2010 Spring Fish Wrap – Washington Huskies Edition

Happy Holiday Weekend Friday Cougs!  We here at the blog wish you all a happy, fun, long, safe 4th of July weekend.  With that, we are FINALLY at the end of the road for the 2010 Spring Fish Wraps!  Hooray. 

For a quick recap for those who might be new to the blog, the “Fish Wrap” series is something we’ve been doing the last few years.  Instead of a preview in a traditional sense, we try to take a look at every upcoming opponent on the WSU schedule for the new year, and roll it out as a post-spring look at things.  It’s a good exercise for us, because hey, no better way to learn about your upcoming opponents than to actually read and write (regurgitate?) about them for the new season, right?  Anywho, you can catch the prior 11 WSU opponents’ wraps here.

But today, the final day of the wraps, it’s time to look at you-know-who.  Yep, it’s UW’s day here at the blog.  I know for some of you this is difficult, and if you don’t want to read on, we completely understand….those you who want to continue, read on for a look at UW, Spring Fish Wrap style….

First, disclaimer time -  I believe I have mentioned this before in these parts, but, yeah, the UW preview is always one that I have some trouble with.  The obvious reasons, of course, are that the Coug in me gets a little upset.  Why spend so much time reading and writing and thinking about, you know, “them”?  Well, it’s part of the deal first and foremost.  When we set out on these Fish Wrap things, we HAVE TO FINISH THE JOB.  There is nothing worse than starting a project, committing yourself to doing something from beginning to end, only to pull up stakes and quit before it’s done.  We’ve all had instances like that in our lives, no matter who you are, and it feels pretty bad.  Like it or not, this is the way it is. 

And, it has to be repeated here but I have a lot of UW roots in my family (and I know I’m not alone in this?).  Most of my family proudly dons the purple-n-gold for the most part, and have done so for generations (yes, I’m the crimson sheep in the family).  Heck, I even married a Husky!  We covered a lot of this ground last November, prior to the Apple Cup, where our own Longball led off a “House Divided” post. And as I said last fall, like any good husband knows, the key to a successful marriage it to break her down/crush her will as you trudge through marital “bliss”. 

Anyway, today she not only sports the Cougar T’s and sweatshirts and stuff like that, but I can easily say that there might not have been a more upset fan in the Rose Bowl stands in ’98 than my little Husky wife.  TWO MORE SECONDS! 

And to add to the mix, one of our other writers here, Longball, has the whole UW gal-pal thing going as well….

But to make it even tougher, Longball’s gal pal – Amieable, we’ll call her – is going to grad school IN PULLMAN!  Can the big city girl with UW roots possibly make a go of it at WSU, surrounded by Cougs and living with Pullman native Longball??  I smell a sitcom!…….

For more on the trials-n-tribulations on Amieable’s Pullman/WSU experiences, visit her blog here

So that out of the way, it’s time to look at the Dawgs.  And wow, ’09, that was some turnaround from ’08 huh?  It’s almost as if 0-12 never happened – this just in:  it did – but with the strong winds of change that blew through Montlake the moment Steve Sarkisian took the job, it has to be acknowledged that the flipping of the program in such a quick fashion is nothing short of remarkable.  But are they REALLY all the way “back”, as many a UW fan will crow?  Or was last year’s 5-7 season more of a mirage than anything else? 

Well, UW improved from zero wins in ’08 to five wins in ’09.  The +5 in the win column was one of the biggest improvements from college football last year.  And, in fact the jump in five wins from one year to the next was the biggest jump for the school since 1970, when UW went from 1-9 to 6-4 (thank you Phil Steele). 

And to be honest, as bad as UW was in ’08, they did come close a few times to actually avoiding the 0-fer.  In fact, they had what you would consider three games that could have gone either way – the infamous BYU game, with the Locker penalty/blocked extra point at the end; the Stanford game, which was a tie until Locker broke his thumb, and Stanford ended up winning by seven; and finally, yep, the Apple Cup.  UW was up by 10 in the 3rd quarter, and missed a pair of 4th quarter field goals that could have put the game away.  But we know how that turned out….

