Coach's Corner

With spring football just around the corner, the Washington Huskies are eager to get some work done. Especially when you miss the 15 practices that come with a bowl game, the additional 15 practices in spring are really critical for the development of your team.

The Huskies were awfully close in so many games last year that it was disappointing that they didn't get the wins they needed to in order to get into the post-season. Certainly, they could have beaten Arizona, Washington State, Hawai'i, or Oregon State. All of those games were well within their reach and had they just won two, there would've been much less to very little talk of replacing Tyrone Willingham. Winning the close ones comes with confidence, and unfortunately, that has been a missing ingredient on the past five Husky teams.

Confidence also comes with winning so it is like the chicken and the egg.

Next fall they will need to win some games they are not supposed to win. Unfortunately that also hasn't happened for about five years. However with nearly the entire starting offensive line and a starting quarterback returning, the offense should be ready to carry a much bigger load.

They will have to in order for the new defense to have time to mature.

The offense will also have to be sharp right out of the blocks in that all-important opener against the Oregon Ducks. The Husky offense is going to have to control the ball against Oregon and be able to run it when they want to. That is why watching the development of the offense this spring is going to be so interesting.

With only a 12-game schedule this coming fall, winning a couple of close ones in the fourth quarter will essentially be up to the offense because the strength of this team will probably be their veteran offensive line. It also takes speed and that is precisely what the Huskies have been emphasizing in their build back to contention. This team has gotten faster every year since Coach Willingham arrived. Their incoming class is loaded with both high-end and overall position speed. Although some of those kids will help, most will probably red-shirt, so that means they will win primarily with the kids they have in spring.

All of the practices this spring are critical to the fundamental development of the team if this program is to turn the corner and climb out of the lower third of the Pac-10. From the offensive standpoint there are about five areas where improvement is almost mandatory if this team is to take the steps to become a consistent winner.

The number one thing to look for offensively - as far as I'm concerned - is the improvement of passing the football. Jake Locker has to improve throwing the ball and the receivers have to prove they can catch it.

There is no question about Locker's ability to run the football. Like the Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow from Florida, Locker is a load as a running quarterback. If he improves his throwing accuracy, he will go over a 1000 yards rushing this coming season despite teams stacking the line of scrimmage to account for him as a runner.

Last year he struggled at throwing the long ball. It was almost as though he would get so jacked up on the long ones that he would often over-throw the intended receiver by yards. When he would rifle it in, the receivers would drop the football.

Washington's passing game was so unpredictable that you almost hoped they would forget it and simply run it down the throats of the opposing defenses. They did that early in the Hawai'i game and threatened to run away with the game before mysteriously abandoning the run late in the game and lost it when they couldn't complete their last pass.

Jake has worked all winter on his delivery and even though he will be throwing to new targets, he should be measurably better as a passer. Last season Jake was a 'thrower'. This year he must become a 'passer' if the Huskies are to become a winner. This means having mastery over all the throws. Critical to him will be his ability to throw well on the run, simply because he runs so much. Bootleg passes, screen passes, hot passes when pressure comes, scramble passes, and quick passes to open receivers are all touch throws that will get better with practice.

Last year Locker spent the whole year getting used to the speed of the game. Playing against opponents like Ohio State, USC, and UCLA there are lots of good, fast athletes at linebacker and in the secondary. That experience was necessary because Jake really didn't throw that much in high school. Fact is, he rarely threw more than 10 times a game, so the learning curve has been even more pronounced for him.

Like Locker, back-up quarterback Ronnie Fouch, will also get the necessary reps to improve his execution this spring. Most of you have not seen Fouch play, but I can tell you he is very popular on the team and has demonstrated a solid understanding of the mechanics and leadership required by the position. Fouch has also added about 20 pounds to his frame and like Locker is a film room junkie. Because of Carl Bonnell, Fouch was red-shirted last season, but he did get to travel and was on the sidelines for every game. This spring will go a long way in assessing his development.

On last year's team, two of the fastest players were receivers D'Andre Goodwin and Curtis Shaw. As the season progressed, so did their roles. Once Shaw made the move to receiver at mid-season, it was obvious he could be a threat every time he touched the ball. Their speed alone represents the major change in the receivers and certainly getting three newcomers here for spring will prove to be just as important for the team.

That brings us to my number two thing to look for in spring; the development of the receivers. Goodwin and Shaw will be joined by incoming receivers Anthony Boyles, Devin Aguilar, and probably the top recruit from this year in Chris Polk. Spring is going to be huge for all the receivers, and three more wideouts will be joining the team in fall.

