2001 Washington Spring Football Outlook
March 27, 2001
Due to several off-season injuries and previously scheduled surgical procedures, it is doubtful that the Husky football team that completes spring drills will resemble the one that takes the field next fall. Several front-line players will miss Washington's 15-session spring practices due to medical setbacks and two other potential starters have decided to retire from the sport.
Missing from spring drills this year will be sophomore tailback Rich Alexis (shoulder surgery), sophomore wide receiver Justin Robbins (shoulder surgery), sophomore offensive tackle Nick Newton (ankle), senior defensive tackle Marcus Roberson (shoulder surgery), redshirt freshman nose tackle Josh Miller (wrist), freshman cornerback Sam Cunningham (shoulder), senior outside linebacker Jafar Williams (shoulder/ankle) and sophomore cornerback Derrick Johnson (foot). Junior tailback Paul Arnold is questionable this spring due to back problems that sidelined him for the second half of the 2000 season. No longer on the squad are senior defensive end Ryan Julian. A starter in all 12 games last season, knee problems ended his career prematurely. Senior guard Rock Nelson ended his career due to a problematic back. Cornerback Anthony Vontoure, a part-time starter the past two seasons, left the team during the off-season.
Still, Washington's spring practice promises to be eventful. Third-year Washington coach Rick Neuheisel will look to rebuild a highly successful offensive line, find a replacement for Rose Bowl MVP quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and evaluate a number of younger players expected to see their first significant playing time next season.
If they Huskies can get all of the pieces to fit, they hope to end a trend in the Pac-10 where no team has repeated as conference champion since Washington did from 1990-92. A return trip to the Rose Bowl is out of the Huskies' hands. As the site of next year's Bowl Championship Series national title game, the two Pasadena participants will only come from the Big Ten or Pac-10 conferences if they are selected to battle for the national championship. The early, early preseason college football pundits don't figure Washington to be in that race. The Huskies will certainly have their opportunities early next season to state their case. Washington will open at home against Michigan and then travel to Miami for their first road contest. Leading the Huskies will be a pair of players who earned All-America honors in 2000: senior nose tackle Larry Tripplett and junior tight end Jerramy Stevens.
The Huskies will build around six returning starters on both offense and defense. A total of 51 lettermen return from last year's 11-1 Rose Bowl Championship team, including 25 veterans on offense, 24 monogram winners on defense and two kickers. The Huskies' recruiting class appears to be one of the best in school history. The infusion of three junior college players, including two who will participate in spring drills, should make some of the vacated positions very competitive.
Washington loses 25 lettermen from last year's team, including five starters on offense and defense and three-year starting punter Ryan Fleming.
On offense the Huskies will be without Tuiasosopo, arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in Washington history. His ability to run the option, pass the ball, and serve as an inspirational team leader made Tuiasosopo one of the top collegiate players during his junior and senior seasons. He finished his career as the owner of 12 school offensive records and one NCAA record. He ranks as Washington's all-time leader in total offense with 6,875 yards, including 1,374 rushing yards. The past two years he recorded the best total offense seasons in Husky history. He finished his career ranked third on the all-time passing list with 5,501 yards. His field leadership, leading numerous fourth-quarter rallies during his career, is irreplaceable.
J.K. Scott, a backup quarterback who saw very limited playing time during his first three seasons at Washington, opted to transfer in the off-season to Liberty. While the bulk of Washington's rushers return, the backfield will be without fullback Pat Conniff who rushed for 381 yards and caught 19 passes during his career. Conniff was a consistent blocker and reliable in short-yardage situations.
The offensive line, which allowed the Huskies to lead the Pac-10 in rushing yards per game (211.7) and time of possession (31:48), lost six players. Gone are tackles Elliot Silvers and Wes Call, guards Chad Ward and Matt Fraize, and backup tackle Matt Rogers and reserve guard Dominic Daste. Combined with the departure of guard Rock Nelson, the departing members of the offensive line had started in 109 games.
