Jake Locker had maybe his best overall game as a Husky in UW's 42-10 season finale win over Cal, Washington's second straight win to end the first season. That made the Huskies 5-7, a five-game turnaround from the 0-12 record of 2008 that resulted in the firing of Tyrone Willingham and hiring of Steve Sarkisian.
And when it was over, Sarkisian said the season was an unqualified success.
"No doubt this was a success," he said of a season in which UW had its greatest one-year leap in wins since 1970. "We played hard -- that was the first goal. And there's no doubting we played hard. Ask any coach we played, ask the kids -- we played hard as a football team. We weren't perfect, but we said that this is not going to take us very long, and I truly believe that. We are as good as anybody in our in our conference. We can go play them next week, and we will be in a ball game with them. I don't know if we could have said that a year ago. But we can say that today. And in my opinion, that's not taken very long.
Locker remains the big question. He said after the Cal game he will take some time to think over his decision, that he hadn't really given it any thought so far other than a few fleeting moments.
Sarkisian said late in the season he believed that Locker could be helped greatly by returning for another season but that he wouldn't pressure or give advice, just information.
Locker has a lot of family nearby, one reason he chose to attend UW in the first place, one thing that could compel him to stay. But he also is being rated as a probable top 5-10 pick if he chooses to come out. If Locker returns, the Huskies will lose only six starters, only two on an offense that improved markedly this season, averaging 26.1 points per game, almost exactly double that of a year ago.
The defense also improved as the year wore on, getting 10 sacks and allowing just 10 points in the final two games. The defense loses only four starters, though one is standout defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who set the school's career sack record in his final game, getting three against Cal to finish with 30.
"The challenge for us now is we've got to keep getting better so there is proof in the work we are putting in, and that's by getting to a bowl game," Sarkisian said.
--One of Steve Sarkisian's big focus points upon taking over was improving the team's conditioning. If the fourth quarter means anything, it worked, as UW outscored opponents 91-65 in the fourth quarter this year, both its most points scored in any quarter and its fewest points allowed.
--UW finished averaging 139 rushing yards per game, its second-best average since the 2000 Rose Bowl season. The only better mark in that span was 2007, when a veteran line, senior running back Louis Rankin and the infusion of Jake Locker led the Huskies to 203.1 yards per game.
GAME OF THE YEAR: The highlight came early, a Week Three 16-13 win over seven-time defending Pac-10 champion USC, then ranked No. 3 in the country. The Huskies fell behind 10-0 early in the game, rallied to tie it at halftime, then took the lead early in the fourth quarter at 13-10. USC tied it with 4:07 to go, but the Huskies then drove 63 yards in 10 plays, with Jake Locker converting two third downs along the way, to set up a 22-yard field goal by Erik Folk with three seconds remaining to set off one of the more raucous celebrations in recent Husky history. .
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: So much of what the Huskies do revolves around QB Jake Locker that he's simply impossible to ignore for this category. He adjusted well to coach Steve Sarkisian's new pro-style attack to complete 58.4 percent of his passes -- almost 10 percent better than his career average coming into the season -- and throw for 21 touchdowns and run for seven more on the ground. But TB Chris Polk deserves an honorable mention for rushing for 1,189 yards, the seven-best single-season performance in school history. And then there's DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who was rarely taken off the field and finished with 11 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss.
FAST FORWARD: So much depends on whether QB Jake Locker returns for another season. If he does, many will view the Huskies as ready to break through to a winning season and a bowl game, as the Huskies lose just two senior starters -- FB Paul Homer and OG Ben Ossai. UW has a young and emerging set of skill players to build around, though the offensive line remains a question. But if Locker returns, the Huskies should be able to score points next year. If Locker doesn't return, the QB job will go to Ronnie Fouch, who will be a junior, or Keith Price, who redshirted this year as a freshman, though Nick Montana, son of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana, has also given a commitment to UW and could get in the mix. Defensively, UW loses four seniors, and the biggest hits will be MLB Donald Butler and DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. But the Huskies will return outside linebacker Mason Foster, who has emerged as one of the best in the conference, and also have some decent tackles returning and finally settled on a secondary rotation at the end of the season, all but one of whom will be back.