Now we flip to ’09, and you have to say that right from the start, you could see that things were going to be different.  Yes, UW lost the opener to LSU at home, 31-23.  But you could see changes were underway.  UW played with a new attitude, a new sense of purpose.  If you read body language, it was clear that they had left ’08 in the rearview mirror.  I remember watching most of that game after the WSU game vs. Stanford at our tailgate, and a couple of us immediately thought that UW looked, I don’t know, faster.  And better, for sure.  They looked nothing like that sad-sack ’08 outfit that laid down so many times in that lost season.  And the pure stats from that LSU game might have been one of the biggest indicators yet that UW was starting to figure it out, as they had an impressive 478 total yards on the day.  That’s 478 total yards on LSU, an SEC defense.  This wasn’t Portland State or some other lower-division program.  This was Les Miles and LSU, and all those SEC athletes on defense.  And here was UW and Jake Locker putting up 478 yards on them!? 

Yep, ’09 was a whole new world with the Sarkisian era.

And now, looking ahead to ’10, I have to look at ’09 UW and say that there is a certain team that they remind me of.  Yes, it’s painful for a Coug to admit this…..but I look at ’00 WSU, and I see a lot of ’09 UW.  Now hang with me on this for a second:

After the magical ’97 Pac-10 championship season, there were some awful, sad, depressing years of Cougar football ahead.  In fact, in ’98 and ’99, WSU won just ONE Pac-10 game, while going a combined 6-17.  But ’00 was the first year of real promise.  An extremely young team, WSU would go 4-7 that year, but it was in some of the losses where you could see the hope.  The Cougs would suffer a school-record three OT losses that year, all tough ones for sure. But there were some real positive signs in some of those defeats.  They were competing again, hanging in against better competition, and there was hope for tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Jason Gesser emerged as the “IT” guy of the program, and it was clear that he was going to do some big things before it was all said and done.  He would throw a school-record SIX TD’s vs. Arizona that season, and also led the team to wins over Utah, Cal and Boise State before going down with a broken leg at the end of October.  Oh yeah, the Cougs would also upset USC that year. 

But in the end, a Coug fan left that season thinking “You know, just a couple of breaks here and there, and that could have been a bowl team…..still, we will be better next year, as so many of these young guys are back, led by our IT guy at QB!”

You know what happened next – WSU would win 10 games in ’01, including a Sun Bowl win over Purdue. 

Then, the entire program takes that proverbial “next step”, and from ’01-’03 they have the best run in school history with a 30-8 overall record.  But for the success from ’01-’03, it took the experience of ’00 in order to grow up.  They needed to suffer the heartbreak, the close shave losses, in order to improve.  They grew from adversity, and rewarded us all with that fantastic run of success.

Now, UW in ’09.  After some awful, sad, depressing years, an extremely young team would go 5-7, but it was in the losses one could see the hope.  UW would suffer just one OT loss, a heartbreaker at Notre Dame where they could have put it away on several occasions.  But they would also feel the pain of last-second losses to ASU, where they gave up a hail mary at the end of the game, and to UCLA, where they would lose by one in a game they could have/should have taken.  UW would also have some inspiring, hope-filled victories as well, with wins over Arizona, Cal, and yes, USC. 

But in the end, UW fans left that season thinking “You know, just a couple of breaks here and there, and that could have been a bowl team…..Still, we will be better next year, as so many young guys are back, led by our IT guy at QB!”

Hmmm.  Sounds at least a little familiar doesn’t it? 

Now, I’m not flat-out going to say that UW is poised for a 10-2 season.  The schedule is awfully tough, which we’ll touch on in a moment, and there are some big holes on defense.  Still…..it’s that gnawing feeling that I’ve seen this act before.

LAST TIME vs. WSU:  WSU hung in there for about a half, but UW would basically waltz up and down the field in a 30-0 blowout win in Husky Stadium.  The undermanned Cougar D with just 13 scholarship players suited up tried their best, and it was only 13-0 at the half.  But UW controlled things late, rushing for 222 yards in the second half alone.  Those 222 second-half rushing yards were more offense that WSU could muster for the entire game, as the Cougs were not only without QB Jeff Tuel who was missing with a knee injury, but also had injuries that knocked out both Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael for moments in the game.  It got so bad that Dan Wagner, a backup punter and 4th string QB, had to take some snaps! 

