2001 Husky Football Outlook
July 6, 2001
'That's a shocker,' quips third-year Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel when informed that none of the preseason football publications pick the Huskies to repeat as Pac-10 Champions.
With the departure of several key starters, including five players selected in the NFL draft, expectations for the 2001 Husky squad are nowhere near what they were last season when Washington won the Pac-10 Conference with a 7-1 record and finished third in both national polls with an 11-1 record after winning the Rose Bowl. The Huskies' magical season included eight come-from-behind wins and included victories against the Sugar Bowl (Miami), Fiesta Bowl (Oregon State) and Big Ten (Purdue) champions.
Neuheisel and the Huskies are not prepared to hand over their conference crown without a fight.
'I think that people believed that when [quarterback] Marques Tuiasosopo graduated, so did the Huskies,' Neuheisel says. 'They thought that we were a one-man show. Certainly Marques' performance merits that thought, but I think that there is a lot of character in this program. I think that there are a lot of kids who fought, scratched, clawed and helped us find ways to win other than old number 11 and I'm excited about our kids realizing that there is a huge challenge that lies ahead because usually they respond to that.'
The Huskies will build around 12 returning starters, including six on both offense and defense. A total of 49 lettermen return from last year's team, including 24 veterans on offense, 23 monogram winners on defense and two kickers. Despite several veterans missing spring drills due to off-season surgeries, the Huskies' April practice session was productive, including the infusion of two junior college transfers into the depth chart.
If the 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 Pac-10 champion will receive a bid to the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.
The Huskies will certainly have their opportunities early in the 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.
Washington loses 26 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, 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.
Two backup quarterbacks, J.K. Scott and Ryan Porter, opted to transfer during the off-season. 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, 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 three 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. Ossim Hatem, a sophomore defensive tackle, was forced to leave the team in the spring after being diagnosed with blood clots.
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 transferred after his junior season, and backup cornerback Toure Butler, who was also a kick returner on special teams.
Washington will be also without punter Ryan 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.
While the Huskies are deep and talented at the skill positions heading into the 2001 season, Washington's hopes for success will hinge on the maturation of an inexperienced quarterback and youthful offensive line. 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.
'We might retreat a little bit from the option given that Marques is gone and play to the strengths of our quarterback a little bit more,' says Neuheisel when summing up the offense. 'I think that we have to continue to try to control the ball and doing that remains our focus.'
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 highly-touted junior college transfer Taylor Barton.
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 much of the 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.
'I was pleased with the quarterback competition during the spring,' Neuheisel says. 'I thought that Cody Pickett really played well. The players believe in him and I think that he believes in himself and feels comfortable in the offense. I think that he is a very talented and will become a big-time player for us. Taylor Barton was kind of thrown into the fire because he hadn't been in this offense for very long and given that it was his first experience I thought he performed well. He is the type of player that will continue to grow quickly because he spends so much time trying to learn it. I think both players will play, I think both players can play winning football and I feel good about the position.'
Neuheisel says the highly-successful option will remain a part of the Husky offense, but with less emphasis.
'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.'
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.
One of those players, Paul Arnold, worked at wide receiver during the spring due to reoccurring back problems. After a very successful stint at the position, he will likely stay there for the 2001 season.
Washington's top rusher last season was Alexis. 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.
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.
'We have three tailbacks that have all done great things in competition,' Neuheisel says. 'Willie Hurst had a great year for us, Rich Alexis certainly showed that he can be an impact player, and Braxton Cleman is a very solid durable player that might help us at more than one position. I'm excited about that, I'm hopeful that the fall will bring a couple of freshmen to add depth to the position. I want to play that position very efficiently with the kind of guys that can break open games.'
During the spring, an already deep receiving corps became even stronger with the switch of junior Paul Arnold from tailback to flanker. He capped off a successful transition by catching five passes in the spring game for 108 yards and one score.
Washington returns its top three wideouts - Todd Elstrom, Justin Robbins and Wilbur Hooks - from last year's team. That trio 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.
In Juergens' absence, Elstrom emerged as a very reliable pass catcher. He had 47 catches for 683 yards and three scores. Elstrom was masterful at using his 6-foot-3 height 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.
Arnold is no stranger to catching passes. While he averaged 5.1 yards per rush on 296 carries last year, he also had 10 receptions for a 13.8-yard average.
Another senior who gained notice last season was Patrick Reddick, who was slowed early in his career due to knee injuries. Reddick had three regular-season catches and equaled that total in the Rose Bowl, catching three passes for 30 yards.
'Receiver should be a strength of ours especially considering the recruiting of two high caliber players in Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick,' Neuheisel says. 'It will be interesting to see who really works and who's hungry in the off season, to see who comes back and wants the lion's share of the playing time because there is a bevy of guys who have played and who are certainly talented enough to play. Chris Juergens and Todd Elstrom are both proven players, Pat Reddick finished the season in grand style, Justin Robbins burst on to the scene and became a really good player although he could not participate this spring because of a shoulder injury. Fortunately I think he will be at full strength in the fall. Paul Arnold had a great Spring Game and if he continues to grow we'll be able to add a lot to the mix. Wilbur Hooks had some big plays for us last year, and as I mentioned the two freshmen. This is going to be an interesting competition and hopefully it will make us that much better.'
