Final Scrimmage Still Leaves Question Marks

The Huskies completed their fall camp with an excellent scrimmage last Thursday and I think they are obviously a much better team than they have been for the last five years.

Although there is still a lot of room for improvement, this team is ready to prove they are a lot better than most prognosticators give them credit for. There are still a number of unanswered personnel questions, particularly in the secondary and in the kicking game, but they have really improved. Overall, I think this is the best Husky team I have seen coming out of camp since the 2000 Rose Bowl. That is the good news. They are still facing one of the toughest schedules in the country and still have issues at a number of positions and that is probably the bad news.

Whatever, they are really going to challenge teams with many new wrinkles in their offensive repertoire and have a defensive front with lots of depth that will allow them to play fresh bodies in the fourth quarter.

The defensive line and linebackers have gotten better simply because of the competition at each position. They are at least two-deep across the board.

The starting front has pretty much stayed intact since last spring and all were starters for at least part of last season. Greyson Gunheim and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim are entrenched as the defensive ends and both should be much better. Gunheim is up to about 265 pounds and is probably the highest-ranked Husky from an NFL standpoint. He needs to be a force on pass rush, and as an ex-sprinter can really run for a big guy. Te'o-Nesheim is all motor. He is relentless and has great leverage. He is always coming and that could be disruptive for any offense. They will likely get periodic rests because Caesar Rayford and De'Shon Matthews have had good camps as well. Rayford looks the best he has in his four years at Washington and Matthews, who was red-shirted last year, shows a great burst to the ball. He has run down a number of quarterback scrambles and sweeps, is 6-foot-4 and about 250 pounds, and really looks the part. These four represent the best 1-2 depth at the pass-rushing end positions that this program has had in close to 10 years.

The inside defensive tackle spots also have lots of competition, although it is apparent that the seniors - Wilson Afoa and Jordan Reffett - are going to be the starters and I think they are going to be very good ones.

Reffett is obviously one of the leaders of this team and has a maturity about him that comes with being the oldest and most experienced player on the team. Married and with a child, Reffett seems like he is entering his 10th season at Washington and is primed to have a big year.

Afoa is my 'Junk Yard Dawg' and gets good push and penetration. Although he missed some of camp, he too should really have a good year simply due to maturity. He sort of picks up the slop inside and the two of them should be stout against double-teams and the run.

The defensive front has been working hard on a lot of combination pass rush schemes and they are learning how to set each other up. They have also batted down lots of balls this fall. Both techniques could be critical to the pass rush as they will need the extra help for their coverage people. If the Huskies can get to opposing quarterbacks with a four man rush then it will really help the back end of their defense.

The back-ups inside are much improved and eager to show they can be counted on in the rotation. Erick Lobos is the most experienced, but Cameron Elisara and Derek Kosub - who both red-shirted - have done some obvious hard work in the weight room and should be able to give the starters rest.

The defensive front has a perfect mix of older starters and youngster back-ups and that is precisely the way you want it.

The defense will be better against the run simply because they get to practice against it more. The Husky offensive team does a lot of running of the ball in practice. When Marques Tuiasasopo graduated, Washington became a pass-happy school just like everyone else in this conference and there just wasn't the emphasis on pounding the ball in there. You are what you practice to be. The defensive front has become better because the offense runs the football better. Duh!

Like the front, the linebacker core has enough good players to keep everyone fresh. Although Dan Howell is a lock at the strong linebacker spot, they do have another senior, Kyle Trew, who is experienced enough to step in and will be involved all over in the kicking game. Trew and Matt Houston are both better than they have been and Houston - who has only played linebacker for a couple of years - is really a good-looking running athlete. Howell should be at his best this year and is one of the vocal and spiritual leaders of this team. He has qualities you expect out of your fourth-year seniors and has finally settled into being an every-down player. This kid burns with desire and I think should be really improved this season.

The middle backer position is one of the best three-deep positions on the team with Donald Butler, Trenton Tuiasosopo, and the outstanding freshman, Mason Foster. Butler has been slowed in his progress by a knee surgery earlier in the summer but is starting to come on and should be ready by game time. Tuiasosopo is the best he has ever been at Washington and looks completely recovered from a terrible bike accident that nearly ended his career a few years ago. Although not as quick as Butler, he is every bit as big and tough and has obviously really improved his game. I would imagine Tuiasosopo will get the start against the Orangemen, but that's just my opinion.

