Scrimmage brings mixed results

Thursday's full scrimmage at Husky Stadium will be the closest Tyrone Willingham and his Washington football team will get to a live game situation before they take on Air Force at Qwest Field a week from Saturday. So did the Huskies get closer to naming their starting quarterback? Will Kenny James see the field September 3rd? Answers are coming from Montlake, just not at record speed.

"It was a good session, a pretty lengthy session," Willingham said of the team's scrimmage, one that lasted over two hours and 15 minutes. He speculated that somewhere around 80 plays were run in a number of contexts. "We covered a variety of situations we needed to cover in preparation for the game. Overall I thought it was a good day for us."

One of the highlights of the scrimmage came on special teams. Roy Lewis, known more for his work at cornerback, took a kickoff the distance for a touchdown, a run claimed to be very close to 100 yards. "I give all credit to the blockers, the wedge," Lewis said after the scrimmage. "It opened up, it parted like the Red Sea. I made one guy miss and I was off to the races. I jumped at the opportunity and just tried to make the most of it."

"If you can become explosive in your special teams, that is a big plus," added Willingham. "So it was wonderful to see."

With the absence of Kenny James, the person that was with Lewis back returning kickoffs - running back Louis Rankin - earned praise from Willingham for his work. "Louis has done some exciting things since this spring," Willingham said of the sophomore from Stockton, California. "But what we need to see from him is continued growth, continued improvement and continued maturity at the position. And I like the course that he's on right now."

With James Sims and Johnie Kirton finding time at more than one position, Willingham noted that a player like senior running back Chris Singleton has had to fight tooth and nail for his opportunities. "Chris has done some good things, but it's been a crowded position," said Willingham. "But I think he's seen some daylight because of the Kenny James situation, but it's been a crowded position and I think we've focused more time on the other three guys than Chris."

So where does that leave James? The junior from Dos Palos, California has some leeway in Willingham's eyes, but time is drawing short for last year's leading rusher to get his game back in the mix with the other backs. "It's very difficult when you've missed basically all of training camp," said Willingham. "Does it make it difficult for him? Yes it does, but in my mind he's a veteran football player. He's played some, so the transition for him to come back in isn't going to be as difficult. He has that experience, but I will still judge by what he does."

The secondary took a couple of minor hits and one potential big hit Thursday. Junior cornerback Matt Fountaine was held out of the scrimmage for precautionary reasons. Because Fountaine didn't play, college transfers Lewis (San Jose State) and Chris Handy (Nevada) started out as the number-one cornerbacks.

Willingham didn't say anything about Fountaine's condition, other than the possibility that he could miss games. Fountaine was also held out of practice for testing back in the fall of 2002 for a prior condition he had before arriving at camp. We have no confirmation as to whether the two situations are related to one medical issue.

Willingham mentioned that CJ Wallace had a bruised sternum and it cost him a couple of plays but he didn't expect the junior from Sacramento to be out for any significant period of time. He also mentioned that Dashon Goldson missed some time during the scrimmage, but he didn't consider Goldson's situation to be serious. Brandon Ala also was nursing an injured ankle and missed a couple of plays.

But eventually all the talk comes back to quarterback. "It was good to be out there and really competing with each other," said one of those quarterbacks, University of Oregon transfer Johnny DuRocher. "It's going to be a difficult decision for the coaches, and that's the way we wanted it to be."

"It's a competition," was Isaiah Stanback's take on the day's events. "I'm conscious of it, but it's not like we don't communicate with each other. We're on the same team. You want everybody to be good and you want them to challenge you. It makes everyone better."

"If they tell me on the 3rd at 10:45, I'd still be comfortable with it, but that's a little unrealistic," Willingham said when asked when a starter might be named. "So we'll have it before then, but only when I'm comfortable that they are saying the right things with their play will I say, 'Yes, this is our quarterback.'"

He also added that for a typical game week, the team would start working on game preperation on Tuesday, so there's a chance the quarterback battle could go on into next week. "We want them to have as much time as possible. That's our desired goal," said Willingham.

Carl Bonnell did not get any snaps Thursday, nursing a quad contusion. So all the reps went to Isaiah Stanback, Johnny DuRocher, Casey Paus and Felix Sweetman. "We mixed it all around," Willingham said when asked who earned the bulk of time with the first-stringers. "That's the only way we believe there can be a fair evaluation."

Willingham doesn't see the fact that the team doesn't have one signal-caller to rally around right now as a detriment or distraction. "I think our guys know our quarterbacks very well, and I think they are very comfortable with them," said Willingham. How the offense reacts to the quarterbacks will also play a part in who eventually gets the job. "There's a team that plays with you and there's a team that plays for you. I want to have the team play for the quarterback."

