Accountability is the key

Brad Vanneman can trace it back to a conversation at the end of the 2004 season he had with then-tight end Joe Toledo. It was right after Washington had lost a tough Apple Cup in Pullman and without a post-season to look forward to, all the two seniors-to-be could look forward to was a chance at redemption. And everything took off from there.

"I told him (Toledo) that we needed him to step up and I think he got the message," Vanneman told recently. He's worked really hard and stayed this summer and worked his butt off. He's been a solid leader for us so far."

By then, even though Toledo had a bit of a resurgence at tight end - 9 catches in the final three games of 2004 - it was clear that the 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior was going to get a shot at weak tackle. Khalif Barnes was set to graduate to a solid payday in the NFL and the Huskies needed what Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano called a 'dancing bear'.

Toledo fit the bill.

"When you look at him as far as a body type, he's exactly what you're looking for in a left tackle," new UW Offensive Line Coach Mike Denbrock said of Toledo. "Beyond that, he also brings leadership and he's also got a little nasty streak in him that sometimes tight ends have, but linemen need that. I like the way he's progressing and I think he's got a chance to be very solid for us."

With Barnes and Ryan Brooks being the only departing seniors, that left five juniors responsible for carrying the torch for the offensive line - Toledo, Vanneman, Tusi Sa'au, Robin Meadow and Tui Alailefaleula. All but Alailefaleula are expected to start for Washington this fall, but he is expected to be a vital part of the two-deeps.

"It hasn't just been one guy," said Vanneman. "It's been a collection, a group effort of our class coming together and setting goals and forcing rules and doing the right things ourselves."

The offensive line is expecting big things this season, an expectation that's a bit at odds with the fact that Washington is coming off the worst football campaign in school history. Doesn't matter, they would tell you - the groundwork has been laid.

So it naturally begs the question; what changed in the mindset of the Washington Huskies from 2004 to 2005? "Football is not just an in-season sport," said Vanneman. "It has to be taken seriously for at least 8 months out of the year and not just the four months that we're playing. It was drilled into our heads by the senior class."

"Coach (Tyrone) Willingham and the whole staff have been preaching to us about the potential that we have, but potential is probably the worst word in football," added Toledo. "You might have it, but are you able to use it? We're able to do it, but part of becoming confident is having the mindset of doing it and believing in yourself. All of our coaches are feeding us that and that helps out."

Whenever a new staff comes in to reshape the 'mindset' of a sagging football program, inevitably there is a 'trickle-down' effect that occurs when the mantle of leadership is passed from head coach to assistants to seniors and on down. "I think that's true of our football team," Denbrock said. "I think we've had a number of players step into leadership roles that haven't had those roles before. And it starts at the top. We're fortunate enough to have players that have listened and have taken action - not only through spring ball but over the summer. So instead of having one or two guys step up and everyone else listening, it's more of a chorus, the whole team in unison making sure everyone's on the same page and doing things right. If you've got that, you've got a firm foundation for success.

"And if there's going to be leadership on your team, it has to start with the seniors. And they've not only toed the line, but they can also play the game a little bit too, so their credibility is at an all-time high. They've been vocal, they've stepped up in front of the team and they've done what they've needed to do to give our team a chance."

And with leadership comes accountability. In fact, the accountability factor is the one trait echoed by all those asked about the biggest change in the program from last year to right now.

"Accountability has improved a lot in terms of the weight room, the class room and just being a part of this team," said Vanneman. "It's a privilege to be a part of this team and this summer we established that. In the weight room we established that. And with certain guys, it's harder for them to take the stuff in class seriously, but at the very least we had better attendance. And with the penalties that we are imposing on guys...I felt that this summer everyone was a lot more accountable."

"I think we're a much more accountable football team than when we first walked in last January," Denbrock added. "I think they've bought into what we want to do, but I also think it's their own determination in following through and taking action to make sure the process is sped up."

It all sounds wonderful to the average fan, but it's not just talk. Denbrock and his charges fully intend to be the driving force - literally - behind Washington's offensive renaissance. They also want to be the ones to take the heat, if need be.

"I love it, I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "We want the pressure to be on us. We want to carry the flag for our offense. There's absolutely no question that nobody has an impact as to the success of an offensive play more than the line, whether it's a run or a pass. So if we're out there on Saturdays doing our job, then our offense has a chance. That's a burden we freely accept and that's where we want the pressure to be."

But talk alone won't get the job done, and they know that. "Going out and winning games is what's going to get us over the hump," said Toledo, who has grown 30 pounds (to 320) and has improved his bench press over 100 pounds (365 to 470) since last season. "Confidence grows every day during practice when you go out there and you make your calls and you're doing things right. But it's not as high as when you go out there and do what you're supposed to do on Saturdays." Top Stories