White trying to 'create the crowd'

SEATTLE - New Washington Special Teams Coordinator Brian White admitted he wasn't much for books as a child. As a third-grader, his favorite period was recess. Heroic games of dodgeball and tetherball melees were probably the norm, and as a Division-1 football coach, the adult in White doesn't try to stray too far from the feeling he had when he was a kid.

"I've always felt it (coaching) was an extension of third-grade recess," White said Tuesday before the Huskies headed out for their fourth day of spring drills. And you could tell that White has his own way of going about his business. While the rest of the UW staff were bundled away under layers of clothing on a brisk April afternoon, White was running around in shorts.

"When we see him getting everyone pumped up, it gets our adrenaline going," senior punter Jared Ballman said. "He gets us into the practice before the practice even starts."

"Coach White has a unique personality and our players are enjoying him as a coach and as a person," added Head Coach Tyrone Willingham.

Besides being the Tight Ends coach, White has the responsibility of coordinating special teams. And when you ask him for his opinion on how special teams should be treated, he doesn't hold much back.

"There aren't any series in special teams," he said. "They are all one-play shots, one-play targets. Our guys can expend the energy necessary for the eight seconds we demand that they play on a special teams play. Because we need to win.

"It's attitude and productivity. We're going to provide them some new tools. I don't think schemes are going to be drastically different. Schemes don't win football games. It's execution and fundamentals."

And above all else, White envisions opportunities for all that want to step up and take them. "You can create an awfully big role for yourself even without being a starter," he said. "It's a great entry point into the game. Let's stop being a spectator and let's start being a participant."

With roughly 33-35 plays a game decided by special teams, it's clear White takes his role as coordinator seriously. "You have the opportunity for big hits and big returns and big plays," he said, referring to the explosive nature a punt return or kickoff return for touchdown can have on the outcome of a game.

"They are the wild plays."

But don't look for White to come out with a lot of funky formations and heavy gadgetry. "I don't think it's necessary," he said, adding that if you went and did a cross-section of all the Division-1 teams across the country, you wouldn't see a wide variance in how programs approach special teams. "It's not that broken. There will be some new concepts, but we're closer than what people think. We need to coach fundamentals better than anything.

"We have a nice pool (of players) to choose from. There are a lot of capable parts. It's our job to fine-tune those capable parts and get them hitting on all cylinders on August 30th. That's the goal."

This egalitarian approach to starting positions even applies to the kicking game, where Ryan Perkins and Ballman come back as returning placekicker and punter, respectively.

"Regardless of what position I'm coaching, every job is open," White said. "That's the beauty of competitive athletics; it's an equal-opportunity employer. And everyone is going to get plenty of opportunities, so you've got to take advantage of them. You have to deserve to play and earn the right to play."

Perkins, Ballman, Erik Folk and walk-on Cory Rutkowski are all in competition for the starting kicker position. Ballman kicked and punted both in high school and at the junior college level, so it's all the same to him.

"The best kicker is going to kick," Ballman said. "It could be anybody right now."

Perkins - who suffered a major knee injury in the spring of 2006 - still wears a brace that would look more at home around the knee of an offensive lineman. There are physical limitations that come with that brace, evidenced by the 47-yard field goal attempt by Ballman at Stanford last year, presumably because it may, at the time, have been outside of Perkins' range.

"To say we haven't thought about it would be disengenuous," White said when asked about the idea of platooning Perkins with another kicker. "Those things solve themselves. If it works out with Erik Folk being the long guy and Perk being the 7-iron, sand wedge guy - that's what it'll be. But the players that give us the best chance to be successful will play."

"We'll let it play out, especially with a year under his (Perkins') belt," added Willingham. "We want to see how his recovery really comes, and let that dictate what we do or don't do. The other kickers are unproven. There's a chance he could be even stronger than a year ago. I'm hopeful for that, but if not, I'm excited about Erik Folk and Jared Ballman and what they can do. And if something does happen to Ryan, there's a chance that Jared could do it all."

Willingham added that they likely wouldn't tax Perkins during the spring, and will most likely wait until fall to make any definite decisions about the kicking game.

The same could also be said for the return game. There are a number of players that could step up and be factors, including Chris Polk, Anthony Boyles, Brandon Johnson, Vonzell McDowell, Devin Aguilar, D'Andre Goodwin, Curtis Shaw and Matt Mosley.

"There are plenty of candidates," White said with a smile.

With only three practices to go from, White was understandably hesitant when asked about standout performers - except one. "The first guy that just jumps out at me, if you can't notice No. 29 - Chris Stevens - then you're blind," he said emphatically. "He's an exciting player. He embodies every core value that Husky Football is all about. He's physical, smart, tough, relentless, tenacious - I've really enjoyed watching him in this phase."

Arguably Stevens' biggest special teams play came in the 2006 Apple Cup where he blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone to help the Huskies beat Washington State 35-32. When his name comes up, one has to wonder why more special teams players haven't picked up on Stevens' play and followed his lead in being a standout performer in that part of the game.

White believes 'big, long, angular players with strength' - guys like Mason Foster, Victor Aiyewa, Nate Williams, Johnie Kirton - have a chance.

"Hopefully they will," White said. "He (Stevens) is a tremendous mentor for any young player to study on how you play on the special teams units with intelligence, effort and creating big plays. Big plays are all over the tape; as a gunner he's blowing people up, he's creating fumbles, he's blocking punts. He knows how important special teams are.

"He likes being on that field. He likes creating the crowd."

That's a lovely thought. Creating the crowd. It conjures up images of Stevens' Apple Cup play, of Fred Small sprinting downfield and recovering a fumbled kickoff in the end zone against USC in 1981, in a game played in winds so severe that the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "Even the toilet bowls had whitecaps."

The crowds at Husky Stadium haven't had much to cheer about lately, and it seems like the opening kickoff comes and goes without a ton of fanfare.

In Washington's last home game, however, there were some fireworks. Louis Rankin took the Washington State kickoff 89 yards for an opening play score - the first time that's happened at Washington under Willingham, and the first for the Huskies since Roc Alexander's 95-yard return against Idaho in 2001.

White plans on running with that momentum created by Rankin, starting with the Huskies' first game this fall - at Oregon.

"The opening kickoff, we need to have 11 guys running down the field, attacking that football," he said. "We're going to create the damn crowd on August 30th. We're going to squeeze lanes, we're going to attack defenders, we're going to get off blocks and we're going to dislodge the football from people."

"The first play of the game can make the biggest difference, and it's definitely a crowd-pleaser if we do a good job," added Ballman.

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