Locker was excellent overall, totaling almost 300 yards in total offense (196 passing, 94 rushing) as UW shut out the Cougs for the first time in 45 years (and thank you GOD for ending the ’09 WSU football season!  Eeesh).

2009 OFFENSIVE RATINGS:
Scoring Offense: 26.1 ppg, 7th in the Pac-10 and 69th in the nation.
Rushing Offense: 139 ypg, 7th in the Pac-10 and 68th in the nation.
Passing Offense: 236.5 ypg, 2nd in the Pac-10 and 40th in the nation.
Total Offense:  375.5 yards per game, 7th in the Pac-10 and 62nd in the nation.

OFFENSIVE SCHEME:  Sarkisian and o-coordinator/former Idaho QB Doug Nussmeier run a version of the USC offense, at least kinda/sorta?  They will put a fullback in there on occasion, but they like to roll with one back, three wide receivers and a tight end on a lot of their sets. 

2010 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS:  UW is loaded on O folks, as up to TEN (10!) starters return for this year.  The only new starter should be at right guard, but otherwise the entire cast and crew returns.

2010 TOP RETURNING OFFENSIVE PLAYER: This one’s easy.  Without a doubt, it has to be backup frosh QB Nick Montana…..Seriously though, who else could it be?

What else can be said here that hasn’t been said everywhere else?  Big, strong, fast, he’s your basic nightmare for any defense.  And I have to say that the throw he made vs. USC, about 1:00 into the video, was one of the best throws he’s ever made – an on-the-run, 30-yard dart in the waning moments, setting up the game-winning field goal vs. USC.  The highlights and long runs and all that are something else, but it’s a play like that which has NFL scouts fawning. 

The improvement last year was something else too, as he set career highs in passing yards (2800), TD’s (21) and completion percentage (58.4%).  But the most important number of them all?  12, as in the number of starts the redshirt junior QB made last year.  Locker missed one game with a neck injury in ’07, and then only played in four games in ’08, losing the bulk of the season due to a broken thumb.  But Steve Sarkisian and Nussmeier reeled him in last year, transforming him into much more of a pocket passer vs. the style of play where he would make one or two reads, then tuck it and run.  Locker still has speed to burn, I mean that Youtube highlight shows everything you need to see with the wheels.  And he WILL run it when he has to, as he still had 388 yards and a team-best seven rushing TD’s last year.  But his rapid improvement is something else, as we are witnessing a transformation from freelancer to legit passer in a very short period of time.

But again, the superlatives thrown Locker’s way is nothing new.  He just finished up Locker-Palooza, where he toured the east coast media hubs like ESPN, SI.com, etc, just to get his face out there and set the bar for exposure in 2010.  And Locker is the expert’s choice as not only the top QB coming out for next year’s draft, but maybe the top choice overall!  However, not everyone in the world is fawning over #10.  Brian Grummell, a former colleague of mine from the AOL Fanhouse days, made some UW’ers upset with his “Emperor Has No Clothes” type of post recently at AOL:

It’s hard to remember a player of recent memory with so few credentials facing the expectations usually reserved for someone like Tim Tebow or Matt Leinart. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes, but it certainly looks like, as of right now, he’s running around in his boxers.

The case against Locker goes something like this: He’s never won a darn thing, he isn’t terribly accurate, he’s been mediocre against quality defenses and his talents aren’t being put to proper use in Washington’s mostly drop-back system.

Some of it is legit criticism.  But there are arguments that can be made against some of it.  For example, is it his fault that he never won a darn thing?  You can’t expect a frosh QB to come out and get you to the Rose Bowl, at least he has to have some type of learning curve with was the ’07 season.  And he missed most of ’08, losing out on the most valuable way you get better – playing time.  So it’s like last year, ’09, was his first real season where he was not only healthy, but he also had top-level QB coaching in Sarkisian and Nussmeier. 

