2002 Washington Football Outlook
July 29, 2002
When fourth-year Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel sits down to discuss the Husky football squad, he seems to be a bit defensive. That is to say, he seems to be constantly talking about Washington's defense.
Despite posting an 8-4 record last year, the Huskies were outscored 323 to 310 during the regular season. That included late-season losses to Oregon State and Miami where the UW defense gave up 49 and 65 points, respectively. Washington's Holiday Bowl matchup with Texas resulted in a 47-43 setback, after the Huskies had built a 19-point lead.
'The facts of the matter are we played defense last year with a group of guys - while the effort level was never questioned - that was not up to the caliber of what a top-ranked program, talent-wise, should play with,' Neuheisel says. 'We found ourselves in some deficit situations, whether it was because of talent or experience.'
Five starters, and several key reserves, return for the Husky defense in 2002. They will be joined by eight starters on an offense which figures to be one of the most productive in the nation. Both starting kickers are also back for the Huskies. Washington returns a total of 50 lettermen from last year's team that tied for second in the Pac-10 with a 6-2 conference record.
On defense, the Huskies will look to find replacements for defensive tackles Larry Tripplett, an All-American in 2001, and Marcus Roberson, a two-year starter on the line. Also gone are linebackers Sam Blanche and Jamaun Willis, free safety Wondame Davis and cornerback Omare Lowe. The Husky defensive line took another blow in the off-season when senior-to-be Spencer Marona announced he would not play his final season due to reoccurring shoulder problems.
The Husky defense has 23 returning lettermen to build around this spring. Senior linebacker Jafar Williams, who missed the 2001 season due to a shoulder injury, returns to the roster. Also back is sophomore cornerback Derrick Johnson, who redshirted last year due to a foot injury. Both could find themselves in starting roles when the Huskies open their season Aug. 31 at Michigan.
While the Husky offense returns eight starters and a total of 25 lettermen, it still must find replacements for center Kyle Benn, tailback Willie Hurst, wide receiver Todd Elstrom and tight end Jerramy Stevens, who opted to enter the NFL draft following his junior season.
'Last year the focus was on our 'unproven' offensive line and Cody Pickett taking over at quarterback,' Neuheisel says. 'So what happened? The offensive line, while young, was a very consistent and productive part of our offense. Cody went out and set all sorts of passing records.
'The focus may be on our defense, but they are capable of getting the job done. We might be young in several positions, but there have been some people step up and show great effort. Last year we had a number of players strap it up and play with some tough injuries. That shows a lot of heart. That's what will eventually get the job done.'
Washington lost a total of 23 lettermen from last year's team, including 11 on offense, 11 on defense and kicker Jim Skurski.
Hurst graduated as the ninth UW back to rush for more than 2,000 yards (2,093) yards during a career. He was eighth in rushing in the Pac-10 last season at 60.7 yards per game. Benn was an all-Pac-10 pick in 2001 and served as a team captain along with Hurst. He has been the Huskies' starting center during Neuheisel's first three seasons with the Huskies.
Elstrom caught 35 passes as a senior and finished with 95 receptions during his career. The 10th leading pass catcher in UW history, Elstrom proved to be a reliable target for Husky quarterbacks. Stevens, who missed most of the season due to a broken foot, was an especially effective player in red zone situations thanks to his 6-7 size. He finished his career with 74 total catches and eight scores.
On defense, Tripplett accounted for 38 tackles and 14 tackles for loss as a senior. His presence often drew a double team, helping to free up the Husky linebackers. Roberson, despite being slowed by a shoulder injury during the 2001 season, made 20 tackles. Willis, at inside linebacker, was third on the team with 62 total tackles. Blanche, who blossomed at an outside linebacker spot, made 30 stops as a senior. Davis, at free safety, accounted for 50 tackles. Lowe broke up nine passes at cornerback, returned one interception for a touchdown and also blocked a field goal attempt that resulted in a score.