The Husky defense loses two down linemen, an inside linebacker and both safeties. Defensive end Ryan Julian started all 12 games last year. Senior outside linebacker Jeremiah Pharms, a rush end, was a three-year starter who totaled 18.5 sacks and 41 tackles for loss as a Husky.
Inside linebacker Derrell Daniels was named the team's defensive MVP last season after being the co-leader with 97 tackles, the fifth highest total in the Pac-10. Also gone from the linebacking corps are backups Odell George and Oye Waddell.
First-team All-Pac-10 free safety Hakim Akbar decided to declare for the NFL draft following the 2000 season. He had 97 tackles last season and collected 225 total tackles during his three-year Husky career. Also gone at safety is Curtis Williams, a two-year starter who missed the final three regular-season games and the Rose Bowl after suffering a spinal cord injury in a game at Stanford.
Other departures in the defensive backfield include part-time starter Anthony Vontoure, who had six interceptions as a sophomore in 1999 and backup cornerback Toure Butler, who was also a kick returner on special teams.
Washington will be without Fleming, who handled the punting chores the past three seasons. He finished his career with an average of 38.9 yards per kick, which ranks 10th on the Huskies' all-time punting list.
With the departure of quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, the winner of the 2000 Pop Warner Award as the West Coast's top player, most of the attention during the Huskies spring drills figures to be focused on the quarterback position. The biggest losses, literally, on the team come on the offensive line. Four starters and the top two reserve players have all graduated from last year's unit. For the first time in several seasons the Huskies skill positions return an abundance of veteran players with significant playing time and statistics. Another change on offense comes in the coaching ranks. Tony Alford, the engineer of Iowa State's resurgent running game, joined the Husky staff this spring.
'Our top priority this spring is the offensive line and getting those players some experience,' says Neuheisel, who understands how the opening at quarterback might garner more attention. 'I think the position gets too much attention, regardless if there's competition at it or not. That is the nature of the game at that position. To be in the paper and deal with the press on a daily basis will probably be good for the quarterbacks. That is the way it is going to be in the fall, regardless of who turns out to be number one.'
It has been a decade since the Huskies went into a season with so little experience at quarterback. Attempting to fill the position will be Tuiasosopo's backup the past two seasons, sophomore Cody Pickett, and a pair of highly successful junior college transfers: Taylor Barton and Ryan Porter.
Pickett, who played in 1999, but received a medical redshirt for the year due to a sore back, saw bookend action at quarterback last year. He appeared in the season opener against Idaho and played the entire fourth quarter in Washington's 51-3 Rose Bowl clinching win at Washington State. Pickett also played a series in the Rose Bowl, completing two passes, when Tuiasosopo was temporarily sidelined with a shoulder injury. Pickett's career numbers include just six pass attempts and one completion in three regular-season games. Pickett appeared in all 12 games last season as a holder on special teams.
Barton enrolled at Washington in January after helping to lead City College of San Francisco to the junior college national championship in 2000. He passed for 2,059 yards and 24 touchdowns while splitting time in a two-quarterback system. Barton is familiar with Neuheisel's system. He played at Colorado in 1998 (under Neuheisel) and 1999 before transferring.
Porter redshirted the 2000 season and worked as Washington's scout-squad quarterback. He was a standout signalcaller at San Bernardino Valley College in 1999, passing for 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns in five games.
'I feel very good about our quarterback situation,' Neuheisel says. 'I think Cody Pickett's confidence grew immensely given the Rose Bowl situation that he found himself in and the performance that he gave. That can do nothing but make you feel good about yourself. He's had great off-season work. Taylor Barton is as advertised, he's a very confident player. I've had personal experiences with him before on the practice field, so I know what I'm getting. Having watched the game film from San Francisco City, I think he's a very, very talented kid. Ryan Porter also has grown as a player. I'm anxious to see if that growth can continue and he can become a guy that we can count on in tough situations.'
Neuheisel says that option will remain a part of the Husky offense.
'We're not throwing out the baby with the bath water,' Neuheisel says. 'Option football is one of the reasons we were successful in our conference.'
