Five Burning Questions

As spring approaches, all sorts of speculation ensues on how Washington football will evolve in 2012. Of course the reality is there are about 50 questions that you could ask, but here are five that are at the front of my mind. What are yours?

Can the new defensive staff find someone to replace the enormous production and leadership of MLB Cort Dennison?

Coming off a season in which he had a staggering 128 tackles, Dennison was the unquestioned leader of the defense. He was vocal and led by example, acting as a coach on the field. His loss leaves a glaring hole in the middle of the Husky defense that will undoubtedly be a top priority for the new defensive staff. The importance of finding a mainstay in the middle is magnified by the emphasis that will surely be put on stopping the run going forward.

JUCO transfer and special teams standout, Thomas Tutogi appears the heir apparent to Dennison but true freshmen, Blake Rodgers is likely to push him for the starting spot. Tutogi had some standout plays on Special Teams last season (notably the punt blocked in the Apple Cup) and that's one of the best ways to carve out a starting spot on defense. But Rodgers is a tackling machine and has great range and the physicality you look for in a MLB. Look for this to be one of the key position battles of the offseason.

Other possibilities at MLB include moving Jamaal Kearse inside as he has prototypical size for the position at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. Tim Tucker appears to have made the switch to offense but the new staff could give him another shot at linebacker if no one else emerges.
How will the defense look in 2012?

It's a very basic question but one that is assuredly at the forefront of Husky fans' minds going into next season. After a season in which the defense was the ball and chain to an explosive offense, Coach Sark cleaned house by overhauling his defensive coaching staff. The Alamo Bowl exposed UW's defense on national television to be futile beyond imagination, allowing a school record 777 total yards of offense.

New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox brings a youthful energy that seems comparable to the way Sarkisian manages his offense. Wilcox's ability to maximize potential at Boise State and Tennessee no doubt piqued Sark's interest and ultimately led to the hiring of the Junction City, Ore. native. Indications are that Wilcox will not hesitate to dial up a variety of pressures and force the opposing QB to make a quick decision. Further, that he is one of the rising stars of the college coaching ranks and on the fast track to a head coaching job. In the meantime, the Husky faithful hope he can resuscitate a paltry defense and return it to the perennially vaunted unit it was for so long.
Will a running back-by-committee approach be able to replace the invaluable Chris Polk?

Without a doubt, his physicality will be virtually impossible to replicate. Even more than Jake Locker, Sark lauded Polk for bringing UW back from the cellar. It's his type of mentality and toughness that can literally transform the mindset of a team. He will be playing on Sundays and was as complete a back as you will find in college football.

Now, all that being said, I think the outlook is bright at the RB position in 2012 and beyond. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey provide a solid one-two punch of both outside speed and the ability to run between the tackles. Callier will be asked to do more than just run outside and Sankey will need to shoulder more of the load as a sophomore.

The true wild card on the roster though, is Deontae Cooper. After leading the state of California in rushing his senior year of high school, Cooper has been snake-bitten with back-to-back ACL injuries. D-Cooper is the home-run hitter that every offensive coach dreams of. If these three can stay healthy, I think Sark has a stable of backs more than capable of providing a potent running attack in 2012 and adequately replacing the production of #1.
Can Keith Price stay healthy enough to play a full twelve game schedule?

Beginning in the second half of the season opener against Eastern Washington, and lasting all the way till the Alamo Bowl, Keith Price was never 100 percent healthy in 2011. Whether it was a sprained knee or high ankle sprain, the jovial gunslinger was noticeably hampered and unable to use his speed to avoid the sack and make plays with his legs. This may have been a blessing in disguise, however, as it forced Price to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions and push himself as a pure passer.

We've already heard Coach Sarkisian talk about bulking "Teeth" Price up so we know how important his offseason is going to be. Ivan Lewis will surely have him on a workout regimen highly focused on increasing weight and adding muscle to endure the rigors of a full Pac-12 season. If he can stay healthy all season, the Huskies should be right in the thick of the race for the conference title, but that's a big if...

Who will emerge from the group of true freshmen? This is a question paramount to almost every college program around the country as rosters continually churn year in and year out. The Huskies' 2012 recruiting class is a pretty strong one and I see at least a couple players vying for immediate playing time - chief among them is the sensational Grant High product, Shaquille Thompson.

Thompson is a kid that can impact the game in every phase and has the speed, instincts, and toughness that frankly don't come along very often. Similar to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams last year, Thompson is simply too good to keep off the field. I think Nate Fellner's free safety spot is in immediate jeopardy and Thompson may even play nickel corner. It's not a question of "Will he play?" but "Where will he play?"

I also like Pio Vatuvei and Josh Banks to provide depth and versatility along the D-line. It sounds as if Vatuvei can play inside and outside and has great speed at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds. Banks has the body and experience to contribute right away as well, adding valuable depth. With the loss of Alameda Ta'amu, the addition of these two players comes at a fantastic time for Husky nation.

Lastly, Jaydon Mickens and Kendyl Taylor are guys that possess great speed and agility and could be utilized in the return game to give Williams a breather. Outstanding spring and summer performances could throw them right into the rotation at receiver too.

Other possibilities to play early:
Blake Rodgers - as mentioned earlier in this piece, Rodgers should compete for early playing time at MLB with Tutogi.

Erich Wilson - if the depth at running back falls victim to injury, Wilson could find himself called upon early in his career. Sark has mentioned him as a player he is very surprised wasn't more heavily recruited so it will be interesting to see how Wilson's career progresses.

Brandon Beaver - the 6-foot-1, corner has great height to match up with taller receivers and could be utilized early if he's able to quickly pick up the defense and make the adjustment to the college game.
Overall, Sark has a good problem: How to get a lot of very dynamic playmakers the ball and best utilize their individual skill sets. The defense should be improved as it seemed to have hit rock bottom in 2011 and Wilcox should breathe new life into the unit. The health of Keith Price looms as a major factor heading into 2012 and we will just have to hope he's doing his best Ivan Drago impersonation in the weight room. The infusion of new talent from this freshmen class should provide the depth and dynamic playmaking ability that every strong program needs.

Personally, I can't wait to see what the 2012 season holds for these Huskies and think it could be a special year.

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