Coach's Corner

I'd been out of the country for about ten days and never read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched more than about five minutes of television. I must admit it was nice not wearing a watch and not many clothes.

Alas, now it's back to reality and out to Husky Stadium to watch the Dawgs go through Spring drills. I find the Huskies have already been picked to finish somewhere between 6th and 8th in the Pac-10 Conference football race. Wow, what a slide from the good old days when the Dawgs always were ranked in the top echelon year in and year out.

Can it be that even our own local sportswriters have already jumped ship even before a ball has been thrown, kicked, or even teed up?

It is because Washington does not return a quarterback with any real experience. However after watching practice closely, I'm convinced that's not all that's missing.

Believe it or not there are only 11 returning seniors from Rick Neuheisel's first big and highly ranked recruiting classes.

Not the one he inherited when he first got the job, but the ones he brought in featuring Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick. The ones that represented the true recruiting genius of Coach Neuheisel. The nationally acclaimed prized classes that reflected of all the reasons he was hired by Barbara Hedges in the first place.

Yet, here we are today and a good portion of those classes are missing.

It doesn't matter why they left or quit or why they never came. What is reality is that one of the classes has dwindled to eleven and at least one of those is a JC's who didn't even enter with that class. This is why attrition and character are so critical in recruiting. You win with seniors or experienced players at the core. Your chances improve when the core is red-shirt seniors or 5th year players. It makes no difference if its high school, college or the pros, the experienced players usually win the championships.

So, here we are already into spring football and already some doom sayers are relegating the Huskies to second tier status in the conferences of champions. They are even ranked below all the teams they beat last year including Oregon State who lost arguably their best player when Steven Jackson turned pro. The Cougars lost their quarterback, the Beavers' quarterback is terrible and ASU's was a bust last year. UCLA doesn't even have a quarterback, but still Washington is considered second tier below all those teams.

Maybe low expectations are a good thing. Maybe the Huskies aren't going to be any good next fall. I seriously doubt anyone will expect Coach Gilbertson to win the championship. Heck, he won't even be expected to have to have a winning season.

Not so fast. This is still Washington and the fan base still expects winning football. And although Gilbertson was not left with the Rose Bowl team that Neuheisel inherited, he'll still be expected to perform. This Husky team will have to earn it with hard work and smash mouth. They'll have to earn it by tackling better, blocking better, and running the football better. That's what I see happening in Montlake right now.

Believe me, the Huskies will be better in two of the three areas that win football games. First and foremost is defense. The Huskies are getting better everyday. Some of it has to do with coaching but a lot of it will have to do with attitude. These guys will attack and swarm to the football or they'll be replaced by guys that will. These guys will get up field and get tougher up the middle at the linebacker and safety positions.

Face it, The Huskies have not had good linebacker and safety play the past few years, and it is there that the coaching changes are already starting to be noticed. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow, has moved himself back inside to work with the safeties. The Huskies are emphasizing more physical contact there and the size difference will be noticed even more in the fall when JC transfer, Dashon Goldson, joins the ranks.

Coach Chris Tormey takes over the linebackers and he brings a similar tough guy approach to the practices. He played the position himself and he too, may have to wait until fall before he has his full compliment of backers on hand. Don't be surprised to see true freshman, Trenton Tuiaososopo, right in the mix by the time the Fresno State game rolls around. Everything is wide open at the backer spots but past recruiting slights there are also starting to be noticed.

Whether it's enough remains to be seen. The Huskies will either improve up the middle next fall or once again will not be very good on defense.

The running game is going to be better simply due to adding another running back into the equation. The other running back is going to be the quarterback. Something that Cody Pickett didn't do or simply refused to do. Whatever the reason the Huskies have not forced other teams to account for the quarterback as a runner. That will change and if only by the re-emphasis on the option game.

Last year saw tremendous improvement in the kicking game and the current emphasis of blocking kicks and effective kickoff returns will further enhance that area of the Husky team. Let's be real here. In order for the Huskies to be competitive next fall they are going to have to be aggressive and assertive in the kicking game. This might be their edge so look for spirited competition at the kicking position and a complete commitment to winning this phase of the game.

This spring is shaping the character and attitude of the team. The tempo has changed. Things are not as loosey goosey. There is no music. There is more contact. There is more emphasis on blocking and tackling. Helmets are on their heads. Nobody is sitting around. Everyone runs on and off the field.

The parts are not all there yet, but the ethic of work is good. This team will be competitive and it will win more games than it loses. It will go to a bowl game. That being said, I think there is still a long way to go. 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 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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