Neuheisel does not rule out a multi-quarterback attack in 2001.
'There is a very good possibility that two guys could share the position next year,' he says.
While the Huskies search for a replacement at quarterback, the opposite holds true for the running backs position. Washington has nine returning players at the position, including four tailbacks that combined for 1,682 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.
Washington's top rusher last season was Alexis, who will miss spring drills due to off-season shoulder surgery. As a true freshman, Alexis gained 738 yards (a UW freshman record) and also led the team with nine touchdowns. Alexis averaged 6.3 yards per carry and demonstrated a big-play running style, going 86 yards for a score against Arizona State, 50 yards for a touchdown versus Miami and recording a 50-yard gain in the Rose Bowl. Alexis' record-setting performances did not go unnoticed. He was named to several freshman All-America squads.
Senior Willie Hurst averaged 6.1 yards per carry last year while gaining 402 yards in nine games. A broken collarbone forced him out of the final two regular-season games, but he returned in time to gain 53 yards and score a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. Hurst's outgoing personality makes him a likely candidate to step up as a team leader during his senior season.
Arnold was Washington's starting tailback the first half of the season before being sidelined due to a back injury. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry while gaining 296 yards on 58 carries. Arnold also proved to be a valuable receiver out of the backfield, catching 10 passes for a 13.8-yard average.
Like Arnold, senior tailback Braxton Cleman averaged 5.1 yards per rush last season. He gained 246 yards and topped off the season with a 105-yard effort in the Apple Cup against Washington State. He also played fullback in 2000 and could see that dual role again next year.
Sean Sweat, a true freshman last year, may see more carries after demonstrating a hard-charging running style.
The fullback situation figures to include several players with experience at the position. Ken Walker and John Hart have both seen significant playing time and earned a pair of letters. Spencer Marona, a nose tackle the past two seasons, may be moved to the position, which he played in high school. Matthias Wilson is another player that Neuheisel would like to see get more experience at the position.
'I feel very good about running back,' Neuheisel says. 'We have a lot of very talented players at the position and they have demonstrated the ability to work together and to share the spotlight. They should be critical in our offensive success and I like some of the freshmen we'll have this fall.'
Like the running backs position, the Huskies have an abundance of talent at the wide receiver spots. Washington returns its top three wideouts -- Todd Elstrom, Justin Robbins and Wilbur Hooks -- who combined for 80 receptions, 1,101 yards and nine touchdowns. Also returning to the receiving corps is junior Chris Juergens, who led the Huskies with 42 receptions for 516 yards in 1999. Juergens was forced to sit out the 2000 season due to a knee injury, but will be back at full speed for spring drills. The Huskies will be without Robbins this spring while he recovers from shoulder surgery.
In Juergens' absence, Elstrom emerged as a very reliable pass catcher. He had 47 catches for 683 yard and three scores. Elstrom was masterful at using his height (6-3) against smaller defensive backs.
While Robbins was not flashy at flanker, he proved to be a very consistent receiver as a true freshman. He finished the year with 22 catches for 267 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. Robbins was responsible for one of the season's biggest catches when he reeled in Tuiasosopo's 22-yard scoring pass in a driving rainstorm to cap the Huskies' last-minute comeback at Stanford.
Hooks also had a memorable catch, scoring the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter to defeat Colorado. Hooks had 11 receptions for 151 yards, but was slowed at mid-season due to a medical condition.
Two other backup receivers, Terry Tharps and Patrick Reddick could be contributors for Washington. A speedy prep track star, Tharps had one catch in 2000. Reddick, who battled back from knee injuries that kept him out for the 1999 season, had three regular-season catches. He equaled those numbers in the Rose Bowl, catching three passes for 30 yards. Mikal Akbar also returns at split end. Wondame Davis, a flanker who caught six passes last year, has moved back to safety.
