Improvement Obvious Halfway Through Camp

SEATTLE - Week by week this spring, the Washington Huskies are getting better. They are better fundamentally, better schematically, faster, and have a better understanding of what is expected. They are starting to get it. They are also obviously excited about what they are doing. They are working hard and having fun doing it.

That is what jumps out at me when I watch them; this group of kids are having fun playing football.

Spring practices can only be evaluated by the improvement within the team, mostly because you don't play anyone except yourself, but never the less, it is steady progress that you are looking for. It is a time of teaching, a time of learning , and a time to develop the attitude, work ethic, and a general understanding of all phases of your game.

This team is smiling, hitting hard, hustling, and getting the most out of each of their 15 spring practices. The athletic quality is starting to show and so is the speed, the experience, and most of all the improvement. They know they have to get better and it has to happen now.

Jake Locker is getting better as a passer and that stands out. As long as he doesn't force the ball, he will be a considerably better quarterback by the end of August when the Huskies travel to Eugene to start the season. His running ability, leadership, and toughness have already been established. This is clearly his team and he knows if he becomes a better passer his team will be a better team. He is mastering all the throws and even though they don't have much in he is showing steady progress, especially with his deep throws. He is putting the ball on the money with his downfield throws - something he struggled with last season.

Locker's young group of receivers don't have the experience, the size, or the age of last year's group - but they have more group speed and that also shows. We saw flashes of it last year from D'Andre Goodwin and Curtis Shaw, but each was used sparingly with a combined 11 catches for the whole season. They represent the most experience at receiver and both appear faster than anyone who graduated off of last year's team. Secondaries back off when they sense speed, and it helps open the field for the running game. But the threat of speed can only be dangerous if they catch the ball, and that too been slowly coming around.

Let's face it - the Huskies dropped way too many footballs last season and that literally cost them at least two to three games. This spring the weather has been so bad that it is a wonder they can catch at all, but I think the drops so far are reflective of still learning how to run their routes and everything that is new in terms of cuts and depth of routes and conversion and timing. All those things have to be right before the ball even gets to you, so once they become more comfortable with the offense, then they will be able to relax and simply catch the ball. Right now there is so much learning going on that the receivers are still very much a work in progress.

Three of them - Devin Aguilar, Anthony Boyles and Chris Polk - are brand new and weren't even in school last fall. But all three - along with red-shirted Alvin Logan, look like they will be in the depth come fall. Heck, Polk should still be in high school, and the last practice I saw he simply exploded with four plays - almost in a row - that showed he is going to make an immediate impact.

Those five are really fluid and seem to be working well and with a whole summer of catching balls should be even better come fall. They have to be better, because three more receivers will be joining them in the fall - Jordan Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Cody Bruns - and they will be eager to catch the ball as well. Red-shirted walk-on Tony Chidiac, will also be in the mix but an unfortunate toe injury has sidelined him, opening the way for another veteran, Charles Hawkins, to stay in contention. That's ten receivers in total so the competition will be fierce and nothing will be settled until about two weeks into fall camp.

Besides the overall team speed, what also what jumps out at me is the depth. Not only at receiver, but especially at linebacker, in the offensive line, and in the secondary. This team is getting deeper. The program is finally getting close to becoming competitive in the position areas and that will make them more competitive as a team. Those of you who want to blame the coaches for everything in terms of the win/loss record don't realize the lack of depth and talent that Head Coach Tyrone Willingham inherited. Some of the coaches have changed, but I have always been of the opinion that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around. It has taken Coach years to teach the work ethic and attitude necessary to compete in this league. He now has a team of believers and has added the necessary depth to make many of the positions very competitive.

Linebacker is an area that exemplifies my thoughts on depth and performance. Donald Butler, Mason Foster, E.J. Savannah, Trenton Tuiasosopo, Chris Stevens, and Matt Houston represent the best running group at that position in years. That is not to mention a walk-on - Josh Gage, who regularly makes plays and was a star in this week's practice. That's eight kids for three spots and Houston, who is dinged up right now, has been especially effective so far this spring playing at his highest level since coming in.

Then to have another high-schooler - Kurt Mangrum, enter school early, as well as some returning red-shirted kids like Cort Dennison, only bolsters their linebacking corps. That's competitive depth and that makes your special teams better and puts more running athletes on the field.

Last spring there were six (6) total defensive backs. That number has more than doubled and the move of Quinton Richardson from safety to cornerback looks like it is going to really help the back end. The addition of defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who actively helps J.D. Williams coach the back end, is also making an obvious impact on a number of the returning players.

Safeties Darin Harris, Mesphin Forrester and Victor Aiyewa, along with new old-comer Tripper Johnson, are all playing their best football since they have been here. Johnson, of course, is rusty but he is showing there was a reason he was signed to a major league baseball contract. He is a great addition.

This improvement is partially due to their experience, but mostly due to their confidence which comes from knowing what to do and when to do it. It also comes from the competitive depth, with each knowing there are now people who want their jobs. This depth will only be enhanced as 5-6 newcomers join the team in the fall. Probably the best safety on the team - Jason Wells, is progressing well with his rehab and when he rejoins the group in the fall that will really solidify the back end.

Cornerback Byron Davenport - the transfer from UCLA - is the most experienced player at his position, and although he may have been a little too confident at times, he is certainly going to be in the mix at corner because he's finally healthy and comfortable about being back in the game after taking a year off from football. Add Richardson, Matt Mosley, Jordan Murchison, Vonzell McDowell and red-shirted Marquis Presley, and now the Huskies have considerable competition on the corner as well.

This group will be joined by three new kids in the fall - Adam Long, Anthony Gobern and Justin Glenn - and based upon speed alone, one of them is liable to get into the mix as well. That's depth at both secondary areas - safety and corner - and that is a tremendous improvement over the past four years.

This speed and depth is what excites me most about the development of this team. I only wish they had an easier schedule in their non-conference opponents, but that is something they cannot concern themselves with. They need to focus on the now and there are only a few practices left this spring to continue that improvement.

As a team, I think they are getting better and a lot has to do with depth, but more has to do with attitude and an understanding of what is now expected. Like I said, they are finally getting it and now all we need is for them to finish games and they will finally go bowling.


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