SEATTLE - Year two of the Keith Gilbertson era officially kicked off for the Husky football team Thursday afternoon, as the head coach addressed the media at luncheon prior to conducting the team's first practice of the season at Husky Stadium.
Lacking the superstars on the roster from previous years, Gilbertson repeatedly emphasized how important team unity will be this season. Missing this year are Reggie Williams, the sure-handed superstar who put the team on his back during stretches last season, and Terry Johnson, the athletic defensive tackle and top threat on the Washington's mediocre defense in 2003. Both are now in NFL mini-camps with large checking accounts.
In their place is a cast of youngsters hoping to step up, despite their inexperience, and play more like Husky teams of old.
"My expectations are to play as hard and aggressive as we can play for 11 weeks in a row," said Gilbertson, realizing there are going to be growing pains along the way. "I would like to see us be a little bit steadier from week to week (than last year). I thought last year we had some emotional highs and then we had some tremendous lows. I'd like to see us, from week to week, not be as up and down as we were. I think that will help us.
"I think we are a lot closer team than last year. I think we are a team that likes each other better. I think we will hang in there, and probably won't be as susceptible to the big mode swings. I like this team. It's a fun team to coach, it's going to be a fun team to be around every day."
Many questions, however, need to be addressed, none perhaps more important than behind center where the three-headed monster of junior Casey Paus, sophomore Isaiah Stanback and freshman Carl Bonnell all have a chance for the starting nod at quarterback.
Gilbertson says he believes one of the three will jump out at him before fall camp ends, but if not he and the coaching staff will need to make a decision. They are prepared for either scenario.
"Probably a couple days before game week we'll have to make a call," he said. "I think somebody will jump out, though, I really do.
"I like the group, and I think the competition will be good. I'm not so sure we're not going to play at least a couple guys in every game. I don't know that anybody is going to eliminate themselves from the group. We've played two quarterbacks before. It's a position that I think will improve all season."
Each candidate comes with their own advantages and drawbacks: Paus is the prototypical drop-back passer, has been in the system for four years, and has the edge in experience; Stanback came in highly-heralded as an athletic new-age quarterback, but his speed and elusiveness on the ground is muffled by what to this point has been an inaccurate and inconsistent arm; Bonnell is a two-time Washington state champion from Kentwood High who is a right-handed Mark Brunell type of quarterback, with a strong accurate arm and an ability to scramble, but he's in only his second year with the program.
The backfield is as deep as it has been at any point over the past five seasons, as Rich Alexis is gone and Kenny James and Shelton Sampson are the top two backs vying for the starting spot. Add to the mix junior Chris Singleton, who redshirted last season with a broken foot, redshirt freshman Louis Rankin, a legitimate track star who runs with long strides, and incoming freshman Johnie Kirton and the position is abundantly talented.
Zach Tuiasosopo returns for his senior year at fullback, and behind him is former safety James Sims. Gilbertson likes the way that position is looking heading into camp.
"I think Zach Tuiasosopo is a really good player and I think he can play at the next level," said the Husky head coach. "I also think the move has been positive for James Sims."
Without Reggie as a part of the offense, the team will need to get much more contribution from a talented but youthful receiving corps. The news isn't all bad, though, as plenty of players are capable of stepping up as second-year players. Sophomores Sonny Shackelford (7 receptions in 2003), Corey Wiliams (5 receptions in 2003) and Quintin Daniels (4 receptions in 2003) each played in key situations as freshman. Anthony Russo, Craig Chambers, Charles Smith and Bobby Whithorne each redshirted as freshman and could emerge as well.
Both the offensive and defensive lines are coming off injury-riddled seasons, but enter camp almost entirely healthy. Health is one thing, being proven is another. Gilbertson says he likes the outlook of the offensive line, with Robin Meadow, Tusi Sa'au, Brad Vanneman, and Clay Walker returning from injury-shortened 2003 seasons. Add that mix senior tackles Khalif Barnes and Ryan Brooks and an emerging sophomore guard in Stanley Daniels, and the outlook isn't too bad.
Joe Toledo is back to full health at tight end, reporting in at a lean 288 pounds (if there ever was such a thing) and reporting no pain with his back. His return also helps.
"You put (Toledo) and Tusi and Robin Meadow back in the group up front and that will make a big difference," said Gilbertson. "You put them back in there and we look a lot different."
"I think it's a group of guys that is going to surprise you. It's a pretty good group of players."
Up front on the defense is a group of guys who have experience, but have yet to break out. Two-year starter Manase Hopoi returns for his senior year starting out as an end. Sophomore Donny Mateaki is a weight-room freak hoping to translate it onto the football field. Brandon Ala, Ty Eriks and Dan Milsten are other returners with experience, each with a chance to open eyes and earn a starting spot. The list doesn't stop there, according to Gilbertson.
