Coach's Corner

SEATTLE - New faces, new numbers, new terminology, new coaches, and obviously a new attitude and what looks like a renewed confidence were all on display as the Washington Huskies opened their fourth spring under Head Coach Tyrone Willingham.

Of course everything is relative, especially considering you are more interested in fundamentals than in strategy and game planning, and the first game is still five months away.

The annual high school coaches' clinic highlighted the first weekend of spring ball that saw some 85 kids working hard and with considerable enthusiasm despite some terrible weather conditions. It absolutely poured rain most of the second day so it was really difficult to assess the improvements of the team.

One thing was obvious and that was the increase in numbers, but there was also an increase in intensity. These kids are serious about changing their fortunes as a team in what appears to be a do-or-die season, even though I personally believe they are still one more recruiting class from moving into the elite of this conference.

The numbers are up primarily due to the increase in 'specialist' walk-ons, but also due to the early and/or late arrival of both scholarship and walk-on transfers. I was most interested in looking at the newcomers but in most cases those were hard to evaluate because they were obviously swimming with all the insertions and mental adjustments as well as simply learning the terminology, the system, and the expectations of the coaches - many of whom are new as well.

Here are some of my observations based on a first look.

First of all, I thought the quarterbacks looked good - at least Jake Locker and Ronnie Fouch, who are likely to be the only two who will play next fall anyway. Both appear to be stronger and seemed to have a better feel for what they are doing. They are hampered a little simply because most of the receivers are new and are behind the secondary at least in terms of experience. We know that both quarterbacks are good runners although they did little of that in practice.

The young receivers are a work in progress and we probably won't know what they can do until they have to do it in that first game against the Oregon Ducks on the 30th of August. It looked to me like Devin Aguilar is a little farther along and a more developed receiver than fellow incoming freshman Anthony Boyles. Both kids enrolled in winter quarter and have been catching balls, but the precision of route-running and understanding coverages will take time to learn. Both are fluid-looking athletes and along with the other seven or eight new faces represented a much-needed infusion to blend with the 16 or so kids who were red-shirted out of last year's class.

That's almost 25 new kids on the block, and many will be pressed into playing duty immediately.

Aguilar is quick out of his breaks, and like fellow newcomer Chris Polk seems older than he really is. Speaking of numbers, Polk will wear No. 1 (just like Reggie Williams did) and that is appropriate for his position in his signing class, as he is certain to be a difference-maker and will obviously play as a true freshman. Aguilar will wear No. 9, Louis Rankin's old number, and Boyles will wear No. 5, Anthony Russo's jersey, while red-shirt freshman Alvin Logan moves into Marcel Reece's No. 3. So at least Husky fans will be seeing some of the same numbers on receivers.

Logan really looks impressive to me and I think he is definitely going to be a factor, even though he didn't play last year. He is bigger and more physical than the others and seems to fit perfectly as both a blocker and a receiver.

Polk will get to show his true talent once they begin inserting him into the whole offensive package. He is really put together and has a set of guns that are really impressive for an 18-year old. He and Logan look older just by their body types and there is little doubt he will be a star in the program. He is here to play, and play now so I can't wait to see how he will be utilized.

The offensive line impressed, especially in a new pass blocking drill that features a one-on-one pass rush within a 5-yard box that is repeated immediately for three straight repetitions (I might add that Johnie Kirton had some impressive moves as a rusher).

I felt that the weather dampened much of the effectiveness of the practice. But the concentration was good and the team is better simply because of the new additions and mostly because of the continuity of the program. The offensive line is the classic example of that because they have finally had the same coach - Mike Denbrock - for four years, and are obviously the most experienced and competitive group on the team. They had four line coaches in the four years before Denbrock's arrival.

Jordan White-Frisbee and Morgan Rosborough, two players who saw almost no snaps last fall, both caught my eye and look completely different in their movement and effort from a year ago.

Center Juan Garcia will be real solid and I thought Ben Ossai looked stout in a number of their drills. Finally there is the necessary depth and maturity on the O-line and it should be the strength of this team. Next practice I attend I will be concentrating on the lines, but for this first look I was most interested in the new players.

