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August 31, 2009When September 5 finally rolls around, the University of Washington hopes the new era of Husky football will have begun. No more 0-12, no more 44-10 losses to Oregon or embarrassing flops against Washington State.
"Without a question," said new head coach Steve Sarkisian with a chuckle. "This is the new era of for Washington football, we got new uniforms."
Sarkisian got more serious when speaking with reporters assembled inside the Bank of America Arena on Monday when asked about how he will measure success in his first season at Montlake.
"When the football game is over our opponent respects us," he said without hesitation. "Regardless of the score when they walk off the field they respect us."
Saturday night in a nationally televised game, the Huskies will have an opportunity to not only earn the respect of their opponents, but the rest of the nation as they welcome in the 11 ranked LSU Tigers.
"Well, it's finally game week," an excited Sarkisian exclaimed. "That's the mentality for us. It's been a long time coming. A lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a lot of blood, sweat tears for everybody involved. I think we're excited as a staff, we're excited as a football team to go play.
"Obviously we know this is a huge challenge. LSU is a very talented football team, not only in the skill position, but on both fronts, OL and DL. With that comes a tremendous coaching staff with what Coach Miles has done there, obviously winning a national title. And then what coach Crowton brings on offense and what Coach Chavis brings on the defensive side of the ball, they are very well-coached. So, we're excited about the opportunity. Obviously it's a nationally-televised game. Prime time is great for us, fun to be part of. We're going to put forth a great effort, and see what happens."
Last season the Tigers finished the season with the 32 ranked defense in the country. Returning a bevy of starters at linebacker and in the secondary, new defensive coordinator John Chavis, formerly of Tennessee, will have plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2009.
"Oh, they're big and fast," said Sarkisian of the LSU defense. "They're physical. They're angry when they get there. Those are all scary things... They've got some ball hawks in the secondary, guys that I know because I recruited them, whether it's Patrick Peterson, Chad Jones, Johnny Eugene. These guys have the ability to make plays in the secondary that can change momentum in a ball game in a single snap."
They aren't slouches on offense either, returning their top passer (Jarrett Lee), rusher (Charles Scott) and receiver (Brandon LaFell) from the season prior for the first time since 1997.
"They have big-play potential on offense, obviously, at a variety of positions, with guys that can take it the distance."
For Sarkisian, this is a game he's been waiting for. In 2004, then a quarterbacks coach at USC, Sarkisian watched USC and LSU split for the nation title. The Trojans blasted Michigan to win the Rose Bowl and gain the Associated Press No. 1 rating. But LSU won the Sugar Bowl over Oklahoma to win the Bowl Championship Series.
"I kind of got the chuckle because, for me, coming from SC, there was always banter amongst the fans about SC and LSU should've been playing. So I kind of got the chuckle there. I thought to myself: well, I'm getting my chance now. It'll be fun. It'll be a great atmosphere. Their fans are going to be here. I know our fans are going to show up and be loud. For our program, it's exciting to get the excitement and energy back to Husky Stadium, the way it needs to be."
Although Washington are 17-point underdogs, the Huskies do have one thing going for them. The 2,550 mile trek from Baton Rouge to Seattle will be the longest LSU has traveled to play a ball game in the modern era. Sark hopes that home field can be advantageous for a team searching for any edge they can find.
"Obviously, we're excited that it's a home game for us. It's a night game, should be a great atmosphere. The forecasts are showing some rain on Saturday, which we'll embrace as kind of a homefield advantage, in a sense, for us. Let those temperatures keep dipping. We want to use that to our advantage as best that we can. We'll use the crowd noise to our advantage, as best that we can."
Ideally Washington might have started the season against a lesser opponent after suffering a defeated season in 2008-09. But Sarkisian understands that wasn't possible and has seen his team embrace the challenge.
"Unfortunately when we do scheduling nowadays in college football, they are are so many years out. We're looking at our 2017, 2018 schedule right now. There's nothing we can really do about it.
"Obviously is a great metered gauge for us to where we're at as a program, to see how far we stack up with a team that is a perennial top-10 team now. I think we're embracing the challenge more than, 'Oh, whoa is me.' It's a tremendous opportunity for us as a coaching staff, it's a great opportunity for our kids to go against a team that year in and year out, is competing for an SEC title, and is competing for a national title."
So, what does Sark expect from his team's first game against such a talented opponent?
"Expectation-wise, we're going to play hard, we're going play with great effort, we're going to play with great enthusiasm, great energy, great intensity. We're going to be a smart football team. And ultimately the expectations are we're going to be a team that takes care of the football offensively, and we're going to get after it on defense. Anything beyond that is somewhat out of our control. We have to worry about ourselves and play the way we know how to play. And if that's good enough to win, we'll see. But I think in time, that should be good enough to win, if we can do that consistently. That is our challenge, and that is our expectation."
Sarkisian explained how his team is learning they are better then most may expect. A big reason for this is the progression of their signal caller Jake Locker. One of the most physically gifted players in the Pac-10, Locker is learning to run Sarkisian's pro-style offense while becoming a more efficient passer.
"He's been very efficient," Sark said of Locker. "I think his grasp of the offense has grown immensely. He's distributing the football very well. He's understanding when other guys are making plays for you to make your job a lot easier. And I think, as we've grown through camp, he's understood that this is a fun offense when you allow it to work for you. It can be quarterback friendly, and there are some opportunities there when you take advantage of them."