'A year ago, wide receiver was a major concern and now it's a major strength,' Neuheisel says. 'We've got Chris Juergens returning, we've got Todd Elstrom coming off a great year. We've got Justin Robbins, although he won't play much in the spring because of his shoulder surgery, but he'll be coming back at that position and was a very productive player at that position. Pat Reddick became a very competent player for us late in the season. Wilbur Hooks made some big plays for us. I think he'll be an asset for us. I'm anxious to watch Rayshon Dukes. He gives us some speed we've been looking for. Then we've got guys like Mikal Akbar and Terry Tharps who will be trying to earn spots. We have two freshmen coming in, Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick, who could also have an impact. We have taken a position that was considered a potential liability and made it a real strength and I'm excited to watch that unfold.'
Washington has the nation's top returning tight end in junior Jerramy Stevens. A high school quarterback, Stevens has matured into a big-play threat that poses considerable matchup problems for opposing defenses. At 6-7, Stevens is an imposing receiver, especially near the goal line.
Last year he set a UW single-season tight end record with 43 catches for 600 yards and three scores. Those numbers helped to earn him All-America honors.
'Jerramy is just the consummate tight end,' Neuheisel says. 'I don't think he dropped a ball all year. He catches the ball very, very well. He's able to get open. He could certainly get a lot better in his route running and understanding how defenses play. But, in terms of a guy getting down field and being able to catch the ball, he is just a real asset for a quarterback in the middle of the field.'
Stevens is joined at tight end by returning letterwinners Joe Collier, Kevin Ware and John Westra. Ware may see some time at offensive guard this season. Ware did not catch a pass last season and was hampered by a sprained ankle.
Collier saw considerably more playing time as the season progressed and he came up with two big catches in Washington's Rose Bowl victory. Westra, slowed by a knee injury in 1999, returned to the lineup but did not catch a pass in 2000. Graham Lasee, a freshman who enrolled at Washington in January, will also get a shot at the position.
'Tight end is a strength and we need to capitalize on that,' Neuheisel says. 'We have some talented players there and it is going to continue to be a big part of the offense.'
For the other components in the offense to function at their best, the Huskies will need to retool an offensive line that returns just one starter. Relatively inexperienced players are going to need to make significant progress before the Huskies kickoff off with Big Ten powerhouse Michigan on Sept. 8.
'We lost six of our top seven guys this year,' Neuheisel says. 'I think we are plenty talented, but of all the positions on the football field, the one that requires experience the most is the offensive line. It is going to get the lion's share of attention this spring.'
Senior center Kyle Benn will anchor the offensive line. With 25 career starts, Benn will be the leader for the young blocking unit. His experience should also prove beneficial to Washington's untested quarterbacks.
Sophomore center Todd Bachert, sophomore tackle Nick Newton and junior offensive guard Elliott Zajac are the only returning letterwinners on the line besides Benn. Newton will miss the spring practices while recovering from an ankle injury. Tight end Kevin Ware may be moved to offensive guard this spring to help shore up the unit. Junior college transfer Francisco Tipoti could be an immediate contributor at tackle, but he will not enroll at Washington until the fall.
'We're going to play inside with guys like Elliott Zajac and Nick Newton,' Neuheisel says. 'I think both those guys are ready to play, they just need to get skinned up a bit and get it done. Todd Bachert will probably go inside as well and I think he is also ready to play. He's been in our program now two years and I think he's anxious to get his playing time increased at guard or center. Francisco Tipoti is someone we hope can come in right away and fill one of the guard positions. Then we'll play with three young guys in Khalif Barnes, Ryan Brooks and Andre Reeves at the other tackle spot. It may be that their inexperience will show and move one of our inside guys out, but my hope is that they'll be talented enough and athletic enough for them to handle it.'
While the Washington defense lost some of its most veteran players and tackles leaders, it has a several impact players that could make the Huskies a formidable unit. Headlining the defense will be All-American nose tackle Larry Tripplett and defensive tackle Marcus Roberson. The Huskies return a total of 24 lettermen on defense, many of which had played significant minutes. The biggest concern will be filling the safety positions where Akbar and Williams proved to be one of the best duos in the nation. Washington's secondary, while young, showed in its Rose Bowl matchup with Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, that it could stand up to a high-octane passing attack. With an abundance of senior quarterbacks on Pac-10 rosters this season, they will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves.