Washington's offense appears to have all of the weapons to be one of the most formidable units in the country. Led by junior quarterback Cody Pickett, 2001 freshman All-American wide receiver Reggie Williams and senior wideout Paul Arnold, the Huskies have the capacity to go to the air for big-play production. Mix in a solid group of running backs and a young offensive line that made an impressive debut last year, and there is plenty of reason for optimism.
'A year ago I was really concerned with replacing four starters on the offensive line,' Neuheisel says. 'There was a lot of attention paid to the quarterback position and Cody Pickett taking over for Marques Tuiasosopo, but I felt all along he would be fine, and he was. It was the offensive line that pleasantly surprised me. To go out and win seven of our first eight games with that many first-year players was really impressive.
'We have plenty of starters returning on offense, but we can't be complacent and just expect the results to come to us. We need to get better in our running game and more consistent in our passing. We cannot afford some of the turnovers we had last year.'
Last season Pickett demonstrated why he has the tools to be one of the Huskies' greatest signalcallers. He passed for 2,403 yards, the third highest single-season mark in UW history. He accomplished that despite playing the final seven games of the year with a painful separated right (throwing) shoulder he suffered against USC. He set a handful of UW passing marks, most notably the single-game passing record when he threw for 455 yards against Arizona, the first game he played after suffering his shoulder injury.
Pickett, who will be a junior in 2002, needs to average just 145 passing yards per game over his final two seasons to become UW's all-time passing leader.
'He impressed me a great deal,' Neuheisel says of Pickett. 'He was a first-year quarterback, but he played at times like a guy beyond that. He will improve greatly going from last year to this year. People may not understand that given that he had some pretty impressive numbers. He will have learned an unbelievable amount in terms of how to read defenses, how to get off covered guys and go to the next guy. He will be a much-improved player in terms of managing our offense. I think he'll be more accurate down the field because his arm will be healthy.'
Barton, a senior, was effective in the backup role last year. He completed 44 of 86 attempts for 647 yards and threw five touchdown passes. Paus, a strong-throwing 6-4 quarterback, who is the younger brother of UCLA's Cory Paus, will get more repetitions in the practice rotation.
Last season a shoulder injury kept Rich Alexis from participating in spring drills and he was not able to capitalize on a freshman season that saw him rush for 726 yards and average 6.2 yards per rush. Last year Alexis' productivity dipped to 391 yards and an average of 3.1 yards per carry, despite rushing the ball eight more times than he did as a freshman.
'Rich is really just starting,' Neuheisel says. 'Even though he has competed for two years, this is the first time he has really gone through an off-season program where he has dedicated himself. This will be his first spring football. Rich is obviously what you look for from a physical standpoint, but he has to prove that he wants to be 'The Guy.''
Helping to fill Hurst's void will be senior tailback Braxton Cleman, who missed all but one game last year due to a broken collarbone. Cleman has been a very steady performer as a rusher and receiver. He has averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 145 career attempts and has caught 20 passes for 171 yards.
Chris Singleton, who lettered as a true freshman while rushing for 45 yards on 14 carries, is Washington's only other returning running back with game experience. Freshman Kenny James could also see playing time at the position.
The move of outside linebacker Zach Tuiasosopo to fullback during spring drills proved to be a positive for the offense. Tuiasosopo, who played the position in high school, looked solid as a blocker and will continue to develop as a runner and pass catcher.
Washington's wide receiving corps has the makings of one of the best groupings in the nation. While Williams and Arnold grab most of the headlines, seniors Wilbur Hooks and Patrick Reddick along with sophomores Justin Robbins and Charles Frederick are all capable wide outs.
How good is Williams? All he did last year was compile the most receiving yards (973) by a freshman in Pac-10 history. His 55 receptions were a conference record. Williams never had less than three catches in a game and set his career marks against Washington State with 11 receptions for 203 yards. He ranked third in the Pac-10 and 21st in the nation in receiving at 88.45 yards per game. The first freshman to ever start his first game as a Husky, Williams had four catches for 134 yards in a victory against 10th-ranked Michigan.
