Fall Camp: 10 Tough Questions

During the Don James Era, Washington always had a series of '10 Tough Questions' they would ask every recruit to see if they were made of the stuff UW was looking for. With that as a basis, here are our '10 Tough Questions' we'll be asking as the Huskies start their 2013 Fall Camp in the hopes that year five under Steve Sarkisian will prove to be a breakthrough year for the program.

1) Is Keith Price the guy to move the offense forward? - It's almost inconceivable a fifth-year senior would have this question put on him, but it's as much the question of if the backups behind him are capable of coming in without missing a beat as it is the often-asked question of whether or not Price will look more like his 2011 self compared to last year. No one doubts Price's talent or heart; when he's at his best he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. We all saw that in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. But ever since the beginning of that season Price has been seriously nagged with leg injuries - specifically to his knees and ankles - and those injuries have dictated his effectiveness. So maybe the better question to ask is - is Keith Price's body ready to move the offense forward? He will be versus Boise State when his lower body is 100 percent healthy, but will he still be the man when that first limp is spotted?

2) Does UW have a backup for Bishop Sankey? - Again, another question that normally wouldn't need to be asked if it weren't for departures and injuries. The Huskies accounted for 235 rushing yards from the backup spot in 2012; Erich Wilson and Dezden Petty ran for a combined 244 yards but both are now gone. Jesse Callier was robbed of his 2012 season only one series in, so there's no reason he shouldn't be fresh and ready to go August 31st. It will have been nearly a year to the day he was hurt, and if he can't get right with his knee in that much time that would be a much bigger concern. Knee injuries being what they are, it often doesn't take much, however, to become chronic. Kendyl Taylor was forced to become a backup and still could run some but we're not sure how UW plans on using him. Dwayne Washington had a promising spring but has still never taken a snap.

3) Have the ASJ/Kasen legal matters cast a pall over the team? - Everyone will talk publicly how everything is good and there's no problem going forward and both players have acted the right way and have done everything right in the aftermath of their legal issues, but what we don't know now and honestly won't know until kickoff on August 31st is whether or not Steve Sarkisian plans on suspending both players, and if so for how long, and if that suspension has had any lingering effects. We're talking about the two biggest receiving threats on the team and it isn't even a discussion - so anything that directly affects them could conceivably trickle down to the rest of the team. That's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Again, this is a question that can only be answered after the fact; if the team responds and plays well in the event of suspension, the point will have been proven. If the players sit out and the team loses, it will be the first question asked during Sarkisian's post-game press conference.

4) Can the offensive line act like veterans without a senior in the group? - At what point will Washington's offensive line be considered a veteran corps? In 2014 the 'Cascade Front' will be fifth-year seniors, and if everyone returns from that group it means only one - Colin Porter - didn't make it all the way through. That would be an impressive feat. But what about 2013? With eight returning players having starting experience, you'd think the time for these guys to grow up would be right now, and you may be right. Last year there was center Drew Schaefer as the unquestioned leader. He was not only the quarterback of the OL, but he was also the lone senior, so there were no mixed signals when it came to leadership. But who is going to fill that vacuum this year? Mike Criste? Ben Riva? Dexter Charles? Colin Tanigawa? Erik Kohler? Micah Hatchie? Unlike Schaefer, there's no dominant personality in that group to point to as a guy that will step up and immediately take the reigns. Tanigawa and Kohler are the most experienced, but they are battling injury.

5) Can the defensive line step up and get in the backfield? - The defensive line has to improve in 2013. They were 10th in the Pac-12 in sacks (27, compared to the 57 of Stanford - coached by former UW DL Coach Randy Hart) and 10th in Red Zone Defense. To be fair they made immense gains in rush defense and pass defense statistics, but they still could not marry those impressive improvements with a legitimate pass rush. No one doubts the talents of Danny Shelton and Josh Shirley can get in the backfield from time to time but it's the rest of the group that has to step up and impose their collective will. Getting Hauoli Jamora back from two knee injuries would be a real godsend, and we'll see what the younger players can contribute.