Something that has helped Locker was taking the weight of the world off his shoulders. Locker is no longer looked at as a savior, but instead a piece to the puzzle.
"I'm expecting Jake to manage the football game really well for us," explained Sarkisian. "And it's been a priority of ours for him to understand he's part of our UW offense, he's not our University of Washington Husky offense. I think he's bought into that mentality. It's about distributing the football accurately, on time, so the guys around them can make their plays. It's about getting us out of bad plays, and getting to good ones. It's about taking care of the football ultimately. I think those have been some of the challenges that we've had to face him with, and he's responded extremely well.
Another thing Sark has worked tirelessly on with locker is his instinct to tuck the ball and run. If Washington is going to turn around their fortunes in 2009-10, Locker will need to stay healthy.
"Well, there are going to be opportunities for him," Sarkisian said of Locker running. "Ultimately, as we've said from day one, when he runs, it's going to be in the right situations, for the right reasons, and that he's not taking the unnecessary hits. On first-and-10, we don't want him fighting for that one yard that's the difference between second-and-five and second-and-six. So the idea, as the staff, is that we're smart with what we call. And for Jake, that he's understanding the situations in the game, when it's time to avoid a hit and when it's time to try to put your head down and get a first down."
First downs may be hard to come by on Saturday when Washington faces one of the more talented defenses in the country. But, no matter the outcome, Sarkisian expects effort and hopes that when the final whistle blows the Tigers will respect the Husky's effort.
"You play hard, you play with great effort, you play reckless, you're physical. You do things right. You challenge them mentally and physically. At the end of the day they know they played a very tough opponent, an opponent they respect."
-- There was some shakeup today along the offensive line when the depth chart was released. First of all Greg Christine has been named the starting left guard, moving Ben Ossai to the starting left tackle, Cody Habben back over to right tackle, and making Drew Schaefer a back up.
"We really tried to just go back and evaluate all of fall camp, and not get stuck on the one's and the two's and that's why there was lot of shake-up throughout fall camp," explained Sark. We just wanted to put a lot of different scenarios out there. For us, the best opportunity is to get Ossai back at left tackle. Greg Christine has had a tremendous fall camp, and he deserves the opportunity to start at left guard. Tolar has been great at center, Senio has been great at right guard and Cody Habben has had a really good camp, so to be able to push him back over at right tackle is good. Now we get Drew Schaefer as a redshirt freshman the opportunity where he doesn't have to start, but we are going to count on him. He is going to play in this first ballgame."
But why was Ossai moved inside to begin with?
"Part of that was the idea to get him a little more mentally tough, a little more physically tough," said Sark. "When you go inside and get a view of the 3-technique and the nose guard and the A-gap lifters and run-throughs and different things, it allows you to develop some of that mental and physical toughness. It gave him a view of the bigger picture of this thing, that the offensive line isn't just about one guy. It's five guys working together and communicating really well together."
Also, what exactly did Christine show to be moved into the starting five?
"I think he's taken to the coaching of Dan Cozzetto. He communicates well up front. He's physical. He's tough. He's got a blue-collar attitude, which you love to have from an offensive lineman. And I think he brings a lot of energy up front to our group that our guys feed off of."
-- In what can only be described as shocking, true freshman Desmond Trufant was named the co-starter along with Vonzell McDowell despite missing a large chunk of fall camp dealing with NCAA Clearinghouse issues.
So was it hard to not redshirt Trufant?
"I don't think it's that hard at all," said Sark. "I'm accustomed to doing that. From where I was raised for the last 7-8 years, that's what we did. The best players played - if he was a true freshman, he was a true freshman. You put him in situations leading up to that point to get him prepared for that moment. A lot of these guys, they're not going to play every snap, but when they're out there, we're going to put them out there to do things they do well so they can get some success, and build more confidence."
What does Trufant posses that allowed him to become a starter?
"He's a natural football player. He's a guy with great ball skills, he's got good savvy, he understands the techniques of bump-and-run and drops. He's got a quiet confidence about himself. He's got the right mentality to be a defensive back."
-- Sark said Trufant is not alone and to expect a bunch of true freshman to see the field on Saturday.
"I think you'll see Pulu, I think you'll see Demitrius Bronson. You're going to see some guys that are true freshmen get out there and play."
-- The team is in good health and Sarkisian is expecting Justin Glenn and Kavario Middleton back today or tomorrow for practice.
"We've just got some nicks, but we shoudl be fine. We'll be encouraged by getting Kavario back out there today. I'd be surprsied if Matt Houston could go. We're trying, but i'd be surprised if he could go. I think you'll see Justin Glenn out there i think you'll see Johri out there if not today, tomorrow, so i think we're gettin ghealthy to a point where come saturday we want to be a fresh football team.
-- Speaking of Johri Fogerson, Sark said he was right behind Chris Polk on the depth chart and they will both get plenty of carries.
"Johri had a nice camp. Unfortuatnately for Johri he's a little nicked up right now with a sore ankle. And i think his first game comign back to running back i don't know it would be fair to throw him out there with teh starters but he'll play."
However, Sark said to expect up to all five backs to receive some carries on Saturday.
"We're going to put the guys in there to do the things that, in our opinion, they've done well throughout camp. That they're successful at and to give us, as a team, the best chance to be successful at. Again, it's something that I've been accustomed to the last four or five years, to kind of rolling back and giving guys an opportunity to play, and feeling good about, when they're in, the things that they're called on to do, that's what they're good at."