RECRUITING TRAIL: The Huskies already have 23 commitments in a class generally rated in the top 20. But the Huskies may be far from done. A few players may enroll early, and a few others have some issues that may delay their enrollment, so UW could easily still get a half-dozen more commitments. All of the commitments so far are from high school players, as the Huskies are taking seriously their pledge to build for the long-term. The most notable commitment is QB Nick Montana, the son of Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana. The Huskies are hoping that Jake Locker returns for his final season and that Montana won't have to play immediately. Another highlight recruit is one of Montana's teammates at Oaks Christian High, OT Erik Kohler, who fulfills a huge need on the offensive line. The Huskies could use a few more defensive linemen to fill out the class -- there are just two listed, though a couple of players could make the move there down the road.
But otherwise it is a balanced class that includes commitments from two of the top running backs in California in Jesse Callier of Downey and Deontae Cooper of Perris. The Huskies have 13 commitments from California players, proving Sarkisian and staff are working their ties to that area well.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Part of our message is that we are supposed to get better as a football program, and the last two weeks (wins over WSU and Cal) helped us with that. That gives us some validity that we are on the rise." -- UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
RB Chris Polk -- He became the first freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in school history and had the No. 7 season overall with 1,113 yards. His breakthrough gives the Huskies an unquestioned horse in the backfield for as long as he stays around -- he redshirted in 2008 and would be eligible to leave for the NFL after next season. He also is a solid receiver, catching 25 passes this season.
WR Jermaine Kearse -- He became UW's unquestioned go-to receiver as a sophomore, leading the team with 50 catches for 866 yards and eight touchdowns, catching at least one TD in each of the team's last four games. He is now on the verge of being the team's best receiver since Reggie Williams earlier in the decade -- both played at Lakes High in Lakewood near Tacoma.
OLB Mason Foster -- He was the team's second-leading tackler as a junior with 85 and also proved to be one of the best pass defenders with six pass breakups and a team-leading three interceptions, returning one to get an improbable win over Arizona at midseason.
CB Desmond Trufant -- A true freshman, he won a starting job four games into the season and figures now to never give it up, tied for second on the team in pass breakups with six. He is the younger brother of Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks and played mature beyond his years.
MLB Donald Butler -- If Locker doesn't declare, it could be another slim year for the Huskies, who haven't had a player selected in the last two drafts. However, the leading candidate other than Locker is Butler, who led the team with 94 tackles and 15.5 for a loss after returning to man the middle this season. He also had a knack for coming up big in big games, earning national Player of the Week honors after a win over USC. He looms as a late-round pick.
DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- He was undeniably productive at UW, finishing as the school's career sack leader with 30 (11 coming this season). But at 6-4, 263, some scouts question whether he has the size needed at the NFL level. Still, scouts will also likely love his motor, and he figures to get a free-agent shot, if nothing else.
S Jason Wells -- He only played three games this year due to injury. But he made a definite difference in UW's early rise in confidence, as the Huskies allowed only 34 points in the three games he started at free safety. And at 6-2, 214, he has the size to intrigue scouts, at least enough to likely earn a free-agent look. He missed all of one season and parts of two others, however, due to knee and Achilles injuries.
--Besides Locker, the other big personnel question for UW is whether LB E.J. Savannah will be granted a sixth year of eligibility. He missed all of 2005 due to injury and all of 2008 to suspension and then leaving the team. He missed five games this year due to various injuries as well. UW is hoping he gets another year to solidify what could be a solid LB corps going forward.
--UW is hoping or a complete recovery from FS Justin Glenn, who had earned the starting job before breaking his leg against Notre Dame. He'll be a sophomore next year and in contention to win back his job.
--TE Kavario Middleton was also a standout high school basketball player and has at times indicated an interest in turning out for the Huskies on the court. But Steve Sarkisian said late in the year he anticipates Middleton devoting his offseason to football conditioning work. He had 26 catches as a sophomore, seeming to only scratch the surface of his raw potential, and UW coaches hope a committed offseason will make him a better player next season.
--CB Anthony Boyles was moved to defense from receiver late in the season, and while he didn't get on the field in a game, he showed enough in practices to make the coaches think he has a bright future at that spot.