‘Montlake Jake' gets the nod

There are six words listed on the front page of Washington's 2007 spring football prospectus. They are ‘Fight, Tenacity, Courage, Character, Endurance, Willingness'. They have also been listed in the yearly football press guide that is published in August. They could also be listed as trigger words for Jake Locker's player biography, despite the fact he has never played a down for the Huskies.

Willingham, during his pre-spring press conference on Thursday, all but handed the starting quarterback job to Locker, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore from Ferndale. He said that they wouldn't actually decide on who would be officially starting the Huskies' first game against Syracuse until game week, but that didn't stop him from declaring his intent to go with Locker.

"I would be leaning toward Jake being our starter right now if Carl (Bonnell) were healthy, based on some things," he said. "We're going to need some time, but if we had to play a game today, Jake Locker would be our quarterback. Obviously Carl is still mending, but he'll do a lot of spring practice."

Bonnell, the incumbent senior, underwent successful surgery for his collarbone and shoulder on his non-throwing arm earlier in the year.

So what exactly caused Willingham – normally pretty reserved – to make what would have to be considered a bold pronouncement for Locker? He mentioned Locker's abilities as a fine passer, excellent runner, excellent leader and a player that plays with poise.

"His abilities may allow him to do additional things," he added. "There may be some things that we will be able to add in, different things that we didn't even do (last year) because of his ability – or for that matter Carl's ability, based on having another year in the system."

With Locker's grand entrance to Division-1 football expected in just a few months, comparisons to other signal-callers would seem inevitable. Willingham deferred when asked to compare Jake's skills, saying that ‘he's Jake'.

"He's got great size, great speed, great strength, throws the ball with ease, has poise, thinks, loves playing…his knack for doing things, his understanding of how the game is played, how to execute certain things, how to put himself and his team in good positions.

"I love a young man that can be a leader in the community, a leader in the classroom and a leader on the football field. That is what it should all be about, and he embodies all of that.

"That's Jake."

So where's the flaw, the Achilles' heel, the thing that will ultimately temper fans' enthusiasm for the one player that is expected to almost single-handedly resurrect a program floundering in mediocrity?

It's the one thing Locker has no control over. It's the simple fact that he hasn't been there yet, so Willingham is quick to point out that there will be ups and downs in the development of any player, but especially at the quarterback position. The same will be true for true frosh Ronnie Fouch, who graduated early from high school so that he could participate in spring drills.

"Ronnie will be heavily in the mix," Willingham said. "That was one of the reasons he decided on our program, because it did present some excellent opportunities to get involved right now."

But back to Locker. Just when his relative inexperience appears ready to knock him right off the pedestal, those six words continue to resonate. ‘Fight, Tenacity, Courage, Character, Endurance, Willingness'

"He will go out and earn it (the job) and look at it in that light," Willingham said.

And how he goes about that position battle will be by far the most compelling story of spring. It won't even be close.
On the upswing?: While Locker's ascension was the highlight of Thursday's press conference, there was a ton of other news to discuss. This being Willingham's third spring, there seems to be a palpable sense of urgency behind the scenes, as the Huskies embark on arguably the toughest schedule they've seen in many years. The positive is that the games that appear to be their toughest – Ohio State, Boise State, USC, California, Oregon, as well as the Apple Cup – are all to be played within the friendly confines of Husky Stadium.

"We're excited to get after it again," Willingham simply said. "We were close to our goal of getting to a bowl game last year. The goal doesn't change. The time to go is right now. There's no better time than now.

"It's an unbelievable schedule. It doesn't get much better than that, and that's the kind of challenge you love as a player and as a coach."

Hawaii was added in 2007 as a 13th game after the Huskies flirted with the idea of adding the Warriors in 2006. Willingham feels as if the program is moving in the right direction and the game with UH – which will be played December 1st – is the next step. "We keep growing as a football team, and the more we grow the more we can take on," he said. "I thought the time was right for our football team."

Goals for the spring: Willingham laid out three basic goals that the team wants to accomplish during their 15 spring practices. 1) Get through spring healthy; 2) Develop as many players as possible to shore up depth; 3) Develop the system in all three areas – offense, defense and special teams.

"We haven't equaled where I thought we would be," he said. "But we can get to be a very, very good football team again. And we're making strides in that direction."

No hibernation in winter: From all indications, the Huskies had a strong off-season working out. Coming out of winter conditioning – which ended Thursday – Willingham singled out receiver D'Andre Goodwin and linebacker Chris Stevens as players that stood out for their efforts. "Being in the program with Trent Greener is starting to pay off and show dividends," he said, while also noting that he was encouraged by the total effort of the team.

Position Battles: Willingham noted that he hopes that there would be spirited battles at all positions this spring, but singled out the secondary, running back, linebacker and both lines as places where depth and inexperience will be tested. "There are a lot of areas that we've got to grow, step up and be very competitive in if we're going to be equal to the challenge that we have next year," he said.

Mixing up the OL: The offensive line is experiencing a bit of an overhaul, at least on paper. Ben Ossai is back as UW's No. 1 left tackle, but his backup – Morgan Rosborough – is being moved inside to battle for the left guard position with oft-injured Jordan White-Frisbee. Rosborough, who came to the UW program just a shade under 400 pounds, is currently listed as tipping the scales at 375, ‘within one biscuit or two biscuits,' quipped Willingham.