Washington has one of the nation's top returning tight ends 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-foot-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.'
Replacing four starters on the offensive line is a huge challenge. Doing it with a handful of sophomores and redshirt freshmen makes it even more daunting.
'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.'
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.
After the conclusion of spring drills, redshirt freshmen Ryan Brooks and Khalif Barnes looked liked the frontrunners at the two starting tackle positions. Andre Reeves is the most likely backup for both positions.
Sophomore Todd Bachert and junior Elliott Zajac figure to fill the two guard positions with sophomore Nick Newton and redshirt freshman Aaron Butler also challenging for playing time. Newton was forced to miss spring drills while recovering from an ankle injury.
Junior college transfer Francisco Tipoti could give the offensive line some immediate help, but he will have to pick up the Huskies' offensive playbook quickly since he will not enroll at Washington until the fall.
'I have never had an offensive line that is potentially as young as this one could be, but it is exciting,' Neuheisel says. 'We don't know exactly what to expect except that I know we have very competitive young guys that are excited about the challenge and are all anxious to get out there.
'I like our individual players, the key for the offensive line is to learn how to play together and again, it is difficult to accomplish that without having the opportunity to do so. We have got to play, I would love for our guys to get a couple of tune-up type preseason games but that isn't the case with our particular schedule, so we're going to grow up cutting our teeth against the very best in the country.'
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 23 lettermen on defense, many of which played significant minutes in 2000. 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 that 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 and Hatem's premature departures will probably spell more playing time for Jerome Stevens, who gained valuable playing time last season as a true freshman, a rarity on the Husky defensive line.
Junior Geoff Shelton will be joined by redshirt freshmen, Josh Miller and Junior Coffin, along with sophomore Terry Johnson, as the players competing for playing time on the defensive line. Neuheisel does not dismiss the possibility of playing some freshmen at the position.
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 JUCO defensive player of the year. Both were impressive during spring drills.
'We took some hits on the defensive line that we probably were not capable of taking but we've got to find a way. Ossim Hatem's medical situation is, on one hand, very fortunate because we detected it and he's fine. On the other hand, it was very unfortunate because he cannot play and he was one of our better defensive front players. Larry Tripplett, Jerome Stevens and Marcus Roberson look to be the experience coming in there and I hope that they all have great years. However, behind them we are very inexperienced as we talked about on the offensive line that becomes a concern and we will just have to see how we hold up in the fall.'
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 and Tyler Krambrink. Marquis Cooper, who played as a true freshman at outside linebacker, will move to an inside position for 2001. Redshirt freshmen Tim Galloway and Matt Lingley will figure more into the mix this spring.
Mahdavi started eight games and 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 think our linebacker situation is improved,' Neuheisel says. 'We will have to see if anyone is as efficient as Derrell Daniels has been over that last couple of years making play after play after play. Athletically you have got to like the way we line up. We've got Anthony Kelley, Sam Blanche, and Jafar Williams on one side and you've got Kai Ellis - who I think can be an impact player - and Zach Tuiasosopo on the other side.
'In the middle I think you've got a chance for some great speed. Jamaun Willis is a proven player in there and he is backed up at the strong inside linebacker by Tim Galloway, and I think that they will both play a lot. Ben Mahdavi is kind of a guy that can go into either position and we've got two young guys that run really well in Tyler Krambrink and Marquis Cooper that will make teams create schemes to try and block them. They are able to make tackles from sideline to sideline.'
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 free 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, heads into the fall as the backup behind Carothers.
Owen Biddle, a walkon who started at safety in the Rose Bowl, heads into fall as the starter at strong safety. Sophomore Jimmy Newell, who appeared in all 11 games as a true freshman in 2000, will battle for the free safety spot along with senior Nick Olszewski. Senior Wondame Davis, a wide receiver in 2000, returns to the defensive backfield and will also look to contribute at safety.
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 kept him out of spring practice. Roc Alexander, another true freshman who played last season, could 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 also compete for playing time.
'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-sighted 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 position is a little bit more up for grabs. I liked the way Owen Biddle has played and he was very solid in the Rose Bowl against a very strong passing team.'
Junior placekicker 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, also spent time at punter in the 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-ons who who had an opportunity this spring to punt and to display their abilities,' Neuheisel says. 'Spring was also a good time for John Anderson and Jim Skurski to punt and see how consistent they 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 it's, `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're excited about the upcoming season. We had a lot of question marks coming into the spring and I don't think they have all been answered, but certainly there is a lot of enthusiasm with our young players. I think there is plenty of talent. The issue is experience and we can't get over that hurdle without having a chance to play games.'