6) Do the freshman have what it takes to make an immediate impact? - Speaking of younger players, we've seen in recent years what guys like Seferian-Jenkins, Williams, and Shaquille Thompson have meant to the team. Who are the 2013 true freshmen to make a similar impact? Early returns have John Ross, Damore'ea Stringfellow, and Marcus Farria as the ones most likely to see playing time as true freshmen. But how much can the Huskies rely on true frosh to set the world on fire? Has Sarkisian gotten to the point in year five where he can be very selective about the guys that he knows are the difference between winning and losing, or is he still in the position where he has to play some true freshmen before they would be ideally ready for action? Heading into year five you would have to think the cupboard is as stocked as it's ever been, but there's also a new reality in the 2013 college football world; true freshman are also more ready to impact the game as they have ever been.

7) Can UW keep Travis Coons from performing triple duty? - Special teams doesn't get near enough attention in the press as it should, but if it weren't for two missed field goals the final two games last year UW would be 9-4. Now that sounds like a fact and it's awfully harsh on Travis Coons because it's not fair to pin it all on the junior college kicker - but the question one is left with in the aftermath of 2012 is; if Coons hadn't had to also punt and kick off could he have been more effective by focusing all his efforts into just one aspect of special teams? And by extension, could Coons - if allowed to focus just on placekicking - be the difference between winning games in 2013 that were lost in 2012 by that narrow margin? Again, Coons WON games for UW too last year (remember Oregon State?). But could he have won more if not stretched so thin? This is where Cameron Van Winkle and Zach Grossnickle could come in very handy. Another unfair comment; Korey Durkee may have hit his last punt for UW. If he couldn't be counted on in 2012, I'm not seeing how that situation is going to change this fall - but if it did it could prove to be one of the biggest moves for the team.

8) Will the offense improve in the no huddle? - Washington, despite being led by a real whiz kid in Sarkisian, was surprisingly average offensively in 2012. They were 10th in scoring offense, 10th in total offense, eight in rush offense and eighth in rush defense. That's not what you'd expect from a Sarkisian-coached offense. But give Sark credit; he's always looking for an edge, looking to always improve on what he considers a time-tested formula. This year's wrinkle? We saw it in spring; going up-tempo and no huddle. Obviously the only way we're going to know if said wrinkle is the difference between the offense taking the next step in their evolution - they have to show improvement on the field. Going up-tempo and no huddle has become vogue ever since Chip Kelly moved to Oregon, so it's not surprising that other schools have turned to it as a way to jump-start their attacks. And during the times they did it in 2012 Washington was actually pretty effective. But this year it won't be just a change-up.

9) Will the defense continue to improve? - It's been well-documented how Justin Wilcox's move to Montlake has been a statistical revelation. Under Nick Holt Washington's defense was ranked in the 100's nationally; under Wilcox the Huskies made gargantuan gains in just one season. After 2011 Washington was 106th in total defense, surrendering an average of 453 yards a game. In 2012, the Huskies improved by nearly 100 yards, pushing all the way to 31st nationally. Now there's no way they can go through another sea change like that, but can Wilcox's guys push into the 20's? Or even become a top-20 defense nationally? Health will obviously play a big key, but Wilcox has set an awfully high bar for himself. In some ways he may become a victim of his own success if they don't continue to improve. Washington fans should be absolutely delighted if Washington stays 31st nationally in total defense, but they won't be as thrilled to anoint Wilcox as a defensive genius if the Huskies continue to give up 40 and 50 points to spread teams like Oregon and Arizona. That has to be the next evolution for this group.

10) Will Sark get Washington past 7-6? - This is arguably the most important tough question going forward. As was mentioned above, the surface answer is clearly yes if you believe the Huskies were only two made field goals away from 9-4. If Washington finished 2012 9-4 on a six-game winning streak, the tenor of this whole conversation would be completely different. The question of taking the next step wouldn't have to be asked because that next step would have already been made. Now, after back-to-back-to-back 7-6 seasons, many UW fans feel the program is stuck in neutral and is spinning its wheels. Sure, Sark can win tough games; he can even beat top-10 teams. But until his teams can avoid the blowouts, until they can avoid the inevitable losing streaks, until they can show that they are not only competitive on the road but can beat top teams on the road - all of those questions will persist.

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