'The remarkable thing about Reggie Williams is, you look at him and say, 'This guy has everything you are looking for in the position,'' Neuheisel says. 'He has all the physical attributes, the size and speed, great hands. More importantly, Reggie loves to work. He is the last one to leave the field. He loves to do the dirty work.
'People only see him as a receiver, but he's a very physical player who is a great blocker down field. He enjoys that part of the game. The one thing I want him to focus on is the deep ball. We need to help him be a better vertical receiver with that great speed.'
While Williams was grabbing most of the headlines, Arnold also made a great debut as a Husky receiver. After playing tailback his first two seasons as at Washington, Arnold caught 43 passes for 649 yards as a junior. He demonstrated outstanding speed and open-field running skills while recording touchdown receptions of 62 and 78 yards.
'Paul really was a rookie as a wide receiver last year,' Neuheisel says. 'I thought he did an exceptional job. They say the biggest jump is usually from year one to year two. You're going to see a great jump with him. As teams double team Reggie, that creates single-coverage for Paul and he can take advantage of that.'
Hooks, who has missed some playing time due to a shoulder injury, also returns after making 21 receptions over the past two years. Justin Robbins, who caught 22 passes as a freshman in 2000 before missing last season due to several injuries, hopes to be back on the field after a knee injury he suffered during practice for the Holiday Bowl forced him out of spring practice.
Washington picked up a bonus at the position last spring when Reddick, a receiver who caught 15 passes for 291 yards and two scores, received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
Frederick earned first-team freshman All-American accolades as one of the nation's top punt returners. He averaged 14.6 yards per return and had an 87-yard runback for a touchdown during the season. He never caught a pass during the season. During the winter, Frederick was a guard for the Husky basketball team.
Due to a lack of healthy players last spring, a pair of walk-ons, Matt DeBord and Matt Griffith impressed the coaching staff with their solid work ethic. Interestingly, Griffith was Williams' high school quarterback.
'All of these guys have proved they can be playmakers,' Neuheisel says. 'They have all been in big games and now they have played a full season with Cody. They are a veteran group and we need them to perform like veterans.'
The Huskies lose three tight ends from last year's squad, but return Kevin Ware, who started eight times in 10 games due to an injury to Stevens. At 6-3, 275 pounds, Ware gives Washington a solid blocker on the offensive line and he demonstrated he can be an effective pass catcher. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception on seven catches last year.
'Kevin Ware was an unsung hero last year,' Neuheisel says. 'Kevin played really well and came into his own. As he enters his senior year, he can have a major impact on this team. I think he is motivated to have a big-time senior year. We'll need Joe Toledo and Andy Heater to come through for us.'
Redshirt freshmen Joe Toledo and Andy Heater will see their first playing time at the position. Neuheisel has indicated that junior defensive tackle Terry Johnson, a tight end in high school, could be used in short-yardage situations at the position.
'We really took a hit at this position with three of our top four players gone,' Neuheisel says. 'We'll need some younger players to step up here.'
With four starters back, Neuheisel has to do a little shuffling to fill out the Husky offensive line.
'A year ago the offensive line was my biggest concern,' Neuheisel says. 'Four fifths of our offensive line had not played. To win seven of our first eight games, with that, was somewhat amazing.
'I think we can really go places with our offensive line,' Neuheisel says. 'Through our recruiting, I think we'll be able to keep the offensive line a strength. That area is always going to be the cornerstone of the offensive side of the football team. What they can do will dictate what you can do on offense. I feel really good about where we are.'
Todd Bachert, a tackle last season, moves to center to replace Benn. Bachert missed spring drills due to a shoulder injury. In his place, sophomore Dan Dicks worked at the position along with redshirt freshman Brad Vanneman and junior Mike Thompson, giving that trio some valuable playing time.
