Five Areas of Concern as New Era Approaches

With all the good that has been coming out of Montlake, we are constantly being reminded of the terrible hangover from the previous system. Not one article or prognostication fails to mention the record or how awful the team was. I guess that is just the reality of losing, but I know the Huskies easily could've won four or five games had they not lost Jake Locker.

They had BYU but couldn't finish the deal. They easily could've beaten Arizona, UCLA, or Washington State. They played everyone tough for at least a half and were really only out of three or four games by the fourth quarter. The point is they know they were better than their record but scoreboards and records still tell the reality of the game. They know they have to work hard, get better, and believe they can win.

Although attitudes have been changing, bodies have been changing and the speed with which they work has noticeably been changing, we still can't get too carried away with the positives of spring ball. This team still needs to do a lot of work in order to win games.

Coming out of spring there are still a number of concerns that must be addressed: Most obvious is the need to solidify the specialists in the kicking game, which is so critical to the success of any football program. Right now only the snapper, Danny Morovick, has a lock on his specialty. Danny has literally taken every snap for years and is now a better conditioned athlete than he has ever been. He has improved a tick on his long snap and has grown as much as a player as his hair in the last year. He knows what is expected and has really worked hard on his punt coverage and tackling.

It is the kicker, punter, kick off, and return positions that are so much in question. The coaches spent considerable time in the spring working on the team aspects of the kicking game and there was noticeable improvement simply because they are using better athletes. During one practice this spring I saw no less than 6-7 defensive starters working on special teams like the punt team and kick off coverage team. To see the coaches then go out and recruit kids who are big and fast seems to have strengthened their overall approach to all aspects of kicking.

Still, to open up against a quality opponent like LSU, you will be holding your breath every time a rookie is sent out to do his specialty. Surely signing a JC punter was done for the purpose of having him come in and beat out the walk-on punters. William Mahan was considered to be one of the best in the JC ranks and he signed with Washington because they had an obvious need. Although he only averaged 39.2 yards per punt last year, he dropped close to half of those inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He should be able to fill the void left by the graduation of Jared Ballman. He will need to beat out Kiel Rasp, a walk-on out of Nathan Hale, who has a strong leg but has lacked consistency on his drops and placement.

Still, Mahan has yet to kick at this level and the speed for his get-off has not been tested either. There is no doubt LSU will come hard after a kid punting in his first Division-1 game before 70,000 fans.

Because Ballman was also the kick-off man, there is also a hole to fill there as well. Although Mahan likewise did kickoffs for his JC, Bakersfield College, he is still a rookie, and to ask him to immediately do both jobs will be a real challenge.

Erik Folk, the only returning scholarship kicker, basically inherited both kicking positions but struggled much of the spring with his consistency. He did gradually improve but not enough to believe he has locked up either position. He needs to have a great summer and fall camp and prove he has the ability besides the bloodlines to be a good kicker at this level. Although Mahan has also kicked in high school it is unlikely he will be asked to do both jobs come fall.

Of all the newcomers to the program, Mahan may be the most important and valuable contributor. They did not sign him to sit, and he did not pick Washington to sit. However, until he sees action at this level, there is no way to judge him. The team needs him to come in and secure the punting job but asking him to do all the kicking is a real stretch. This is a major concern.

The punt return game has been almost non-existent for the past eight years or so and we really haven't really seen anyone like a Joe Jarzinka for over a decade. Spring gave us some glimpses of the potential of a number of returners.

Although both positions are still unsettled, Chris Polk and Quinton Richardson showed some flashes in returning kickoffs, while Jordan Polk and sure-handed Cody Bruns showed promise returning punts. A number of others, like Devin Aguilar and incoming corner, Dominique Gaisie, will certainly get some looks in fall camp. Gaisie averaged almost 17 yards per punt return at the JC level, including an 85-yarder for a touchdown in their championship game. Polk had one of the best springs of any skill player and is certain to be in the mix, but having a rookie back catching punts is still a scary thought, and another cause for concern.

