Huskies Buy Into Willingham's System

Aug. 24, 2007

By Tim Booth
AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE (AP) - Tyrone Willingham claimed not to care.

Whether they were players Willingham inherited from the previous coaching regimes of Rich Neuheisel and Keith Gilbertson or ones he signed himself, the Huskies' head man says it didn't matter how they got to Washington.

``I've never been a believer that that is what is important, that it is 'my guys,''' Willingham said. ``What's more important to me is the values system of the football team _ and you do not have to be recruited by Tyrone Willingham to share the same values.''

They are almost all Willingham's guys now, the dawn of the third season at UW for the former coach at Stanford and Notre Dame. And his Huskies have bought into his systematic and disciplined way.

``I've never been a believer that that is what is important, that it is 'my guys.' What's more important to me is the values system of the football team - and you do not have to be recruited by Tyrone Willingham to share the same values.''

``I think it's a matter of steps before we really turn the corner,'' linebacker Dan Howell said of a team that has gone 7-16 under Willingham, the same record Gilbertson had in his two years before he was fired.

``I don't think we're that far away from being the ideal team he had in mind when he first got here.''

Willingham's third season begins much as his second did, with the ambitious hope of taking Washington to a bowl game for the first time since 2002.

But despite an improvement in all-around talent from a team that finished 5-7 last season, reality clouds Washington's hopes. The Huskies have what many consider the toughest schedule in the country, so Willingham could become the first coach in Washington's storied history to have three straight losing seasons.

Even matching last year's win total will be a challenging task.

``I think our team looks at it that way. It's a challenge. It's an opportunity,'' Willingham said.

That schedule is one of two items that have dominated the talk about the Huskies this summer. The other is the eagerly anticipated debut of redshirt freshman quarterback Jake Locker - the gem of Willingham's second recruiting class.

Washington will play six teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, including a gauntlet to begin the season. After opening at Syracuse on Aug. 31, the Huskies will host No. 24 Boise State and No. 11 Ohio State, then go to No. 14 UCLA. They end September by hosting top-ranked Southern California.

If Locker survives that brutal first month under center, October could almost be considered a breather. But November brings rising Oregon State, No. 12 California, the 100th meeting with rival Washington State and a Dec. 1 date in Honolulu with high-powered Hawaii, ranked 23rd.


Tickets are on sale for all seven of Washington's home games this season. Call 206/543-2220 for information.

``All the opportunity is there for you. If you're in the Pac-10, you're playing (Division I) football, this is the schedule you dream of,'' said defensive end Greyson Gunheim. ``You want to play the best talent because it's only going to make you better.''

The schedule became a rallying point during summer workouts, where Locker focused on improving his footwork, an issue in spring practice. It was also the time Locker stepped forward as the leader of the offense.

``I don't like anything about Jake. I love Jake. I love everything about Jake,'' said receiver Marcel Reece, likely to be one of Locker's main targets. ``His maturity level is so high. You say he's a redshirt freshman, but I don't believe it. He's just so mature about everything he does.''

Locker won't have the same acceleration fleet quarterback Isaiah Stanback did in leading Washington to a 4-1 start last season, before his college career ended with a foot injury. But Locker is a physical talent - built like a linebacker, fast enough to be a threat as a runner - with an arm that effortlessly floats 50-yard passes.

He'll be protected by an experienced and large offensive line, anchored by senior Juan Garcia. Success in producing holes for running back Louis Rankin would be a godsend that would relieve pressure from Locker, already anointed the program's savior.

Washington has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Rashaan Shehee in 1997.

``One thing I like about our guys now is not only are we big, but we're athletic,'' Garcia said. ``We might not have had that combination in the past, where we were too small, or too big or too sloppy.''

Defensively, the strength is talent and depth up front with starting tackles Jordan Reffett and Wilson Afoa, plus stout ends Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Gunheim.

At linebacker, sophomore Donald Butler has been slowed by a knee injury, but should start alongside E.J. Savannah and Howell.

The concern is in the secondary, which struggled to prevent big plays a season ago. Cornerback Roy Lewis and safety Jason Wells return, but experience and depth is wafer-thin beyond them. Expected starter Jordan Murchison is out indefinitely after he turned himself in to police for failing to appear in court on a felony assault charge earlier this month.

With two years of experience now, Gunheim expects the defense to be thinking less, and reacting more.

``It just comes a lot easier,'' he said. ``You can just free-flow on the field and play better.''

The Huskies' schedule demands that.

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