The youngster who is also playing in the middle is number 40, true-freshman Mason Foster. This kid really flies to the football and has a natural feel for the position. He is going to be hard to keep off the field and I promise you he is the best-looking rookie to play at Washington as a linebacker since Lester Towns. This kid reminds me of Joe Kelly, who played for us on the great Orange Bowl team in '85. He sort of appears out of nowhere and just tracks the ball down. He is going to be a fine player for the Huskies and has to be their 'gem in the rough' from a recruiting standpoint. This kid was a steal out of northern California and I promise you he will catch your eye. He is still learning to read his keys and is nowhere near as ready to play as the other two, but he is special

There are still a number of question marks on the back end and disguise may end up being the Huskies answer. Two spots are locked in with senior corner Roy Lewis, and senior safety Jason Wells. These two have to step up their games this year and become forces on this defense. Roy is one of my favorite kids on the team from a personal standpoint and I think only has to catch the football to become a great player. He has great instincts and breaks well on the football and is programming himself to catch everything thrown his way. Had he caught an interception that was in his hands against the USC at the end of the game last year, his team would probably have beaten the Trojans. People forget how close this team came to beating USC last year and if they can make more interceptions and fumble recoveries, who knows what can happen with this defense.

Wells is the quarterback on the back end, and is a big-bodied safety who needs to rock people with his tackling. He also needs to get some picks for this defense to be really special.

Mesphin Forrester has been the starter at the other safety position since last spring and will likely be the starter there. He was a utility man last year playing just about every secondary position there was. This speaks well to his understanding of what is going on in coverages, but he still has to go make plays and support against the run with force. Darin Harris has returned from a back injury that kept him out of playing all last year. He adds depth, but it is a group of true freshmen at safety that are all making their presence felt. Nate Williams, Victor Aiyewa, and Quinton Richardson are all good-looking prospects on the hoof and all will eventually be good players, but there is just so much to learn for a first-year player to start in the secondary that they are over-thinking and therefore not as fluid as their ability would indicate. I think Williams has a slight edge, although all three have shown flashes. I would imagine they will red-shirt one of even two of these kids because of Jay Angotti, a walk-on out of Hawaii. Because of a year already in the program, coupled with his toughness, Angotti will likely draw some playing time on special teams allowing at least one of these youngsters a year of growing and learning. Whatever happens, these kids provide some depth in the middle but it is unlikely any will unseat the veterans.

The corner position is really competitive. Right now Vonzell McDowell will get the nod but red-shirt freshman Matt Mosley, walk-on Desmond Davis and true freshman Marquis Presley are athletic, quick, and still under consideration. This position looks to be McDowell's, but whoever starts there will probably be really tested by opponents. The answer is simple; rush the quarterback and make him hurry his throws. Give the youngster a chance by not allowing double moves to receivers or confusing them with combination deep routes.

I think that McDowell, out of Seattle's Rainier Beach, has some great quickness and jumping ability and appears to have the confidence to step in as a first-year player and surprise.

That confidence, in itself, may be the key to this whole season. And not just from the corner standpoint, but the whole team. Can they play with a confidence that they can beat anyone? Can they make the big plays with the game on the line? That takes confidence in what you're doing and it has to there if they are going to shock the conference. I think it has been building in this program but game-day reality will be the test.

The kicking specialists are just as undecided. Again it is the older players who will probably get the nod. Right now Jared Ballman and Ryan Perkins are competing for every job and both bring different qualities to the table. Ballman has really settled down from last spring and is getting more and more consistent. I am sure now that camp has concluded that both will get their legs back and be fresh and ready to go by Syracuse.

Ballman has really been hitting some punts this last week or so and Perkins could represent an interesting twist to the punting game. A left footed punch punter, his punts would really create a problem for returners who are used to catching punts with a right-footed spin.

The competition is really close between the two for the kicking position, although Perkins is not involved in the kick-off competition due to his continuous rehabilitation of his right knee.

Most Husky fans don't even realize how courageous this kid is to even be competing, considering his major knee surgeries. That's right - plural replacements of the key ligaments in his right knee. The first operation did not take so he needed a complete replacement surgery to get it right. He is competing on lots of guts and is icing and rehabbing daily. Both he and Ballman, who lost his father this year, are attempting to overcome setbacks that would cause most kickers to simply quit. I think these two represent an inspiration to their teammates and even though the team brought in another scholarship kicker (Erik Folk), these two have tremendous determination.

Because the kickoffs have been moved back to the 30-yard line (like the NFL), there is an added premium on having great coverage people. Special Teams Coordinator Bob Simmons has really been stressing the team aspects of the kicking game, and don't be surprised to see lots of starters and experienced players on all these units.

Remember, it is not always the kickers who determine who wins the kicking game, but rather the protection schemes for both punting and field goals, the block schemes, the return schemes, and the balance in coverage lanes that ultimately determine the big plays. You don't have to always win the kicking game, you just can't lose it. Simply due to organization alone, the kicking game gradually improved all of last year to the point where winning the kicking game against WSU actually won the game for the Huskies.