I spoke with Washington Receivers Coach Charlie Baggett and know that he is really excited about his group and is looking forward to watching them all compete. He has more depth than most realize with returning players like Charles Hawkins, Tony Chidiac, and a red-shirted receiver - Alvin Logan - all chomping at the bit to get on the field. Logan is a great-looking kid on the hoof and is pretty physical.

With a runner like Locker at quarterback, blocking downfield is essential, so those who can block are just as valuable as those who can catch. Basically, if the receivers (including the tight ends and running backs) simply catch the ball better, this team will be better.

Those two fundamental elements of the game - THROWING AND CATCHING - as simple as it sounds, may be the keys to improving the offense and by extention, the team's record. Do those two things better and Washington is in a bowl next year and the following year they will be in the hunt to win the conference championship and maybe even the Rose Bowl (so says the old coach).

Obviously, the Huskies need to improve on defense but momentum explosions by the offense ignite the team and the crowd and a lot of those kinds of plays come in the passing game.

Because the tight end situation will not play out until August, new Husky Tight Ends/Special Teams Coach Brian White will get to concentrate on developing freshman Chris Izbicki and senior Michael Gottlieb. Gottlieb was probably the most consistent blocker last year and has put on added strength to make him even better. He realizes that his blocking keeps him on the field and that if he had caught every ball thrown his way his team would have been better. I look to him to have a big spring and firmly entrench himself as the starter. I think fellow senior Johnie Kirton is studying in Africa and may miss spring altogether, but it is obvious they have every intention of moving incoming freshman Karvario Middleton into the depth no matter what happens this spring.

The third thing that will be interesting to watch is whether or not Washington will go all out in the spread option game run by teams like West Virginia, Florida, Illinois, and Oregon. My guess is they won't simply because two of their better players - Paul Homer and Luke Kravitz - are at fullback and that means more two back plays. West Virginia runs a lot of their spread with two backs so that might be a possibility for the Huskies.

The fourth thing I'll be watching for in spring is who will emerge as the starting tailback. Brandon Johnson looks like the inside choice but this has to be the spring that J.R. Hasty needs to come into his own. Everyone who follows Husky football has been waiting for Hasty to make a move. The biggest recruit in Coach Willingham's first class has been one of the biggest dilemmas on the team. He is obviously tough and shows decent power but it just might be that he is quick but not fast. He appears to struggle with his blocking and academics. He is about to enter his fourth year in the program and it's about time for him to make an impact.

The other backs who look to contribute are Willie Griffin - who looks like a Hasty clone - and Brandon Yakaboski, who needs to avoid any more concussions but was extremely impressive in last fall's camp. I think Yakaboski has soft hands and could be a great receiver out of the backfield. I also know he has really filled out and blends power and speed as well as any of the backs. Of course there are another four backs joining the mix come fall but the one true frosh who is already here - Chris Polk - might be the best of all of them.

Polk is one of the few kids the Huskies have beaten USC on in years. He is at Washington to play and play now. By all reports he is one of the most impressive youngsters to enter the program in some time. He will probably play a slotback/receiver position and be brought back into the backfield on motion much like Terrence Whitehead used to do at Oregon. That way they can use his multiple talents of running and catching. This spring will give us all a glimpse of what to expect from the best-skilled kid the Huskies have recruited since Reggie Williams.

The last thing I will be watching for is what I referred to earlier as the strength of this team, the offensive line. Juan Garcia and Ryan Tolar are both already really good players and their experience and maturity should make them all-conference candidates. Joining them on the inside will be seniors Casey Bulyca and Jordan White-Frisbee. Both are huge and both are powerful. Bulyca started much of last season at right guard while White-Frisbee has been learning the conversion from defense to offense. He played regularly as a freshman on the defensive line but has been battling health issues ever since. He is now ready to challenge and his development could make the offensive line even better.

Ben Ossai and Cody Habben both are experienced at the offensive tackle spots and should be the starters although it will be interesting to see where and how the three freshman red-shirts - Scott Shugert, Mark Armelin and Skyler Fancher - fit in.

The offensive line is going to be huge, strong and nasty. It will have to protect better but should be able to get the necessary push to allow the Huskies to be a run-first team, especially when they want to in the second halves of games. I would doubt that any of the incoming freshmen linemen will be able to help early but for right now it does not appear necessary. There are enough good players in the line already if they stay relatively healthy. The offensive line is going to have to carry the load if this team is to get to a bowl game.

This spring will certainly give a great indication if I am right.

The Huskies start their spring in conjunction with their annual coaches' clinic. This will give even more insight to their plans and especially how they hope to get things done.

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