Squad size hurts team work

The system has been implemented: The culture has been changed; the recruiting is excellent; the General is definitely in charge. That's my current opinion of Husky Football. Call me nuts, but I think this head coach will be here for at least 15 years and win this program many championships.

After just one year of the Steve Sarkisian era you can literally feel the difference in the Husky football program. It's tangible and contagious, and it has certainly generated an excitement around the school, but there are some stark realities that restrict what and how they are able to do things as they try and push forward.

First you start with a squad total of only 80 players to work with, of whom only 16 are considered "walk-ons", or players who pay their own college fees and play because they simply love the game. I know they will have at least 25 new faces come fall but that will still only take them to 105. That makes Washington the smallest squad of all the Northwest schools (Oregon 122, Oregon State 118, WSU 108). It is a direct reflection of Title IX restrictions and tougher admissions, but if Washington had about 15 more quality walk-ons they would be able to bang a little more and be able to practice with more hitting. Right now they are practicing with controlled hitting.

Last Saturday was the first real popping of pads this whole spring, and now with seven of their allotted 15 practices in the books they have made great strides without having to beat each other up. They are clearly getting more done this year simply because the kids already know what to do and how the coaches want it done. This has not been a real physical spring though from the hitting standpoint simply because they can't afford to get anyone else hurt.

With all the injured and rehabbing players the team's numbers are really less than 70, including only three quarterbacks. There are 11 players currently out of contact drills - Victor Aiyewa, Kalani Aldrich, Cody Bruns, Greg Christine, D'Andre Goodwin, Cody Habben, Brandon Huppert, Chris Polk, Everrette Thompson, Desmond Trufant and Brandon Yakaboski. And for every player that battles through a current injury to play, like a Jordan Polk or De'Shon Matthews - another player gets hurt (Cameron Elisara). And then there are the players who were limited or didn't play at all in 2009, in part due to injury - Skyler Fancher, Justin Glenn, Alvin Logan, Chris Robinson and Will Shamburger. It's a key to keep those players upright as they work their way back.

The Huskies are barely two-deep in both lines, and if it hadn't been for an impressive walk-on, Peter Follmer, giving football a try, they wouldn't even have enough defensive ends to play against after losing another walk-on - basketball player Clarence Trent - after he quit. Depending on the severity of Elisara's knee strain, they have essentially succeeded in not getting anyone else hurt so far this spring, and that allows them to practice efficiently.

Follmer is a walk-on that was already an enrolled student. If there are more like him, about a dozen more, it would give UW the ability to practice differently. It would also give them some protection against injuries, which are always going to happen.

Washington needs to rev up its walk-on program and be more receptive to try-outs and invited walk-ons. As the premier academic institution in the whole Pacific Northwest region, the UW has the biggest and most powerful alumni in close to one third of North America. This has to be the number one reason in convincing local kids to stay and become members of this team even if they have to do so as a walk on. Besides that, everyone in high school is a walk-on and to get a chance to play in college, especially for locally grown smart kids who might be interested in engineering or medicine or any of the sciences, it is a natural match.

If Sarkisian had another 15 kids for this spring he could crank up the contact and they could go at it a little more. In fact, they've added three more walk-ons since the beginning of spring (Follmer, former Edmonds-Woodway WR Din Kuses and former Tacoma Lincoln DB Laroy Chase).

I believe Rick Neuheisel agreed to a roster size reduction when he got hired by Barbara Hedges, immediately trimming his squad size to 115. In the 80's and 90's, we regularly had over 130 kids on our roster and always felt that it was one of our real strengths. It gave us an advantage over other teams in our conference. For every five walk-ons there was always one kid who would find his way on to the field, exactly like Cole Sager did last year as a true-freshman against Notre Dame. And it's becoming true again this spring, as Bellevue's Brendan Lopez is emerging as the team's number-one snapping specialist.

Otherwise, there is no set NCAA or conference restriction that I know of on how big your team can be. Title IX requires you to provide an opportunity for participation commensurate to the percentage of each gender. They make no bones about giving more scholarships to women's basketball than men's basketball and almost every university has more women sports than they do men's. That's just the reality of collegiate sports. Washington has nine men's sports (baseball, basketball, crew, cross country, football, golf, soccer, tennis, track & field) ; they have 10 sports for women (basketball, crew, cross-country, golf, gymnastics, softball, soccer, tennis, track & field and volleyball)

The problem is football is still figured into the equation, even though there is no comparable women's sport numbers-wise. This has caused a gradual decline in numbers to the point where Washington has gone from the biggest squad in the conference to the smallest. Coincidentally, they have also gone from the top of the conference to the bottom during their decade of squad reduction.

Having watched all the practices this past week, I can honestly see some great team progress being made. This team is getting considerably better, even with all their injuries. The kicking game is one example in that the potential holder, Cody Bruns, has been nursing an injury yet still they have run a number of effective team drills which emphasized spacing and fits in coverage as well as protection schemes and techniques for blocking.

Offensively this team looks much better than they have in the last 5-6 springs, and this is without their starting running back Chris Polk (who still looks fabulous in the non-contact drills, by the way), and starting tackle Cody Habben. The moves they have made in the line look really good, especially their left side where Ryan Tolar and Senio Kelemete look like they are the most athletic tandem the Huskies have had there in years. They both look lean and fit and will add an extra insurance to Jake Locker's blind side.

Of course, having Locker back on the offense is huge, but the younger quarterbacks are having a great competition for the back-up role, and Locker is simply making everyone look better. He has been really effective so far in all his throws and of course he always has his feet to get him out of trouble as the ultimate insurance policy. If the receivers were catching the ball a little better he would be lights out this spring. They will, and he will. He exudes confidence and is set to have a knockout year.

The bottom line is the program still needs more quarterbacks in order to make practice function better, at least one or two more. Right now they can get by but are forced to continually serve each other and that means less reps, even if it means more for your starters. It's good in the sense that the three get so much work, but for the team it's not the same.

Therein lies the numbers dilemma; without enough depth the number ones tend to get all the reps and therefore you get better on top, but your depth doesn't because there is no depth. Obviously with spring ball your numbers always drop due to graduation and attrition, but right now with less than 70 working bodies they are hard-pressed to really get after it. I can remember when we used to have an extra quarter of scrimmage in the spring just so we could get the fours and fives some looks on film. Those were the days! Now there are no fours and fives and realistically that will probably never happen again because of Title IX.

They could start a women's JV softball or soccer team, expanding the gender total without a lot of cost. Anywhere they could create opportunities for the women student-athletes would allow the football team to be that much bigger.

I think what is really critical is that Coach Sark doesn't let things like this bother him. He deals with what he has and then works on what he wants. They will go find some more quarterbacks by fall and that will help them there (maybe a junior college kid or an in-state walk-on). They have seven signed offensive linemen coming in next fall and that will be huge in bolstering their line numbers. It would be a positive to get another long snapper, punter, or specialist, and the linebacker corps could use two or three more bodies, as could the tight ends, defensive line, and defensive backfield. The extra bodies allow you to simulate the game fundamentals and drills during individual periods.

There is no set formula for getting quality out of quantity, but this is the second time in five years where numbers or lack of numbers directly impacted what could be done in practice (four springs ago they only had six total defensive backs to practice against). Both cases could have been solved with walk-ons. If the fall squad size was more like 115-120 then spring would be more like 90-95 and you wouldn't get caught with only three quarterbacks, for instance.

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