Then again, they said these same types of things about another ultra-athletic, strong-armed type who didn’t win a darn thing either in the Pac-10:

John Elway had a better career record than Locker at Stanford, but it wasn’t exactly sparkling – 20-23 overall (Locker is 8-20 overall).  But Elway never led Stanford to a bowl game.  His career numbers will be better than Locker’s – Elway finished 9,349 yards and 77 TD’s in 43 starts.  Right now Locker has 5,374 yards and 36 TD passes in 28 starts.  Unless he throws for what, 4,000+ yards and 40+ TD’s in 2010, he won’t catch him.  Yet Elway was still the #1 pick in the NFL draft, and things worked out pretty well from there, wouldn’t you say?  Maybe it’s a stretch, but it is at least worth acknowledging that there are some similarities between the two.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: Nick Holt runs a 4-3 attack.  He preaches aggressiveness and physical play, and he will blitz to create pressure when needed. 

’09 DEFENSIVE RATINGS:
Scoring: 26.7 ppg, 9th in the conference and 70th in the nation.
Rushing: 148.8 ypg, 9th in the conference and 64th in the nation.

Passing: 240.7 ypg, 7th in the conference and 93rd in the nation.
Total: 389.5 ypg, 8th in the conference and 79th in the nation.

2010 RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS:  UW welcomes back eight defensive starters for 2010.

2010 TOP RETURNING DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Not completely the layup that was picking Locker for top offensive player, but still, it’s pretty clear that Mason Foster is the guy on defense.

Foster was second on the team last year in tackles with 85, and pretty much stuffed the stat sheet – 5.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 6 passes broken up, 3 INT’s, and a school record/Pac-10 high six forced fumbles.  The 6-2, 244lb senior attacks from the weakside, where he is free to make plays away from the tight-end side of the field.  And wow, six forced fumbles, that says a heck of a lot about how flippin’ hard the guy hits.  Honorable mention All-Pac-10 last year, he’s on pretty much every first or second-team pre-season All Pac 10 teams for 2010.  Expect a huge senior season from Foster.

TOP THREE POST-SPRING QUESTIONS:

1) WE KNOW ABOUT LOCKER, BUT JUST HOW GOOD COULD THE OFFENSE BE? Good, as in REALLY good.  But it isn’t like they lit up the scoreboard last year, just 7th in scoring offense and total offense in the Pac-10.  But the optimism is so high based on the sheer volume of returning starters, and you can see the foundation for success is already in place.  Phil Steele broke it down earlier this year, that UW projects to return 99.13% of their offense from last year!  They basically lose backups Curtis Shaw, Willie Griffin, and Paul Homer from the skill-positions….but that’s it.  4/5ths of the O-line is back, and so is Chris Polk at tailback, who happened to go over 1,000 rushing yards last year.  But the receiving corps is stacked, with the top four wideouts back from last year.  And Kavario Middleton could have a real breakout season at tight end, where he had 26 balls for 257 yards and 3 TD’s in ’09.  But the real possible star in the making is Jermaine Kearse.

Kearse has all the measurables, at 6-2, 200 lbs.  Excellent hands, leaping ability and body control, he has a way of going up and grabbing the ball, even in heavy traffic. He emerged as Locker’s go-to-guy last year, with 866 yards and a team-best 8 TD catches.  And he saved his best for last, racking up 147 yards in the last game vs. Cal.  He averaged an impressive 17.3 yards per catch, up from just over 13 yards per catch in ’08.  The sky is definitely the limit for Kearse, and it wouldn’t be a shocker in the least to see 1,000-yards, 10+ TD catches in ’10.

2)  SO THE O LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE SPECTACULAR, BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT D? It wasn’t exactly a fantastic first year on D under Nick Holt.  As mentioned above, the 8th ranked defense in the Pac-10, and ninth in scoring and rushing D.  But there were at least some positives along the way.  They had 29 sacks, a huge improvement from the year before, where they had just 16.  But it also has to be said that of those 29 sacks, 14 of them have left in the form of Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (11), Darrion Jones (2) and Donald Butler (1).  They are going to have to get production from the ends, in unproven guys like Talia Crichton and De’Shon Matthews.  They look OK at tackle, where Alameda Ta’amu and Cameron Elisera are both back inside.  Ta’amu had 2.5 sacks last year, but at his size (between 330 and 350 lbs?), he’s more of your run-stuffer than anything else.  But the best news up front is that they still return eight linemen who played last year, so while they are young, there could be a foundation for developing some depth.

