After seven years as an assistant at USC, Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian wasn’t used to losing. The Huskies players and their dwindling fan base, however, were very accustomed to coming up short on Saturday afternoons. So with his winning pedigree and Huskie Nation thirsting for success, Sarkisian was the logical choice to rebuild the program in Seattle.
And with a home victory over the Trojans and a five-win improvement from 2008, Huskies fans couldn’t be happier in 2009, knowing that the future in Seattle is bright.
Just don’t ask the head coach to be content.
Even with the emotional win over USC just a year after finishing the season 0-12 — the worst finish in the history of the program — the Huskies didn’t go bowling for the holidays, which is a very odd feeling for a coach so used to being disappointed if the berth wasn’t to a BCS contest.
But Sarkisian’s accomplishments last season at Washington could be described as nothing short of astounding. In his first year at the school, the Huskies defeated four teams that won at least eight games just one season removed from losing every game by an average of more than 25 points per game. The remarkable season culminated in a shutout of rival Washington State and a 42-10 thrashing of No. 19 California.
With success, however, come raised expectations. So Huskies players have had to adjust to a more demanding offseason, as Sarkisian wants his team to become more physical knowing they’re not going to be able to sneak up on conference foes next season. He also would like to see his offense, as productive as it was in ’09, become a more imposing and tougher unit for opponents.
“I know this, we need to become a more physical offensive football team,” Sarkisian told reporters on the eve of spring practice. “We flashed it at times. But when it really came down to punching somebody in the mouth, we weren’t able to do it the way I wanted to be able to do it.”
Nineteen starters return from last season — including nine on offense, led by the potential top overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, quarterback Jake Locker. The signal-caller made huge strides under Sarkisian’s guidance, yet he still is expected to improve by leaps and bounds in his senior season. No longer looked upon as just an athlete under center, Locker is out to prove he can be a prolific leader in a pro-style system and find a balance between staying in the pocket and making plays with his feet.
Sarkisian fully expects the offense to evolve in year two of his program.
Running back Chris Polk is coming off a season in which re ran for over 1,100 yards and averaged just under 5.0 yards per carry. He was also a threat out of the backfield and is expected to be even more prolific in his sophomore campaign. Sitting out of the contact portion of drills this spring, he’s expected to be fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery once fall camp rolls around.
Locker had a group of wideouts last season in Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson who combined for 131 catches, 1,881 yards and 16 touchdowns. Good luck defending that opposing Pac-10 defenses, as all three return.
On defense, coordinator Nick Holt will have to find replacements for defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was a four-year starter and all-conference performer while leading the Huskies in sacks with 11 last season, and linebacker Donald Butler, who led the team in tackles and tackles for loss (15½).
Finding a pass-rush and depth at linebacker will be crucial during the spring and into fall camp, but Folk will be able to rely on senior linebacker Mason Foster to emerge as a household name nationally at outside linebacker. Foster forced six fumbles and had three interceptions, ranked second on the team with 85 tackles and third with 7½ tackles for a loss. The expectations for the defense, despite the losses of Te’o-Nesheim and Butler, are still high, particularly with a defensive backfield that returns almost entirely intact.
Following a signing period that netted the Huskies a highly rated recruiting class, Sarkisian has Washington in midst of a rebirth and back on track to become national power. For a program that hasn't played in a bowl game since 2002, the sky is the limit.
“Expectations are higher. They’re high with the outside world, but they’re high within our locker room,” Sarkisian declared. “They want to achieve greatness. There’s a lot of belief, and it’s created a very exciting atmosphere.”
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