They have to pick right up from there and make something positive happen in the kicking game, while at the same time not allowing a negative. In order to do that they need some playmakers in this phase, just as much as they need solid protection and coverage. Caesar Rayford needs to block kicks in the middle like he did against Fresno State. Someone needs to take the ball off the foot of an opposing punter and someone else has to 'scoop and score'. Chris Stevens did a great job of that in the Apple Cup.

The real playmakers though are usually the returners. Here again, experience and confidence are the key criteria. Because of that I can't see them using anyone returning punts beside Anthony Russo in this first game. He has done it before, probably has the best hands, and as a senior needs to really help his team in this role.

Russo is one of the smartest and most experienced players on this team. He has to be great for this team to be good. He is doing a wonderful job of working with the younger receivers and is proving his toughness coming back from his finger (including stitches) injury less than weeks ago. He knows that he and fellow senior receivers Corey Williams and Marcel Reece will have to play lights out for the Huskies to have a good year. I really believe senior running back Louis Rankin will be great this season and they are also looking strongly at Louis as a kickoff returner.

Roy Lewis has returned kickoffs before and Rankin could hit a seam and be gone, but both are critical to their team as a corner and a runner and I'm sure they don't want to expose either for a big hit on a kickoff. This may be a spot for an incoming freshman. That guy is Brandon Johnson. A true freshman out of Willie Hurst's high school (Compton Dominguez), Brandon is starting to show why many thought he was the best back in LA last year. My personal observation is he has really exploded over the last week of camp and I think will be the first of those four rookie backs to get on the field. I wouldn't be surprised to see him start the first game of the season and get a big return of the opening kickoff. He is starting to look that special.

If Johnson could help the team in that capacity, he would only add to the playmakers on this team. Johnson and Russo will be the returners and they have to make big plays, while at the same time really securing the football. That will also be critical to the overall success of this year's Huskies.

Has there been enough of a swing in confidence by the playmakers of this team to step up and consistently make big plays? The seven or so senior starters on the defense have to make the big stops, have to sack the quarterback, have to make the interceptions, cause the fumbles and bat down the passes. In short, they need to get the ball back for the play makers on offense.

Then the seniors on offense have to take over. Russo, Williams and Reece need to catch everything and turn them into big plays. Rankin has to be rushing for 100-plus yards every game and prove me right that he is a big-time back. The youngsters in the backfield need to be ready on-call and produce when they get in there. Everyone needs to secure the ball. The tight ends only have to do two things to really help this team; block well and catch everything thrown to them. They need to simply do their job.

I think this group of kids from a personnel standpoint has the ability to beat anyone on their schedule and I also think they really believe they can. They have to prove it by making those plays while at the same time not making mistakes.

Are they better blockers and tacklers? I think yes. Are they deeper? Yes. Are they faster? Definitely! Are they tougher both mentally and physically? I hope so. Are they as good as every other team they play? That will be determined by their scores.

I really believe this is a better team. This team could easily win eight or more games if they make it happen. There are enough good players and good coaches on this team. They know their system now and know what is expected of them. There is more competition for playing time and there is just a better overall feel to the team. There has been an excellent infusion of speed and talent into the program with this last class, and if some of those kids at the skill positions can step up and contribute then they can beat anyone.

I put it on the seniors. They have to play their best this season. Those seniors up front on both sides of the ball need to be tough and need to play with intelligence and be leaders.

Isn't it interesting that I have not even mentioned Jake Locker in this whole article until now? I hope those of you who are loyal Husky supporters understand that is the point. This season will be more determined by the seniors on this team. There are 37 true or red-shirt seniors listed on this ball club and they have been with this system and these coaches for three years now. The good thing from my standpoint (personnel and recruiting) is that means they can possibly another take a full class this next signing period.

This top-heavy class of veterans has to believe in each other for them to be a winning team. They can and will make this a good team.

I think you win football games by first playing good defense and being solid in the kicking game. That is what this article is all about. If you are always solid in those phases, then everything you get from your offense is a bonus. Once you have the ball, the most important thing to do is move the chains, run the football when you want to control the clock, and that is usually in the second half. Next is to not make mistakes in ball security or penalties, and then if you can make the passes when you want to - rather than when you have to - you are going to win almost every game. This game is not just about the quarterback, but rather about all the playmakers and those who allow them to be so. The quarterback is one of those playmakers and I think Locker or Carl Bonnell, for that matter, will be the best at that position in years.

The offense will really excite you this season and Locker will be the real deal, but this team will be better only if the seniors make it so.

How are they going to do this season? They are going to win the first game!


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