Reaping the benefits

One of the real positive things to come out of last season was the red shirting of the entire 2002 signing class (with the exception of ‘Nate the Great'). This was a major step to insure the healthy future of the program by Coach Neuheisel and his staff. It shows a maturity that didn't exist a few years ago. It is the way to build championships.

Twenty-two year-old kids win more often than eighteen year olds. They are usually bigger, faster, and stronger, make less mistakes and are more prepared to win than are their younger teammates. In the long run, which I hope Coach Neuheisel is here for, the element of experience is one of the most important criteria for winning football at any level.

It is likewise important to applaud the coaching staff for giving their freshmen a chance to develop the muscle and tendon strength necessary to avoid injury at this level of competition. Anyone close to the program realizes that the Huskies have endured a disproportionate number of shoulder injuries, with many ending in surgery. This became so alarming that it literally was a factor in the dismissal of the weight and strength coach. Consequently, the redshirting of all the frosh was a compassionate and sound move done primarily to help the youngsters get strong enough to safely compete.

This spring, there will be further emphasis on the development of this group of young players.

After watching these kids practice on the scout teams all fall, I firmly believe as many as ten newcomers from this group will find their way into the depth next season. I also believe that about six to seven of the incoming 2003 class will likewise find playing time. This is primarily due to the need to improve the athleticism of the special teams. That area quite frankly needs to drastically improve for the Huskies to be contenders in the next campaign.

Offensively, the two running backs appear to be set for big things this spring. Kenny James and Shelton Sampson will have plenty of reps to prove they can make an impact, particularly with Rich Alexis sitting out spring drills (shoulder). James has all of the hype and publicity, but I was equally impressed with the work ethic and attitude of Sampson. Shelton also brings a lot more speed and lean to the table than anyone on the team. He gave the best effort of any kid on the offensive scout team throughout the fall. He has a great burst and hits the hole so much faster than the other backs, he is sure to catch someone's eye. No question, though, that James has both the vision and the juke to make people miss. Everyone will be watching him closely in his challenge to Chris Singleton, who should enter spring as the leading contender at running back.

Obviously, Isaiah Stanback will make a strong case as one of the finest athletes ever to play quarterback at Washington. He is so special that I can't believe he won't be on the field in some other role besides quarterback. The few times he played receiver last fall on the scout team, he jumped out. He is probably still a couple years away as a signal caller but he is a threat like no one before him in running the ball. Look for the Huskies to go back to a Tui style offense once Cody Pickett graduates. In the meantime watch for Isaiah to challenge Casey Paus for the backup quarterback position if for no other reason than his mobility.

Something that people forget in their frustration with the running game these past two years is that Tui was the best runner on the team. Willie Hurst did some marvelous things, but all of the backs, particularly Rich Alexis, greatly benefited from Tui's option pitches.

One of my favorite freshmen all season long was Clayton Walker, an offensive lineman from Arizona. He is the classic mean-ass like Olin Kreutz or Frankie Garcia. This added little edge is what sets him off from all the other offensive linemen brought in the last three or four years. Watch his development this spring - there is no way he won't be contributing if given the opportunity. This kid is the best young offensive lineman in the program. Others may have more experience, but he has a hidden quality that will elevate him into the mix.

Another O-lineman who will help down the road is Robin Kezirian and he may get into the depth as well, but probably in a couple of more years.

The two frosh tight ends both show great range, and with Joe Toledo also on the shelf for spring (shoulder), they should have a chance to get lots of snaps and gain some ground. Ben Bandel has a chance to be as big as Toledo and at 6-7 is an excellent target for Cody and the other quarterbacks. Jason Benn is also still growing and will be a factor this spring, particularly if incoming junior college tight end Jon Lyon has trouble adjusting to blocking at this level. When Toledo returns, the position will still be his, but these youngsters will have gained some valuable experience. In the long run, I wouldn't be surprised to see Toledo end up as an offensive tackle at least at the professional level.

With Nathan Rhodes red-shirting due to a back condition, there still is a need for another large offensive tackle. This spring would be an excellent time to look at grey shirt freshman, Jordan Reffett. Looking at him in the weight room recently, he has definitely grown considerably and appears to have the long arms necessary for that position.

Defensively, the impact could be bigger. Especially with a new secondary coach in Phil Snow, who enters with no prejudices, particularly at the safety positions. Jordan Slye, from Seattle's Franklin HS, is one of the best looking young prospects in the program. He had flashes during the fall where it appeared like he was going to play as a true freshman but needed the year of growth. He may show up big in the spring. Of course, being 6-5 will make him stand out in the secondary. He or anybody else who proves himself as a tackler, stands a great chance of getting on the field. Slye benefits from having a father who is a football coach. He has great understanding of the secondary coverages and should at least earn some time on special teams.

Also in the secondary are cornerbacks Matt Fountaine and Eric Shyne. Both showed up regularly in one-on-one coverage drills and Fountaine proved in winter track that he has some legit speed to back up the three returning corners on the varsity. Regardless, these two freshmen are going to eventually help and may even get snaps as a 5th defensive back in nickel coverages. Still, with Roc Alexander, Derrick Johnson, and Nate Robinson returning, it will be hard for any rookie to break into the rotation on the corner. I look to see all three playing at the same time enabling coaches Snow and Hundley to use more man blitzes to attack the quarterback. This will open some playing time for one of these freshman corners. Kim Taylor, another frosh corner, will need a big spring to jump into the 3-deep.

Up front the Husky frosh will definitely push some of their older teammates. Hawaiians, Donny Mateaki and Brandon Ala are both going to make their move at the defensive end spots. They will compete with incoming JC signee, Mike Mapu. Ala has great speed off the edge and although not as big as Mateaki, he shows more quickness and has the relentless approach similar to Kai Ellis. Inside there are two frosh that both show a tremendous upside. Dan Milsten and Stanley Daniels both have real good feet. Milsten should have an edge having gone through the whole fall learning the ropes in the "Hart Foundation." Daniels sat out the whole fall with a bad shoulder (what else?). However, the little he did get to do prior to his surgery (an injury which, by the way, happened back in high school) proved he could be in the mold of a Larry Tripplett or DeMarco Farr. He is like a dancing bear in terms of foot quickness and will suffer only from the fact that he missed the whole fall.

Someday both of the youngsters will be awesome defensive linemen. Milsten has the size to maybe even become an offensive lineman down the road. Both showed a bit of a mean streak, which is also important to defensive line.

Scott White benefits from the graduations at linebacker. He showed some flashes on the scout team, but still could need some more reps before jumping into the two deep. He will receive plenty of chances to show he could help on special teams. Not as much however, as Cory Jones, who transferred in from Notre Dame. This kid looks the part and has the speed necessary to jump into the mix. Just looking at this kid, it's easy to see that he is something special. He will show Husky fans this spring.

In summary, this redshirt class will definitely make its mark in Husky football. It would be great to see a number of them jump into the depth and prove they can help win a championship next fall. Sitting them all for their first year was a great move by Coach Neuheisel. It will prove itself in about three more years but I'd like to see some of these kids make their move this spring.

I really believe that as many as eight to 10 will do so in April, and come fall there will be a major infusion from the class of 2002.
Dawgman.com columnist and KJR 950 Sports Radio personality, Dick Baird.
Dick Baird was an Assistant Coach (Linebackers) and Recruiting Coordinator at the UW from 1985-1998. He has joined the Dawgman.com staff as a featured columnist for both the web site and Sports Washington magazine. In addition to his regular editorial columns, Coach Baird will try to provide some of his unique perspective by answering a few of your selected questions online. If you would like to send in your questions, please CLICK HERE.

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