Defensive Line Coach Randy Hart has reduced numbers to work with simply due to graduation, but it is giving some returning players, like Darrion Jones, De'shon Matthews and Jovon O'Connor an excellent chance to cement themselves into the depth at least until the four incoming freshmen report to practice in August.

There is little doubt, however, that at least a couple of the incoming freshmen will find themselves right in the mix immediately simply because of numbers.

There are literally two to three times as many secondary players this spring as opposed to last year at this time. With red-shirted kids like Marquis Persley and Quinton Richardson joining eight players who all started or at least lettered last fall, there is intense competition on the back end of the defense.

New Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell is personally working with Washington Secondary Coach J.D. Williams, and it was obvious there is a whole new learning curve in trying to shore up what was probably the biggest weakness on the team last year.

More bodies means more and better competition in the secondary and I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of incoming freshmen also enter the mix come fall. That is the thing that jumps out at me most - the increase in depth. The Huskies have just not had enough players fighting in practice in order to play in games.

Talking to pro scouts who follow the Pac-10 that is the first thing they always say about USC. The Trojans have so much depth that their practices are just as competitive as their games. They really go at it just to get on the field. That kind of depth is slowly coming back to Washington. There has been so much attrition at Washington that at times it has been almost impossible to hold scrimmages, especially in the spring. That was certainly the case last spring but this year you can see that their recruiting is addressing the areas where they have been shallow.

When your second and third and even fourth-stringers are busting their rears to beat out those in front of them, you become a better team. Unfortunately, the past four to five years that hasn't been the case here. I can't wait for fall to look at the incoming class and see how many of those can work themselves into playing consideration. As it has been, I believe the coaches have had to play some kids who weren't quite ready to play at this level and that inexperience has hurt this team.

Even Oregon State has a roster of 120 kids and quantity produces quality as the younger kids are always pushing for playing time. It was the first thing I did when I got the Huskies spring roster and that was to count numbers. When the newcomers arrive for the Bridge program, it will make 107 total players counted if you include them with everyone that participated this spring. That is up 12 players from last fall, and so is the enthusiasm because the kids know what to expect.

Of course this is only the start of practices and it is only spring, but the continuity of the system is showing and the new coaches were just excited as the new players. Once everything settles down and the full pads come on then we'll get a better read on the progress of the team.

That is one of the most important things in evaluating your program; are you improving on a daily basis? I tried to explain that last fall but nobody could get past the scoreboard. That's the bottom line. I fully understand the frustration of some fans because there is little doubt in my mind that the Huskies could have and should have won more games than they did. However, I still maintain that everything about this program has gotten better during the Tyrone Willingham era.

This spring is critical to set the tone for winning games. I will try to at least give weekly updates and endeavor to give my impressions of the improvements I see taking place.

I also visited briefly with both J.R. Hasty and E.J. Savannah and believe both kids feel badly about not taking care of business off the field. Their suspensions are additional signs to me that things are being done right in this program. It hurts their individual progress and in Savannah's case it also hurts the team because he is one of their leading tacklers, but they are being held accountable and it doesn't matter if you are a starter or not; you do things the right way or you don't even practice, much less play.

There were some new kicking game drills and I thought the new Tight Ends/Kicking Coach Brian White, along with new running back coach Steve Gervais, were just as excited as the kids to get practice going. White inherits two experienced kickers, and both Jared Ballman and Ryan Perkins showed some good pop on the ball with the fresh legs of early spring.

There will be competition there as well, and Gervais has some hard-working kids who are going to battle to replace last year's starter, Louis Rankin. Brandon Johnson, Willie Griffin and Brandon Yakaboski all showed flashes of skill and I think both Griffin - and in particular Yakaboski - showed they are ready to compete.

I know it's just me and my rose-colored glasses tell me this team has done some obvious work in the off-season and are already focused on beating the Ducks, a win that will easily be a defining moment in the Willingham era.

They are working like it is going to happen and it is apparent they are serious about their mission.


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