Second season begins in earnest

Tyrone Willingham met the press for the final time in 2006 Monday, trying to make sense out of the non-sensical. His Washington Huskies had just defeated Washington State 35-32 in Pullman in the 99th meeting between the two teams, just a week removed from one of the worst losses in recent UW memory to Stanford.

Winning games they weren't supposed to while fritting away wins they should have had appears to be the hallmark of the 2006 Washington Huskies when history defines their rollercoaster season. They got close, but never quite got over the hump.

"It seems to be human nature, and we have to have the mental toughness and maturity to defy human nature," Willingham said on Monday. "And it's very difficult to do. The way the team responded and played said a lot about them. It would have been very easy for them to roll over - in others' minds. But not in their mind.

"It's always nice to finish the season with a victory, especially in that setting because it is such an important game. It was nice to have our guys have that feeling of success and that excitement that goes along with that."

If you would have told Willingham that his team would end up 5-7 despite losing their No. 1 quarterback - Isaiah Stanback - for the last five games of the year - would he have been happy? "I think five wins is better than four, but we didn't reach that bottom line that I thought we could reach," Willingham said, referencing his publically stated goal of winning a bowl game in 2006.

Now that the Huskies' season is over, the excitement will now have to come via football's 'second season' - the recruiting trail. "Come this Sunday, I'll be somewhere," Willingham said, noting that Nov. 26 is the time when recruiting starts to open back up for coaches to be on the road.

"We're going to see if we can capture the attention of some young men out there to join our program and get us one step closer to where we want to be."

Willingham mentioned corner, safety, defensive end and offensive line as places where the staff will focus their biggest efforts toward restocking the cupboard of depth, but he noted that there really isn't one position that won't get some sort of attention in terms of adding personnel.

But when looking toward 2007 - Syracuse is only 284 days away - Willingham said that it's going to be more important to focus on the players returning than those that have been redshirting. "The key will be those that you have heard from - how much better will they be?" he queried. "Guys like Greyson Gunheim, Wilson Afoa, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim...how much better will they be? How much better will our leadership be? What kind of pace will those guys set in our winter conditioning and in their play? There isn't any area where we don't need to improve. You have to play the game fast, and that's not just quickness and speed but also having mental quickness and speed.

"Where we are going and the progress that we have made is very positive to me. But we need to make another leap if we're going to be the kind of team I expect us to be. There has to be a belief in self and system that gives you that drive and work ethic in order to be successful. It's those things that make all the difference."

Starting with the glamour position - quarterback - and there seems to be a potential quarterback controversy right around the bend. Willingham said that they will likely start with Carl Bonnell at the No. 1, but he left open the possibility that they could do things in a totally different order - which means that Jake Locker could certainly jump out of the mix and into the starting role. "I'm excited about the opportunity to get all of them together," Willingham said. "He (Carl) has more experience, so we'll be able to see where he's at and whether or not he'll lead our team next year."

Expectations are high for the freshman from Ferndale, and Willingham is going to give Locker as much room as he needs to develop. "I will be the last guy to list Jake as some sort of savior," he said. "It takes time to develop, mature and grow. But he's enjoyed the pressure and responsibility and it'll be exciting to see how it plays out."

At running back, Willingham made it clear that while he has some experience coming back in the form of Louis Rankin, there just might be a spot open for a newcomer to arrive and make an impact. Lost is graduating senior Kenny James and his 1751 career yards. "Kenny has been a stability guy - he's been able to do a lot of things for us," Willingham said. "He's been wonderful in his protection and has been a good runner for us. We lose a valuable component to that position and we're still position-thin there. That's an area where a freshman could step in and be a good player, but we have Louis Rankin coming back and I expect J.R. Hasty will be back in our mix. Hopefully we'll be able to pick up some depth at that position so we won't be as thin as we have been."
Notes:
Houston, we still have a problem: At the time of the press conference, there had been no update as to the legal status of Texas transfer Michael Houston, a running back that could be one of those surprise players going into 2007. According to Willingham, Houston is still at Washington, still attending class and is a part of the team, but he is still serving an indefinite suspension following an incident that happened a few weeks ago.

Bye bye Baby, bye bye: Willingham was asked if there could be a bye week added for 2007. As it stands right now, there are no bye weeks planned in their 12-game schedule. "Those issues are still on the table, and we'll try to aggressive pursue those options where they are available," Willingham said.

Staff Infection?: Willingham was asked about whether or not he thought his staff would stay intact for the 2007 season and he said yes. "If I'm guilty of anything - if you want to call it that - I'm fairly loyal," he said. "The great programs have continuity. There has to be responsibility in all those areas - it has to be done right, it has to be done well - but the players need to have continuity in all areas."

Pepsi Players of the Game: Because of the sheer number of big plays that happened during the Apple Cup, Willingham announced two players for each award. For Offense - Marcel Reece and Louis Rankin. Defense - Scott White and C.J. Wallace. Special Teams - Chris Stevens and Marlon Wood. For the service teams, it was Jake Locker for Offense, Derek Kosub for Defense and Matt Houston for Special Teams.


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