Tripplett broke the mold last season of a nose tackle who simply occupied offensive linemen. He has the athletic ability and drive to be a difference maker on defense. Tripplett had 38 tackles in 2000 and led the team with 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 quarterback sacks. He also managed to block several field goal attempts on special teams.
'Larry Tripplett is a really explosive player in the front,' Neuheisel says. 'It's difficult to block him with just one guy. I would say that most teams scheme to try to take him out with two people and in so doing, they create seams and gaps for other players to get home to the quarterback or make the tackle. He's just one of those game-altering type players when he's playing at his best. The consistency is what's got to happen, he's got to become as consistent as he possibly can be. He got nicked with some injuries toward the end of the year and didn't have the same kind of numbers he had at the beginning. If we can get him start to finish, the way he started last season, we'll have a hell of a player.'
Tripplett's presence allowed Roberson, a junior college transfer, to mature into a solid run stopper and pass rusher. Roberson had 27 tackles, eight tackles for loss and six sacks last year. Julian's premature departure will probably spell more playing time for junior Ossim Hatem. He finished with 12 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks in 2000. Marona, a backup nose tackle, adds more depth to the line, unless he moves to fullback this spring or next fall. Jerome Stevens gained valuable playing time last season as a true freshman, a rarity on the Husky defensive line.
Washington must also find a replacement for Jeremiah Pharms, who played as a down lineman at linebacker. Kai Ellis, a junior college transfer from City College of San Francisco, and redshirt freshman Zach Tuiasosopo, are two possible replacements. Ellis was named the California Community College's defensive player of the year.
'We feel good about our situation on the defensive line, but would have felt better if we had Marcus Roberson back this spring instead of on the sidelines due to his shoulder surgery,' Neuheisel says. 'I'm excited to see Kai and Zach on the field and to watch some of our redshirt players start to fill into positions.'
Despite the loss of two-year starter Derrell Daniels, the Husky linebackers include a number of solid, proven performers. Headlining the group are returning starters Ben Mahdavi, Jafar Williams and top reserves Anthony Kelley, Jamaun Willis, Sam Blanche and Tyler Krambrink. Marquis Cooper, who played as a true freshman at outside linebacker, will move to an inside position this spring. Redshirt freshmen Tim Galloway and Matt Lingley will figure more into the mix this spring.
Mahdavi started eight games and in the Rose Bowl last season. He figured in 52 tackles, including five for lost yardage. Mahdavi has displayed a flair for big plays. In 1999 he scored Washington's first touchdown when he recovered a muffed punt return in BYU's end zone. Last year he scooped up a loose ball and ran it back 35 yards for a score against Idaho.
Williams switched from inside linebacker to an outside spot during the 2000 season. An ankle injury limited his playing time at the end of the season, but Williams still managed 21 tackles. Kelley spelled Williams at the outside linebacker spot and came up with several key defensive plays during the season and led the team with three forced fumbles.
'I like our linebackers,' Neuheisel says. 'I told our defensive coordinator I think we are going to be more athletic at linebacker. Derrell Daniels was outstanding in terms of productivity, but I think we could get a little faster than Derrell was. We're going to look at the will linebacker with Marquis Cooper moving into that spot to join Tyler Krambrink and Ben Mahdavi. We'll have Jamaun Willis and Tim Galloway at the mike linebacker. Also in that position will be Matt Lingley, although we may tinker with Matt at the outside spot. At the Sam (outside), we'll be without Jafar Williams this spring but we have Anthony Kelley back at the position. We're also looking at Sam Blanche there. We would like to see a real physical player there. We're going to give a couple of guys some shots at that spot.'
With the exception of senior cornerback Omare Lowe, the Husky secondary is a young group. Despite the lack of upperclassmen, there are plenty of young players who have seen valuable playing time.
Washington's chief concern in the secondary is finding replacements at safety. Greg Carothers, who filled in for Curtis Williams when he was injured, figures into the strong safety position. Carothers played beyond his years as a true freshman last year, accounting for 27 tackles and displaying solid tackling skills.