Probably the biggest concern team-wise is how effective Washington can become at running the football. What was once considered a position of depth is now a situation of concern. Terrance Dailey has left the program and Brandon Yakaboski is probably going to go due to injury, and they didn't sign a back in the incoming class. They need to go with what they have left and that is a committee of Chris Polk, Demitrius Bronson, Willie Griffin, Curtis Shaw, David Freeman and Brandon Johnson. Each back in this group brings something different to the table, but none really jumped to the lead during spring drills.

I thought Bronson really showed he can compete this spring and I have always thought Polk had a special quality that will make him a big timer. He was humbled this last year after being literally promised the position in recruiting by the previous staff. Now he must earn it and the respect of his team mates but he does have another gear that many of the other don't.

Griffin is durable, Johnson is experienced; Shaw is really fast, and Freeman shows tremendous quickness. Polk and Freeman got busted up last year because they had to play before they were ready, and once they got hurt they couldn't compete. Both should be healthy come fall camp, but none of them can take days off because the competition is too intense. They all improved in their ball leverage and realize now that fumbles won't be tolerated and they'd better secure the ball every time they touch it. The best thing about the running back position is the competition, and hopefully it will alleviate some of the concern.

Paul Homer and Austin Sylvester are both solid fullbacks and Homer is a proven blocker. Both really improved catching the ball this spring. They should be solid blockers in the running game and the line should be more athletic and better in zone blocking then they have been for years.

That is one of the biggest concerns and will be a major factor in the resurgence of this football team: How will they develop as run blockers - both at the point of attack and downfield - where, quite frankly, they have been terrible the past few years? Much of it is due to conditioning and emphasis, but fat assess can't get to safeties and they tend to tire as the game wears on. This will have to change in order for the Huskies to win games. It appears it is so far.

Offensive lines need to finish, and that too has been a problem related to conditioning. Dan Cozzetto, the offensive line coach, is also the running game coordinator, and he is a no-nonsense run coach. Dan will toughen the kids but they still have to do the work in the off season in order to block the athletes from teams like LSU and USC. Cozzetto hopes to go with an eight or nine-man rotation and has only identified six or seven players after spring.

You want to be able to pound the run in second halves in order to win ball games, and that just hasn't happened at Washington for over a decade.

Defensively, the Huskies have not produced enough turnovers to win on a consistent basis. This is a major concern that they tried to address in spring and will continue to work on in fall camp. They need to win the turnover battle in every game if they expect to win.

Washington has been terrible with respect to fumble recoveries and interceptions for years, and this is obviously one of the concerns of the defensive staff. And rightfully so: To make interceptions and fumble recoveries requires a lot of hustle to the ball. This was emphasized from the very first day of practices. Although Daniel Te'o-Nesheim regularly showed his teammates the hustle necessary to win last year, few followed his lead. Now the players are graded on their strip attempts in every practice, and the emphasis should pay off come game time. Still, Washington needs to improve their standing in the turnover ratio if they are to become the team they want to be, and that is a winning team.

Another one of the main concerns on defense has to be improving their tackling, particularly out of the secondary. Missed tackles in key situations killed this team last year. They now practice it more, and with more intensity. The increase in competition has made everyone on the back end better. You don't miss open field tackles when you're a safety: The very name and definition of the position dictates that. The Husky coaches easily saw this glaring weakness last year and addressed it immediately in the spring.

The whole defense got better at tackling and running to the ball. There was much better open field tackling as spring progressed, but it's still a matter of addressing it in games. Better tackling will make the Huskies a better overall team. It needs to be practiced and it needs to be addressed, and although they will continue to emphasize it, doing it in games is what is critical.

The final concern is simply the mental aspect of winning and that can only be felt by the joy of actually doing it. Winning can only happen when you expect it to: You can't worry about losing, because when you do? That's when it happens.

There is a whole new thought process going on at Washington, and because of it they have re-created the expectation for winning: Win the close ones, win in Husky Stadium, win some on the road and win in the fourth quarter.

Whatever you do, win.

This team will stay hungry until they win a game, and when they do they will want to win another, and another. They are going to win some games, and their belief in doing so is the key.


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