Things to Look For - Spring Football

SEATTLE - Even though Washington fans will only get two chances to see the Huskies this spring, due to space restrictions brought on by the Husky Stadium renovation, there will still be plenty to talk about during the four weeks where the UW coaching staff gets to work with the team and build on the successes of the last three years under Steve Sarkisian.

But with things staying the same at the top, there still has been plenty of changes going on right below him, and those changes will be one of the real keys toward unlocking the mystery that is the 2012 UW football team.

The reason why things appear still so unsettled despite Sarkisian going into his fourth year as the Huskies' head coach is because the continuity that was once considered a staple under Sark is no longer; alterations ware required after UW's horrendous season-long performance on the defensive side of the ball. So when Washington fans look to their 'checklist' of things to watch for this spring, No. 1 with a bullet should be the connection that is made between the current Husky players and the five new UW coaches that moved to Montlake a couple of months ago.

Justin Wilcox, Eric Kiesau, Tosh Lupoi, Peter Sirmon and Keith Heyward all come to UW with impressive resumes not only as coaches, but also as recruiters - and if the Huskies plan on competing at the top of the Pac12 for the foreseeable future, they need to bring in the Jimmies and Joes. But the fact is, even when the mix of new coaches and players appears perfect on paper, it's out on the field that really tells the tale.

The focus will be rightly placed on the defense in this regard, but don't forget Kiesau - who is replacing the respected Doug Nussmeier as Washington's Offensive Coordinator. Nussmeier left to fill a similar job at Alabama. Kiesau comes with a wealth of experience at two Pac-12 schools - California and Colorado - so he is as well-equipped as anyone to deal with the top defenses in the country. The thing to watch with Kiesau is how he interacts with returning quarterback Keith Price. Price had a phenomenal relationship with Nussmeier, who starred at Idaho. Kiesau played QB at Portland State, so hopefully there's some continuity there in terms of a former quarterback coaching the quarterbacks. And because the offense is primarily called by Sarkisian, expect Kiesau to fall in line in terms of new terminology and working with what has already been successful at UW.

That doesn't mean the offense isn't going to go through some growing pains. For instance, who will take over for running back Chris Polk, whether that means with one back or by back-by-committee? Sarkisian said that when he took the UW job in December 2008, he fully expected to have an offense based around using more than one back. For example, when Sarkisian was USC's Offensive Coordinator, he had a lot of success with Reggie Bush and LenDale White's 'Thunder and Lightning' attack. This spring we will see if a running back like Jesse Callier can be an every-down back, or if the Huskies will be more successful with a rotating mix of backs with varying sizes and speeds to keep defenses off-balance.

It's much the same story on defense, where Wilcox - who came from defensive coordinator stints at Tennessee and Boise State - will bring in entirely different concepts and terminology than his predecessor - Nick Holt. There has been talk of a move from a largely 4-3 base to a 3-4, although the coaches have said that the reality is they'll show multiple looks. It will be a jarring change, and it will be up to Wilcox and the other defensive coaches to cushion the blow, make the changes as user-friendly as possible, and get the defense to the point where they are comfortable enough to play as fast as possible. Obviously we won't get a true sense of how successful Wilcox and company have been until the San Diego State opener September 1st at Century Link Field, but the open practice on April 21st and the Spring Game a week later should give fans at least a primer on how much progress has been made in terms of players getting comfortable in their new roles and how successful they've been in stopping what was a pretty potent UW offense last year.

So the connection between the new coaches and players is going to be right at the top of things to watch for.

The next key is having enough players to have the kind of productive spring the coaches envision - and right now that's not a sure thing, especially along the offensive line. This spring, Washington has only 10 offensive linemen on scholarship, and three of those players - Colin Porter, Colin Tanigawa, and Erik Kohler - are either going to be very, very limited, or out entirely. Even when you count walk-ons Ben Teichman and Ross Dolbec, that's still less that 10 offensive linemen available - which means there's no way the Huskies could even have a true Spring Game in the sense of one full team playing against another. Guys will have to cross-over and play for both sides at some point - which is great if you're one of those guys because you undoubtedly will get better because of the work put in.

The same could be said for the safety position on defense. This position, which had strength in numbers a year ago, is back to bare bones after Taz Stevenson and Evan Zeger moved up to linebacker, and Travis Feeney and James Sample are out for the contact part of Spring Football with shoulder surgeries. The group that remains at safety is a very solid one: Sean Parker, Nate Fellner, Will Shamburger and Justin Glenn are four players UW has gone to war with in the past and they are battle-tested. They'll get plenty of reps, and that should put them in good stead for the fall.

But for 11 or so players that are going to either be non-contact only or not available for spring altogether, it puts a damper on their own development. The hope is that enough young players will have benefited from Spring Football to the point that, when those hurt do return for fall, they will really be pushed for starting spots - and that competition will make everyone better for the season at hand.

It's great in theory, but for instance - is the fact that sophomore defensive end Hauoli Jamora is out for spring mean another player like Talia Crichton or Andrew Hudson gets enough experience in the spring to legitimately challenge Jamora for a starting DE spot four months from now? We'll see, but I'd have to believe both Crichton and Hudson would have to have monster springs for that to become a realistic possibility. Let's hope they do, so that question can be asked as the team heads into their fall camp at the beginning of August.

Finding some leaders, especially on the defensive side of the ball in the wake of Cort Dennison's graduation is also going to be a big key in 2012. Dennison, besides being the rock in the middle of Holt's 4-3 scheme, was also their oldest vet and most outspoken player. He backed up his words with action. Sarkisian has said that players like Jamora - who won't play in spring but is expected to be at every practice as a leader of the defensive line - as well as Parker and senior cornerback Desmond Trufant, have a chance to lead in the same way Dennison did - both on and off the field.

It's easy to say that this is Price's team on offense, but they'll need more than one leader on that side of the ball to remain a cohesive, communicative unit. Sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a breakout 2011, and I expect he will set up and fill a leadership void. Along the offensive line, it's clear that it's Drew Schaefer's job to make sure the five up front act and move as one. The senior center has played in 38 games as part of the purple and gold, so what he says goes.

I have already outlined another major key for the Huskies this spring - namely determining the big position battles on both offense and defense. You can read about those by clicking on the links below.

Spring Football Battles to Watch - Offense

Spring Football Battles to Watch - Defense

The other big key this spring for Washington has to do with all the logistical changes. Due to the overall health of the team and their attempts at trying to get some players ready to go through at least some part of Spring Football, Sarkisian decided to take the week after Spring Break - typically the first week of a five-week Spring Football period - and use it for strength and conditioning. That means Spring Football is a week shorter for Washington in 2012, as they'll practice three times the first week and four times the remaining three weeks, adding up to 15 total practices (a number that includes the April 28th Spring Game, which signals the close of Spring Football).

So not only will the Huskies deal with a condensed (by their traditional measure) schedule, but they'll also practice at a different time of the day. As part of their yearly off-season program critique, Sarkisian wondered why the team practiced in the afternoons for spring after asking the team all winter to work out, run and lift in the early morning. The answer - practice at roughly the same time they used to work out. According to Sarkisian, studies have shown that early morning is the most productive part of the day in terms of when someone is at their most effective and sharpest. So they will practice at least three times a week at 8 a.m. instead of 4 p.m. We'll see if that has an impact on the level of enthusiasm the team comes out with during those early morning sessions. If the coaching staff sees the team has hit the collective snooze button, they'll find a way to wake them up in a hurry. Top Stories