Nick Newton and Elliott Zajac return as starters at Washington's two-guard position, although Newton may switch to tackle. They will be backed up by sophomore Aaron Butler, who started against Washington State in 2001, redshirt freshman Brandon Leyritz and junior Jason Simonson.
Junior Andre Reeves figures to move into Bachert's position at tackle while sophomore Khalif Barnes returns as the starter at the weakside position. Sophomore Ryan Brooks and junior Justin Booker will backup Barnes while Francisco Tipoti, a junior college transfer, will push redshirt freshman Rob Meadow for playing time behind Reeves.
During the off-season Neuheisel admitted to thinking about moving the Huskies away from the 3-4 (Eagle) defense Washington has employed during the past three seasons. Instead of an overhaul, he opted to make some small changes to the scheme and instead, emphasize the team's speed at linebacker. He also stresses that attitude will play the biggest role in reversing the team's late-season effort.
'We need to play better on defense,' Neuheisel says. 'We have talked scheme, and scheme is certainly part of it. We have talked personnel and personnel is certainly part of it. But more than anything what I want back on defense is an attitude. We have to have the players understand when you strap on that Husky helmet and play defense here you have to carry a certain badge of honor with that. We need to get that back.'
'Our defensive line is young and just needs an identity,' Neuheisel says. 'I don't think we lack talent, I think we just need an identity, a bell cow as they say, somebody that is just going to go to take charge. I think there are some guys in there who can do that. I also think that we need to emphasize that you do not have to be a senior to do that, you just have to be a war daddy, a guy who just can't wait to play.'
Junior Jerome Stevens is the lone returning starter on the Husky defensive line. Playing primarily at defensive end last year, Stevens totaled 20 tackles and had three for loss. Stevens will probably see more time at nose tackle this year, along with sophomore Josh Miller and redshirt freshman Tusi Sa'au. Miller gained valuable experience as a redshirt freshman in 2001, starting four times while accounting for 10 tackles.
Sophomore Manase Hopoi and junior Terry Johnson could land starting roles at defensive tackle. Hopoi did not play last year, but won high praise by the coaches for his play in practice on the scout teams. Johnson made a name for himself in the Holiday Bowl when he picked off a Texas pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Sophomores Tui Alailefaleula and Junior Coffin and are two reserve players who will vie for the defensive tackle position. Alailefaleula appeared in eight games and started the UCLA contest while Johnson and Coffin both played in 10 games.
Redshirt freshman Graham Lasee, will look to fill the defensive end spot.
'Linebacker is going to be the cornerstone of our defense,' Neuheisel says. 'We have some very exciting players there, including our two-time MVP, Ben Mahdavi. The challenge is to get the right people on the field. We have some good combinations to work with and plenty of players with the speed to get to the ball.'
Washington has an abundance of talent at its inside and outside linebacker position. Senior inside linebacker Ben Mahdavi leads that group. He topped Washington in tackles last season with 85, including 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. Mahdavi missed spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery, allowing several younger players a chance to earn playing time.
Sophomore Joseph Lobendahn took advantage of the situation and is penciled in as a probable starter this fall. An explosive tackler quick to fill a gap, Lobendahn was one of four true freshman to see playing time last season. He appeared in every game as a special teams performer and registered eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Last season, playing at outside linebacker, Cooper appeared in all 11 games and recorded 34 tackles. Lingley, who saw most of his playing time on special teams, had 10 tackles in 2001.
Krambrink, who was sidelined with a wrist injury for most of last season, has demonstrated an ability to come up with big plays for the Huskies.
Tim Galloway enters the fall as the backup to Mahdavi. Last season he appeared in every game and totaled 19 tackles as Willis' backup.
The Huskies have a number of experienced players at the outside positions.