He did, however, reiterate his preference for just one guy for the team to rally around - but with one important caveat. "We will treat our quarterbacks special, but at the same time there's a performance standard that we have to adhere to," he said. "If it's not there, then the next guy will come in and play. But it is nice for a football team to know who that guy is, so that's why I've always liked having one guy."

And don't ask the quarterbacks if they have any better of a feel toward whether or not they have the inside track. "Part of the deal when you are following a coach like Coach Willingham - you have to believe he has the team's best interest at heart," said DuRocher about the lack of hints dropped by the coaching staff. "If he feels like that's what's in the best interests of the team, we have to get on board with that."

"I don't think Coach Willingham knows what a hint is. We just go out there and play."

"They call it a controversy," added Stanback. "It's a competition to us."

For his part, Stanback appeared confident in his progress. "It felt good," he said about the work he put in during the scrimmage. "There are some things you need to improve on, but for me personally I'm seeing things a lot better. It's coming to me. I just have to make quicker decisions and stop second-guessing myself. I used to put extra stress on myself. That's the way it was in high school. I'm starting to learn about taking the little stuff. It helps. It keeps the sticks moving and keeps the other offense off the field. I haven't played football long, so I'm finally starting to really learn about things that I used to just take for granted."

"I think it's been a steady improvement," Willingham said. "I think we're on an upswing. A week ago, I thought our defense started to understand what we were looking for and this week the offense started to show signs."

"They are changing things up," defensive tackle Manase Hopoi said with a smile. "They are using some of the things we do right against us. Right now we're just trying to get comfortable and get after it. Coach says that we need to make everything like it's a game situation, and that's what we're trying to do."

Fair game?: Willingham was asked about the involvement of referees for Thursday's scrimmage. "We called it straight, I always do," he said, matter-of-factly. "We have the officials do their job and I don't try to influence them at all with one exception - I do keep my whistle on for the quarterback. When game day comes, it'll be live enough for them." Willingham then went on to reinforce the idea that he has never allowed any of his quarterbacks any live snaps during spring or fall training camps at any of the colleges where he's been a head coach.

One of the players disappointed in this was Lombardi Trophy candidate Hopoi. "It makes us more anxious," said Hopoi of the lack of live action against quarterbacks. "When you don't feed the dog, he gets hungry. Once we get that opportunity, we're going to go after it."

Tight race at kicker: Willingham appeared pleased at the work put in by all three kickers vying for a starting nod. He said that there was only missed one - from 40-plus out - when it came to field goals. He was also pleased to announce that a couple of new players have emerged to help with the long and short snapping chores on special teams. "We had a delightful situation arise there," added Willingham. "Joe Lobendahn and Andy Heater stepped up and have shown some promise in that area. It's a nice addition when you can add guys like that into the mix." Lobendahn and Heater join Robert Lukevich, Mike Mapuolesega and Mike Gottlieb at long snap, while Heater joins Mapuolesega and Gottlieb in handling the short snaps.

Others singled out: Willingham mentioned some others that had nice moments during Thursday's scrimmage. He singled out Sonny Shackelford at receiver. "I thought he made some tough catches, and that's one of the things we need to see from our receiver corps," said Willingham. And the tight ends? "They had a couple of good catches," Willingham added. "I think (Jared) Bronson had a pretty good catch and I think (Mike) Gottlieb had one too. And (Johnie) Kirton had a couple of good plays. But we have to get consistent."

DuRocher on Defense?: For a brief moment during Thursday's scrimmage, quarterback DuRocher had to play some defense. Cornerback Josh Okoebor picked off a DuRocher pass. "I made a tackle on the sideline. I laid some wood on 'em," said DuRocher, laughing. "I let him know about it in the locker room too."

Pace of play: Both Stanback and Hopoi acknowledged that things inside Husky Stadium are much different than a year ago. "We're good," said Stanback. "Everybody staying home this summer helped. We came together more as a family. Everybody is picking each other up. It feels good."

"I think this one has been more mentally and physically disciplined," added Hopoi. "We're putting in more effort. With eleven guys going to the ball, it scares the offense. We're putting in a good effort and we're getting to a great effort."

Mock game: Friday's workout will be more of a 'mock game' where the team works on the little things during the course of a game - substitutions, play clock, getting plays in from the sideline - that often determine the difference between a win and a loss.

"Even in your best game there's four or five plays that make the difference," said Willingham, pointing out that even one penalty in a game could be enough to spell defeat. "If you make them on your side, you win. The key is those four or five plays, and since we are going up against ourselves it's hard to grade like you would against an opponent." Top Stories