Another concern is the secondary.  Even though they are returning up to four starters back there, there are still relatively young – Desmond Trufant, Adam Long, and Nate Fellner are all just sophomores, and all should get significant playing time.  And at some point last year, UW started a frosh at each of the four positions in the secondary.  But without a consistent pass rush, they might be in for some tough days ahead, for any secondary in the nation can only hold up for so long before people get open! 

3)  AND THE SCHEDULE? It doesn’t look easy, if that’s what you are asking.  The 7th toughest in the country, again per Mr. Steele.  They open at BYU, which at first glance might sound brutal.  But in reality, if you are going to play BYU on the road, this should be the year to do it.  Not only do they lose their veteran QB in Max Hall, but they also suspended their top running back, Harvey Unga, for breaking the BYU code (pre-marital activities with your girlfriend gets you kicked out of Provo, apparently).  But the biggest non-conference game is Nebraska, coming in to Husky Stadium in what will be a hotly anticipated matchup.  Even though the Huskers lose the boy named Suh from an ass-kicking defense, they still look loaded on both sides of the ball, a 10-win team last seen shutting out Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl!  Add in road trips to USC and Cal, both looking for revenge after losing to UW in ’09, as well as a November game to Oregon in front of the Autzen crazies, and you can see why that schedule comes in the top 10 of most difficult in ’10.

WSU FB SEZ DOT-DOT-DOT…..Want a key reason why UW had such a drastic turnaround last year?  We’ll give you three actually – how about turnovers, turnovers, and turnovers.  Rather turnover margin here, as UW went from MINUS-17 to a PLUS 4 in turnover margin! Coincidentally, the last time UW had a positive turnover margin?  2002, where they were +1.  2002 also happens to be the last time UW had a winning season (7-6)…..UW finished the 2K decade at 49-71 overall, one of the worst decades ever at UW. In fact, the seven straight seasons without a winning record is the longest in school history.  UW’s 49-71 record included just a 34-31 record at home, where Husky Stadium used to be one of the most feared venues in the country…..Daniel Te’o-Nesheim leaves UW as the all-time school record holder in sacks, with 30.5 over his 4 years and 49 starts in Huskyville.  But Te’o-Nesheim also helped break another dubious streak for UW.  Te’o-Nesheim, along with Donald Butler, were both picked in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft.  UW didn’t have a single player picked in ’08 or ’09, as the last UW’ers picked were Isaiah Stanback and Dashon Goldson in ’07.  To put it in perspective of how tough things have gotten at UW in terms of producing NFL draft picks, UW had just 19 players picked from ’99-’09, 9th in the Pac-10.  UW’s last first round pick was Reggie Williams, taken by Jacksonville in ’04.  Locker, obviously, should change that for 2011…..Sarkisian gets a lot of credit as being a top-shelf recruiter, and after seeing his first class after one year in Seattle, it’s not hard to see why he gets the accolades. Recruiting is doing well right now, up to 14 commits and many at least the three-star variety.  They are also in on several highly-rated prospects who are still undecided.  And UW signed the #11 class in the country for 2010, good for 3rd in the Pac-10 behind SC and UCLA.  Sarkisian’s very first class though, uh, left a lot to be desired, although it must be said that he had barely two months on the job to cobble together a class ranked last in the Pac-10, 66th overall.  But say what you want about Ty Willingham – and much of it isn’t pretty – but the Chris Polk’s, Jermaine Kearse’s and Kavario Middleton’s of the Husky offense you see today were actually signed by Ty Willie in the class of ’08.  I say bring back Willingham!……Some of the top stops on the UW web universe are Bob Condotta’s Seattle Times blog, easily the best source for all things UW.  Seriously, does that man ever sleep?;  Dawgman.com, part of the Scout.com network;  UWDawgpound.com, run by John Berkowitz over at SB Nation; and Realdawg.com, which is usually up on all things recruiting.

All for now, and that’s a wrap for all the 2010 fish wraps.  I hope you enjoyed getting into each team for the ’10 WSU schedule. 

Again, enjoy your holiday weekend, and as always, GO COUGS! 

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