Senior Kai Ellis returns at the rush end backer position. His transition from the junior college ranks to the Huskies was slowed last year due to surgery on both knees during the season. He appeared in nine games and totaled 39 tackles but failed to record a sack. Senior Anthony Kelley, who has played in 33 regular-season games and started seven times, also returns at the position. He has 71 career tackles, including 14 for loss and six sacks.
Senior Jafar Williams, who missed the 2001 campaign due to a shoulder injury, is back at the strongside outside linebacker spot, where he started as a sophomore and junior. Williams has appeared in 32 games and started 18 times, with 59 career tackles.
Redshirt freshman Ty Eriks was moved from running back to safety last spring and made a number of impressive plays during UW's scrimmages. Late during the spring practice period the Husky coaches moved him to outside linebacker to take advantage of his speed. He will lineup behind Williams at the weakside position.
Washington has a solid corps of cornerbacks and safeties to build its defensive backfield. The Huskies are hoping for improved play in that area, which was impacted severely by injuries last season.
'We need to get some guys healthy and ready to play again,' Neuheisel says. 'It will be fun to have Derrick Johnson back. He allows us to do some nice things in the backfield. Roc Alexander and Greg Carother both played with shoulder problems last year and should be more productive this year. I think Sam Cunningham played very well last year as a freshman and expect to see him continue to improve at cornerback.
'We're going to have some new faces out there competing for the first time and I'm anxious to see what they can do. Who is going to step up and take on a bigger role? That's the question for this group.'
Last year Alexander started four times in 11 regular-season appearances. He used his quick closing skills to come up with four interceptions and 11 pass deflections, the third best mark in UW history.
Sophomore Derrick Johnson, who missed the 2001 season due to a foot injury, heads into the fall as the starter at the other cornerback spot. As a freshman in 2000, he had 19 tackles and was used primarily on special teams as a kick returner.
Two other returning veterans at cornerback are junior Chris Massey and Cunningham. Massey started seven times last season and totaled 31 tackles and four pass deflections. Cunningham appeared in every game and had eight tackles and two pass breakups.
Carothers is the incumbent at strong safety. He started every game last year and was second on the team with 72 total tackles. Evan Benjamin, a redshirt freshman, will see his first playing time at the position. Owen Biddle, another safety slowed by a shoulder injury, should also be back at full speed. At free safety, sophomore Jimmy Newell has the most experience of a group that includes redshirt freshman James Sims and sophomore RayShon Dukes.
Senior John Anderson returns to handle the placekicking duties for the Huskies and will be a strong candidate for the Groza Award. He has scored 223 points during his career and converted 12 of 19 field goal attempts from greater than 40 yards, including a long of 56 yards. He was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection as a junior and enters his final year at UW with 39 career field goals to rank third on the Huskies' all-time list.
Sophomore Derek McLaughlin will again handle the punting duties. A second-team freshman All-American, McLaughlin averaged 41.2 yards per punt and set a school record with a 74 yard boot at California. His punting average was the best by a Husky in 15 seasons. He will need to improve his timing after seeing five of his attempts blocked last season.
Washington opens its 2002 campaign August 31 at Michigan, the earliest start in the program's history. The Huskies do not return to the road until Oct. 19,when they face USC. Washington will play five consecutive games at Husky Stadium between those two road contests.
November could be a critical month for the Huskies. Washington hosts UCLA and Oregon State on back-to-back weekends before finishing the season on the road at Oregon and Washington State.
In addition to Michigan, UW's non-conference schedule includes home dates with Idaho, San Jose State and Wyoming.
During Neuheisel's first three seasons at Washington, the Huskies have finished second in the Pac-10 twice and won the title in 2001. He feels this year's squad has a chance to make another title run.
'We have as good of a chance as anyone else,' Neuheisel says. 'We're going to line up with winning the Pac-10 as our goal. We're a young, young group on defense. Hopefully we can play well enough to keep ourselves in a position to win games.'