"A guy like Casey Tyler has a chance to come in and help us," said the Husky coach. "And that's where a guy like Mike Mapu who redshirted last year, or Jordan White-Frisbee or Greyson Gunheim have a chance to get in the mix. I don't think we are as set on the defensive line as we are on the offensive line."
The return of Joe Lobendahn is a boon to the linebacking corps, which has to replace Greg Carothers and Marquis Cooper. Senior Tim Galloway returns, junior Evan Benjamin moves up from safety to linebacker, and gifted sophomore Tahj Bomar also will be in the mix.
Cornerback and safety are in similar situations, with a blend of veteran leadership and youthful inexperience in the two-deeps. Gilbertson says he feels good about the way each of those positions look.
Seniors Derrick Johnson and Sam Cunningham are the top two corners, while Matt Fountaine and Dre Simpson are a couple of athletic sophomores with big upside.
Jimmy Newell, a fifth year senior, will provide leadership at safety while C.J. Wallace, Chris Hemphill and newcomer Dashon Goldson battle it out for the second starting spot.
As far as the special teams go, Gilbertson glowed when talking about second-year punter Sean Douglas.
"I'm really excited about our punter," he said. "I think he's got a fine leg."
"We've got to get a lot better at place kicking. We're going to spend a lot more time on it than we have in previous years."
Evan Knudson and Michael Braunstein will battle it out for the place kicking job. Knudson held the starting positing all of last year, hitting 10-of-17 field goals. Braunstein, who redshirted last season, is on scholarship and in his second year out of Gilbert, Ariz.
With a tough schedule ahead, Gilbertson knows he's going to need to get the most out of his team this year, and he hopes the group's tight-knit approach can translate into victories.
"We've done quite a bit of things since January to team build, to be more of a team," said Gilbertson. "We're not as star-oriented as maybe some previous years, we're not as big name. We're going to have to play as a football team. We don't have a lot of margin for error. I don't know there's that guy that you can just flip one two, and all of a sudden he'll just take it and go 80 yards, like we've had. This has to be a team effort."
It starts today.
Picture Day on Saturday: The Huskies will hold their annual Picture Day early this season, with the event being held prior to the team taking off for a week of practice at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. It is scheduled for this Saturday, Aug. 14, at 1:30 p.m. at Husky Stadium, and will last for two hours. Admission and parking are free. Want to meet your favorite Huskies? This is the best chance you'll have all season.
Moss on the Move: Redshirt freshman Durrell Moss, who was a safety last season in his first year at Washington, will move to fullback behind Zach Tuiasosopo and James Sims in the rotation heading into fall camp.
Only one Clearinghouse Issue: Gilbertson said that defensive end Jasper Henry is the only incoming freshman that is still being held up by clearinghouse issues. Casey Bulyca, the other player referred to by several media outlets on Wednesday, was cleared on Thursday and will begin practicing with the team on Friday.
Garcia Mending Fast: Juan Garcia, who suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle during spring drills, will report to Olympia but won't be able to practice at full speed until at least late September.
Calling it Quits: Defensive tackles Josh Miller and Junior Coffin each were forced to retire a year early due to injuries, as was offensive lineman Dan Dicks. Miller started 17 of the 25 games he played in and finished with three career sacks. Coffin, who appeared in 12 games in his Husky career, had a chronic pinched nerve in his neck and shoulder. Dicks, who played four seasons at Washington but had one season of eligibility left, opted not to return due to a back injury.
Freshman Opening Eyes Early: Gilbertson said there were a number of incoming freshman who might be hard to keep off the field, singling out Greyson Gunheim on a number of occasions along with Caesar Rayford, Jordan White-Frisbee and Darin Harris.
"There's some young guys who really look the part," said Gilbertson. "I know Keauntea (Bankhead) and Matt (Tuiasosopo) are not here, but the rest of the group is really impressive."
Husky football practices in Seattle:
Aug. 12 at 3:15 p.m. in Husky Stadium
Aug. 13 at 3:15 p.m. in Husky Stadium
Aug. 14 at 9:45 a.m. in Husky Stadium (Picture Day at 1:30 p.m.)
Aug. 15 at 11:30 a.m. in Husky Stadium
Husky football practices at Evergreen State College:
Aug. 16 at 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 17 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 18 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 19 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 20 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 21 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Husky football practices in Seattle:
Aug. 22 at 2:45 p.m.
Aug. 23 at 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 24 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 25 at 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 26 at 9 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 27 at 3:15 p.m.
Aug. 28 at 2:30 p.m.
Keith Gilbertson Press Conference - 8/12
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