triplett left. Linebackers Joe Lobendahn and Marquis Cooper will both be close to or over 100 tackles each, and the corners will emerge as the stars of the defense allowing for the Huskies to attack the quarterback and thereby electrify Husky stadium. The talent is there.

On offense, there will be an improved running game that will feature a combination of backs with four different types of runners. Kenny James will be part of the action and Rich Alexis will return to his freshman form and explode down the sidelines off of the option pitch.

Because the option will definitely play a factor in the offense, quarterback Cody Pickett's numbers will be down from last year. He'll still be the star of the team, though, and will be a top draft choice a year from now.

Look for incoming freshman tailback Louis Rankin to push Chris Singleton and Shelton Sampson for playing time. Just watch as Sampson emerges as a great special teams performer. He's electrifying and he's built up his body well.

The Huskies will average just under 150 yards rushing per game, and fullbacks Ty Eriks and Zach Tuiasosopo will become competent receivers to compliment the two wide outs, Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick. Tight end Joe Toledo will turn in a banner year with close to 50 catches and eight touchdowns, but it will be a Pickett-to-Williams affair through out the whole season. This combination will be so lethal that opponents will have to double Reggie. That leaves "ET" in isolation, to catch 60 balls and become a true star.

Sounds good so far, doesn't it? Well, I don't think I'm much off base with this prediction, mainly because the Dawgs are going to be very physical up front.

Therein lies the proof in the pudding. After three months in the weight room with Kaligis and Emtman, Washington will have the type of linemen it takes to win a championship. The bright spot is the tremendous amount of depth on both lines. There are at least 10 players on both sides of the line that can play, which allows for liberal substitution and fresh bodies to wear other teams down.

The biggest question mark in my mind is not the running game, but rather the kicking game. Right now Evan Knudson has the starting job as the place-kicker, but both freshmen coming in probably have a longer and stronger leg. Look for one of them to capture the kickoff job. Michael Braunstein had 95% of his kickoffs go into the end zone and he will certainly challenge Knudson, but I wouldn't be too surprised if Knudson kicks the extra points and shorter field goals with Braunstein handling the kickoffs and long field goal tries. Braunstein could also end up challenging Sean Douglas for the punting position. Michael averaged 41.4 yards per punt in 2002 while Douglas averaged 41.6 on 37 punts. Still, it's more than just a little bit scary when both your kickers are freshmen. The true challenge will be to protect them and avoid any blocks or long returns. This is where the Huskies must show improvement. They will. By eliminating the blocks and returns, the Husky special teams will play a major role in the success of the team. Roc Alexander looks ready to return to form as a kick returner, and ET is long overdue to re-emerge as a punt return threat. Those guys can be real weapons in 2003.

Last but not least, this season the Huskies will have better coaching. Take this from a former UW coach, there is improvement in this area. An element of toughness has subtly crept back into Husky football, and you'll notice it as the season unfolds. The new additions to the staff have already made a noticeable impact. They have blended well with the old-timers, and Coach Neuheisel himself will be the best he has ever been. He has grown from the struggles of last year and knows to stay out of strip clubs and away from lap dancers.

Darn. I knew I would digress.

Back on topic, you have probably figured out by now that I am an optimist when it comes to Husky Football. I choose to dwell on the positive and then hope for the best. It is my view about most everything in life, but in this case, I really believe this is a 10-3 or an 11-2 team and that it's not a stretch.

If you want EXTREME optimism, read Dawgman's editorial column in Sports Washington later this month. I won't go as far as he did, but there you go.

Can the Dawgs win the first game? I can only tell you that the Huskies are NEVER intimidated by any surrounding. They have a wonderful tradition of pulling upsets on the road when they are not expected to do so.

The game against Ohio State will not break this team. It will make this team.

Washington will have the whole nation watching them that evening and I am calling for the upset in Columbus. It can happen, and if it does, look for the Huskies to be undefeated and highly ranked by the time they hit the road again to play UCLA.

OK, I'm on record. Which is the same thing as being able to utter "You heard it here first!" if it comes to fruition, or "Richard, what were you drinking?" if it doesn't.
Dawgman.com columnist and KJR 950 Sports Radio personality, Dick Baird.
Dick Baird was an Assistant Coach (Linebackers) and Recruiting Coordinator at the UW from 1985-1998. He has joined the Dawgman.com staff as a featured columnist for both the web site and Sports Washington magazine. In addition to his regular editorial columns, Coach Baird will try to provide some of his unique perspective by answering a few of your selected questions online. If you would like to send in your questions, please CLICK HERE.

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