Willingham added that White-Frisbee still has some limits with what he can do with his injured foot, but nonetheless appeared pleased with what he was able to do in the winter. Erik Berglund, who was at right tackle last year, is now competing for the backup LT job with JC transfer Sir Aaron Mason.

The center position appears to be about as it was in 2006, with Juan Garcia returning to anchor the entire OL. Sophomore Matt Sedillo is ahead of senior Ryan Bush on the spring depth chart, with sophomore walk-on Greg Christine shores up depth in the middle.

The right side of the line looks roughly similar to that of last year, with Ryan Tolar battling for a spot at right guard, this time with senior Casey Bulyca. Chad Macklin returns at right tackle, with sophomore Cody Habben making the switch from the left side to right to provide quality depth at that position.

"We've got two guards to insert there and we have to pick up our overall play in that area," Willingham said, summarizing the situation on the offensive line this spring. "But I like that we have Juan Garcia coming back. We've also got Chad Macklin and Ben Ossai coming back and I think there's going to be some young competition for those positions – particularly the guard position – and it should be an exciting time at a position that I feel makes all the difference with your football team."

DL should step up: Again, if looking just on paper, the defensive line appears to be the one grouping that has quality and experience across the board. The Huskies bring back at least three players at tackle and end that have logged substantial game time. But Willingham, when asked about the DL, wasn't satisfied with where certain players along the line are at. When looking at the spring depth chart, the Huskies have seniors that are either in a dead-heat or are behind younger players when talking about second-string positions. At DT Erick Lobos is currently behind Cameron Elisara and Jovon O'Connor has not moved ahead of his battle with Derek Kosub backing up Jordan Reffett.

"We're looking to get going," Willingham simply stated. "We need to get some guys going. They need to perform, they have to play. There are some guys that have been here for a while. What have they done?"

Two set at DB?: While stopping short of outright naming them as starters, Willingham singled out Jason Wells and Roy Lewis as the two members of the secondary that are ahead of the rest when it comes to securing jobs for the fall. Also mentioned was the return of senior safety Darin Harris, who had played in 21 games his first two years at UW before being sidelined with a back injury last spring. Once Harris was cleared to play he participated in the rest of this past winter conditioning sessions without incident. "We wouldn't put him back out there unless we felt like he could do all of it," Willingham said.

Special circumstances: Special teams work this spring will be interesting to watch. P/PK Ryan Perkins was brought in two years ago to placekick, but he will be ‘in transition' this spring, punting with his left leg. He suffered a right knee injury during last year's spring game, so what kicking the junior from North Thurston does will be done with his healthy leg.

Conversely, new punter Jared Ballman – who punted and placekicked for Grossmont College last year, but was recruited by UW to punt – will be the Huskies' No. 1 placekicker while Perkins continues to heal. True frosh Erik Folk will be coming in the fall to compete at the kicker position.

A new rule will be enforced this fall, as teams will now kick off from the 30-yard line – as they do in the NFL. "It just means you'll have an opportunity for more yardage, because now most all kicks will be returnable," Willingham said.

Will DuRocher return?: Senior quarterback Johnny DuRocher is listed on UW's spring roster, but DuRocher is playing baseball. After suffering a concussion in 2006, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was surgically removed. "You never say never, but the chances are no," Willingham said when asked if DuRocher might return in the fall. "There's a chance he might get drafted (baseball), so that could be where he decides to go. But I would probably lean against it right now, just based on the nature of the surgery and getting clearance might be a little difficult."

Atkins will miss spring: Senior defensive end Anthony Atkins will be out of spring drills so he can concentrate on his academics.

New Graduate Assistants named: Now that Washington can now have two Graduate Assistants, the Huskies announced Thursday that Luke Huard and Anthony Gabriel would be this year's GA's. Last year the only GA for the Huskies was former Notre Dame punter Joey Hildbold. UW was only allowed one GA as part of their sanctions that put the football program on probation in 2005.

Huard, whose brothers Damon and Brock both played at UW, will be the offensive GA. Since he played quarterback at North Carolina, chances are good that he'll be working with the QB's. "That's one of the reasons we thought he would be good," Willingham said. He also acknowledged that Huard – known for his intensity and fiery demeanor – will have his ups and downs while he ‘gets his feet on the ground'.

"It's a tough role," Willingham added. "Not only do you have to go out and get the coffee and donuts and breakfast sandwiches, but you also have to break down the film. You have to be silent sometimes when you want to say something. It's a very difficult role, and you have to have a certain level of patience, maturity and understanding of your role and position. And you have to be willing to learn. And I think he's willing to do that. He's a smart and intelligent man.

"I saw how he helped that football team (Interlake) grow and get better. His intensity about how that team should play and what they should do – it was wonderful to watch."

Conversations with Gabriel about joining the staff started in January with defensive coordinator Kent Baer. He was a linebacker on Stanford's Rose Bowl team when Willingham was the Cardinal's head coach. "He understands winning, understands leadership and understands the sacrifice you have to have as a player and now he gets to experience that as a coach," he said of Gabriel. Gabriel will be Washington's defensive GA.

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