Roderick Green, a former cornerback who redshirted the 2000 season to improve his academic standing, is a likely candidate for free safety. Sophomore Jimmy Newell, who appeared in all 11 games as a true freshman in 2000, will battle for the free safety spot as well as Wondame Davis. Davis started his Husky career as a safety, before spending the 2000 campaign at flanker.
Lowe will return for his second season as a starter at cornerback. He was credited with breaking up a team-high nine passes last season while also making 30 tackles and intercepting two passes.
Sophomore Chris Massey is the incumbent at the other corner position. He had five pass defenses and one interception last year. Derrick Johnson, a superb kick returner, had figured into the plans at cornerback until he suffered a foot injury that will keep him out of spring practice. Roc Alexander, another true freshman who played last season, is likely to see more playing time due to Johnson's absence.
A pair of former offensive players, Lenny Haynes and Jelani Harrison have been moved to cornerback this spring. Sam Cunningham, a freshman who enrolled at Washington in January, will miss spring drills due to a shoulder injury.
'When I first arrived here, defensive back was an area of real concern,' Neuheisel says. 'I think that in a couple of quick years, we've developed into a very confident defensive backfield. It would be a little bit short-sided to say `We're there,' because we're playing with so many young players. There are a lot of guys that need to get better and their great days are still ahead of them. When you have Derrick Johnson, Roc Alexander, Chris Massey, and Omare Lowe as your senior-leader in the corner position, I think you feel pretty good about yourself. When you've got Greg Carothers coming back at safety, having had the experience that he had last year, I think you feel good he'll be able to play and play well. The other safety spot remains a question mark. Jimmy Newell was unable to play because of a broken wrist all year, but I'm confident he can have an impact back there. With the early departure of Hakim Akbar, we're going to have to kind of see how things in the back. Jelani Harrison is going to give it a shot back there. Owen Biddle played a couple of series in the Rose Bowl and did fine. It'll be interesting to see how that all plays itself out. The Rose Bowl experience can be helpful with their confidence as long as it boosts their confidence and doesn't create complacency.'
Junior place kicker John Anderson, who has the leg strength to become an All-American in his third year as a Husky, will handle the place kicking job. Anderson, who has already booted 25 field goals during his UW career and accounted for 147 points, may see some time at punter this spring. With the graduation of Ryan Fleming, Washington will probably not decide on the punting duties until the fall when scholarship freshman Derek McLaughlin enrolls in school.
'We've got some walk-on who will have an opportunity this spring to punt and to display their abilities,' Neuheisel says. 'This will also be a good time for John Anderson to punt and see how consistent he can get at punting.'
Neuheisel challenges this year's team to establish their own identity and to write their own chapter of success into the Husky record books.
'Last season was a wonderful memory and something we all ought to cherish, and will cherish for a lifetime, but it's a memory,' he says. 'Now its, `What have you done for me lately?' We come into this season with a completely new persona. The Washington Huskies are the Pac-10 champs, or at least the co-champs, and are the Rose Bowl Champions and a national player. Everyone is going to be gunning for the Dawgs. That carries with it a heavy responsibility. The leadership of this team will be even more important than the leadership of last year. It is important if you enjoyed last year, and you enjoy that ride and that climb and culmination, then you really ought to set your sights on not just duplicating it, but going above and beyond it this year.
'I think we made a good point last year, and certainly this is a thought that dominated my free time. I think we played enough of the notion that this isn't about just winning. This is about proving. This is about competition. I had made the point early in the season, after the Oregon loss, that we if we could press a button, and all the sudden be instantly in the Rose Bowl, how many players would press it? That isn't what you play for. If someone gives you the trophy, it doesn't mean as much as if you earned it. Earning it is the bottom line and earning begins now. Hopefully guys understand that. In our locker room there's a sign that says Rose Bowl Champions 2001, question mark 2002. It's important we understand we are going to decide where we fall in terms of the finish line.'