Coach's Corner

Why will Washington have a winning season in 2008? Because they expect to, that's why. There is nothing positive about having to win. You want to win. You think about it, you plan for it, and then you go out and try and execute it on game day, expecting to win.

"Wanting to" and "expecting to" are not restrictive phrases like "having to". You don't worry about the what if's; you concentrate on the positives and you handle the setbacks because you know they are only temporary. That is thinking correctly and talking correctively.

Sounds trite, I know, but how you think has a lot to do with performance reality. The Washington Huskies have many reasons to think they can win and now only have to hold on to their expectations and go out and do it. They will win for many reasons but these are what I think are the main ones.

1 - The Huskies will win because of their quarterback, Jake Locker. Jake will have a breakout season and will lead his team to wins. He is already a winner as a person and is the unquestioned leader of the team. He has won championships before and it will happen again for him because he truly is that special of a player. He is no savior but he is a winner in every way. He is tough and he is ready.

Locker also will be a key to the turnaround because he has really improved as a passer. Throughout the spring Jake got better at all his throws. His touch passes to backs, his timing routes to wide receivers and his use of the tight ends all noticeably improved. He is already an excellent runner and will be even more a load as a ball carrier as he is a solid 230 pounds. (He will rush for over a 1000 and will be the leading scorer). He has learned so much over the past two years that it is hard for me not to visualize him being similar to Tim Tebow at Florida; he will have that big of an impact.

2 - The recruiting process is finally in place and UW Head Coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff have emphasized a key dimension to their arsenal and that is speed. Two years ago Jake Locker was among the fastest players on the whole team in terms of speed, but now will be lucky if he is in the top eight or 10. The overall team speed of the Huskies has really improved and when this incoming class arrives in mid-summer there will be even more speed at their disposal.

I'm talking about game breaking, high end sprinters. The Huskies now have more backs and receivers and defenders who can run with anyone. There is also more depth and that is what will help make the whole team better. This has come about through balance in their recruiting efforts and although most of the incoming class will not see the field this fall, they will add to the competition to make the starters even better.

Besides Jake Locker and speed, I think the experienced offensive line will be a major reason for the turn around.

3 - The guys up front have had the same coach, Mike Denbrock, for four years. This, after having four offensive line coaches in the previous three years. There is no position area in football where continuity has more importance than with the offensive line. They work as a unit and that is why the really good lines tend to be those that have been together for a long period of time. I also think Juan Garcia will play this year. They will use their weight in the fourth quarters to finally win those close games in the trenches.

4 - Defense. Plain and simple, the excitement will return to Husky defense both in what they are doing, who is doing it, and especially in how it is being done. I heard Greg Lewis the other day say that he felt the nasty was returning to that side of the ball. This spring there were more good, hard, deliberate hits than there has been for a long time. A lot has to do with a renewed attitude brought in and promoted by new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

The Huskies were flying to the ball in spring. They were aware of the ball at all times and were trying to get turnovers. There were a number of interceptions because the kids were in the right spots. It is an aggressive approach to defense that has been missing for quite some time. The changes will be both schematically and in personnel, but most of all in attitude. They have to put it all together during games and that is basically true with all the other reasons as well.

Coach Donatell will make the defense better with his game day play selection. He is the most experienced and successful defensive play caller since Jim Lambright, and that was over 15 years ago. He has a wonderful feel for the game, and after I talked with players like Lawyer Malloy and Patrick Kearney - who worked with Donatell in the NFL - he obviously has a great way with his players. More than anything, he has brought the attitude back to the Husky defense.

So to recap: Jake Locker needs to throw well both short and long during games. The speed kids, like Chris Polk and the other young backs and receivers, have to perform on game day. The offensive line has to grind all day long and be at their best in the second halves and especially the fourth quarters when games are won and lost. The defense needs to be nasty. They need to be relentless in their pursuit of the ball and they need to win the turnover battle every week.

All of this will come about only if they continue to believe in themselves and their coaches, and especially in their ability to deal with adversity. Washington can no longer wait for the bottom to fall out as they did against Arizona, Washington State, and Hawai'i - all games they could have easily won if they handled the adversity. There can be no more here we go again moments. They need to respond when something goes wrong and they need to put teams away when they have them down.

Over the past few years the biggest task of Coach Willingham has been to get his players to simply think right. There is no doubt Washington football was a mess when he took over. The negative atmosphere which comes with losing had spread from one system to the next. I also think Coach Willingham faced a questioning of confidence, something he has had to deal with ever since he became the coach.

Confidence is like momentum in that it is an intangible factor in success. I think the Husky players over the past five years have wanted to win but really weren't sure what it took. How many times have they let games get away they could have or should have won? Too many.

I thought the Washington players came out of spring with a renewed confidence and were refreshed with the staff changes. Likewise, I know lots of the kids were happy they still had the same coaches, especially the seniors. There has been so much turnover that it was the last thing they wanted.

Heck, there has already been four - soon to be five - different athletic directors in the past five years. Even if they go out and find a really good replacement for Todd Turner, he or she will still have to take at least two years to figure out the lay of the land. That is precisely what happens when you replace coaches. Confidence comes with the stability of the program and the stability of the program comes with continuity of staff and organization.

Confidence also comes with experience. Confidence is the mental/emotional belief in yourself and your teammates. Confidence gives you the ability to perform at critical times. Confidence comes with winning. Duh! How about having the confidence to go on the road and hold on to those beliefs and beat the Oregon Ducks?

Now I fully realize that if you have read this far that you probably believe this is another Baird spin to make positives out of negatives. Unfortunately, I do read the chat rooms and message boards occasionally and realize that what I think or write is the source of frustration in many who think Coach Willingham should have been fired already. The fact is he wasn't fired, he is still the coach. So why not be positive about his chances of winning?

I need not apologize for being a positive person and believing that the Huskies are on the verge of a great turnaround. I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet and work with some of the best coaches that have worked in the Northwest: Don James, Jim Lambright, Marv Harshman, Keith Gilbertson, Scott Linehan, and yes - Rick Neuheisel - not to mention Mike Lude in the administrative area. I know to a man that each of these thinks that Coach Willingham is doing a great job and should be given every opportunity to succeed. Not a single one of them would tell you to fire this coach, even though every single one has been fired by the University of Washington or resigned.

Tyrone Willingham has dignity and he has honor. He has the highest graduation rate of any football coach in America over his career. He has restored discipline, structure, and accountability to the program. He has made the changes in his staff to help speed along success. He is a great recruiter in homes. He is tremendously organized and runs his team like a classroom. He is great with kids. If you ever have the opportunity to spend some quality time with him as a person it will be perfectly clear why he is the coach we want.

It's real simple: Tyrone Willingham is a quality man you would want your own son to play for.

He just hasn't won enough games and that is the bottom line. This will all change this coming season. Beating Oregon on the road in their 2008 opener will be the signature win of his career at Washington, perhaps the first of many. Jake Locker, speed, an experienced offensive line and a new defensive attitude will be the keys, but when they put a whole season together and win their bowl game then there will be lots of us who will be happy we have Coach Willingham leading the Huskies.

And the next year when they win the conference and win in the Rose Bowl to start 2010, it will be confirmed.


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