A Visit with Husky safety C.J. Wallace

The 2004 season brought forth a litany of firsts for Washington football. It was the first losing season since 1976. It featured the first time the Huskies had suffered a shutout since 1981. It was the first 10-loss season in Washington's 116-year history.

But for sophomore C.J. Wallace, it was also the first significant playing time he had experienced on the college level. The dismal 1-10 record was certainly anticlimactic, considering the environment into which Wallace thought he was arriving.

As Wallace recently kicked back in front of his TV to watch the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons game, he reflected on the past, present and future of Husky football.

"Being that I was from California, I was never a fan of Washington," he said in a deep, careful voice. "I used to watch them back in the day- when Napoleon Kaufman and all those guys were here. I knew they played smash mouth football and that was what I wanted to play like. I wanted to be involved with that."

Wallace was recruited by former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, but never got to play for him. In the summer of 2003, Neuheisel was fired. "When he was no longer here, it was hard," Wallace said. "He was a big reason why I came to Washington. But I never thought about transferring to another school or anything like that. I did commit and I was going to honor that commitment. Also, I'm lucky to have a scholarship- as not everybody gets a scholarship. I stayed with the team."

When the fall camp for the 2004 season approached, Wallace says that the mood on the squad was confident and upbeat.

"Coming into camp, we were expecting to go to a bowl game. We were shooting toward the sky, and felt at the worst we would go 7-4. As a defense we played well against Fresno State in the season opener, but the offense wasn't clicking. Then against UCLA, which was a big game, the offense did well and this time it was the defense that had some breakdowns and mistakes. By the Notre Dame game, injuries really started to add up, and the losses started to come. But Coach Gilbertson never got down. We had good individual players, but we never played as a team."

Given Gilbertson's widespread reputation for exhibiting raw and unbridled frustration throughout his difficult head coaching tenure at Washington, I asked Wallace to elaborate further on his comment that Gilbertson never got down.

"Well, he didn't ever let us give up," said Wallace. "He had us real prepared. He told us to compete no matter what. We made a lot of mistakes throughout the season, and we didn't play well as a team-- but we went out and competed. There wasn't a lack of effort. As the losses continued we didn't have the record that we thought we were going to have, so that had all of us down. But from a confidence standpoint, I can't speak for the offense, but the defense was real confident... We did some good things during the year, and we feel we can be ten times better. I know that I learned a lot this past year, just from playing."

When Husky linebacker Scott White was late for a team meeting in the week leading up to the Apple Cup, Keith Gilbertson ordered White to stay at home while the rest of the team traveled to Pullman. Wallace was asked if he had thought this to be fair treatment.

"Well, I never heard everything that had happened, but when I found out he wasn't making the trip, I was like 'oh man, we're gonna miss that guy,'" said Wallace. "Given that it was the last game of the season and we really needed him in there, I felt like another kind of punishment probably should have been given. Scott means a lot to our defense, and it would have been helpful to have him in there. But what happened is what happened, and you deal with things and move on."

Several weeks after the season had concluded with the frustrating loss to the Cougars, Athletic Director Todd Turner named Tyrone Willingham as the new Husky coach. Wallace was asked to describe his first reaction to meeting with Willingham.

"My first reaction was that he's a good coach, at least from what we've heard, so it's good we have him in here. I mean, we haven't played for him yet, but the guys like him. He came in and immediately laid down the rules. He told us how we were going to go to every class, and how to put the team before self. Breaking the rules is going to mean consequences. He means business. He's not messing around. You can tell it in his eyes, there's a fire there when you're looking at him. He's focused and wants to win. The team respects him. He's strict, but it's a fair strict."

And what is an example of "fair strict"?

"I just got into trouble being late for a class," Wallace said. "So I had to get up real early, at 6:30 A.M., and go to the indoor practice facility. We had to run, do push ups and jump rope. Coach Willingham did everything we were doing; the running, the push ups and the jumping rope. In fact, Coach Willingham jumped rope better than we did." Wallace paused then to chuckle lightly: "That ain't ever gonna happen to me again! I've gotta get another couple of alarm clocks."

As the interview drew to its conclusion, Wallace was asked which two players on defense and two players on offense he's highest on.

"Defensively, it would be Greyson Gunheim and Jordan White-Frisbee," he said. "Those two guys came in and had to play right away as freshmen. And they stepped up. They can play. I think the sky's the limit for them, as they get older and more experienced. They're gonna be something serious.

"On offense, I'd say Louis Rankin at tailback. I want to see him do some big things. He's got a lot of ability… And I'd say Isaiah Stanback. When those two guys are on the field, you get excited, you know? There's something about the way each of them plays. I can tell you that they're both hard to tackle in practice."

For the final question, Wallace was instructed that he wasn't allowed to provide the answer of "11-0". Wallace was asked that given the current talent level, if the Huskies were completely healthy and boasting 100% confidence in themselves, realistically what kind of season was possible.

"Rose Bowl," he said bluntly. When faced with my incredulity, Wallace responded, "Why not?"

"Your team just finished 1-10 last season," I exclaimed with good-nature.

Replied Wallace: "Hey, there are a lot of examples of teams having bad years then turning it all around the next season… Just like Cal did. Our players are on scholarship too, just like at Cal or USC, and we can compete at this level. Cal is an example of a team that did a complete turnaround...

"And there's no reason why we can't do that too," he said.
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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