Archive for the ‘Jake Locker’ Category

Spring Fish Wrap – UW Edition

June 23, 2009


And now we come to the end of the line, as our in-state friends from Montlake are up as the final WSU opponent of 2009.

I guess, honestly, there are a lot of ways a Coug can go. We could rip them for 0-12 and the third WSU Apple Cup victory in the last four years. We could add a counter to the site, showing how many days it’s been since UW won a football game (we won’t do that. But psst…if you are curious? As of this writing, it’s been 584 days since they tasted victory….I know, right?!)

We could joke about their beliefs that they are ultra-superior to many PAC-10 programs, yet they have been one of the worst since 2000 (more on that later). We could poke them for a small, mouthy group of Coug alums single-handedly sinking their $150 million dollar Olympia tax grab towards a renovation of Husky Stadium. Not that it’s entirely true, of course, as there were several factors at play when Olympia failed to act. We’re just the easy scapegoat, and it’s understandable. Don’t get your way? Blame someone else. Case closed.

But nah. We won’t do any of those things. It’s a new era in Seattle, as Stevie Sarkisian steps away from the rather large shadow of Pete Carroll and takes the reins of his own PAC-10 program. And Sarkisian was able to lure his partner in crime at SC, Nick Holt, back to the Northwest to lead his defense. And so far, it’s safe to say the guy is winning the “battle of the podium”, don’t you think so? From the super-energetic press conferences, the endless Twitter updates with how awesome everything is (“12:30 – stuck in traffic. GO DAWGS!”), etc. But you know what? It’s working. UW’s racking up the verbal commits, and right now they have the top collection of verbals in the PAC-10. That list includes QB prospect Nick Montana.


You know, Nick Montana. The son of Joe Montana. The QB Husky fans wanted all along. Please, pay no attention to all the lapping up of all-things-Jake-Heaps. That was all just a big joke. They are happy Heaps is following his heart and headed for Provo to play for BYU. They never wanted him anyway. It was always about Montana…..

Anyway, whatever.

Look, there are signs that Sarkisian is off to a good start. Even Coug fans can see it. Reports are that spring practices were filled with energy and enthusiasm, and the local media has been slurping it up. Sarkisian has reportedly reached out to the fans, opening the practices and doing what he can to get people involved and excited.

And why not? The last regime was about as exciting as another loss on a rainy November day in Seattle. Not only did they have a closed off, stubborn coach who was too serious/boring, they also LOST A LOT OF FOOTBALL GAMES IN THE PROCESS! Ty Willingham’s record was an abysmal 11-37 in Seattle (wow!), including 6-29 in the PAC-10. That four-year stench includes three 10th place finishes, with the lone bright spot a 9th place finish in 2006.

But what happens when they actually have to play a game? Will there still be butterflies when Sarkisian enters the room? And how much energy and enthusiasm will he have if they get blown out, or start the era off slowly? And after spring ball, what exactly does he have to work with? Let’s take a look…

2008: 0-12, and they looked awful doing it. Included was a hard-to-swallow 28-27 loss to BYU, when Jake Locker drew an excessive celebration penalty for throwing the football about 50 feet over his head as he scored in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. 15-yard penalty, BYU blocks the PAT, GAME OVER, drive home safely. And of course, the ’08 Apple Cup, pitting two of the worst Washington-Washington State teams in the modern age against each other on the same field. We know how that turned out….

“WHEEE! We’re not the worst ever!”

But all in all, from top to bottom, just about the worst experience imaginable for UW’s 2008 season.

FANS ARE: JACKED UP ON HOLT AND SARK SAUCE!

They have been drinking it by the gallon, and are convinced that things are all set to turn around. The eternally optimistic Sark is in the midst of a long, tender embrace at the bosom of Husky nation. And we can’t really blame them for being excited after such an awful ’08 season. But get a few Zima’s in a Husky fan, and deep down, they will admit that the feeling among the Husky faithful understand that this thing is going to take a while to right the ship. This wasn’t just a bad team because of Jake Locker’s thumb injury that sidelined him for 2/3rds of the season. There was a team-wide lack of talent, athleticism and speed, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. It will take time to get pieces in the right place to succeed.

LAST TIME vs. WSU: We’ve been over it already, but a 16-13 double-OT thriller of sorts. If you recall, the game was nearly over, with UW holding a 10-7 lead. Well, here’s ESPN’s recap of how regulation ended:

Washington controlled the action for 59 minutes, bringing themselves to the verge of snapping the longest losing streak in the country and becoming the last Football Bowl Subdivision team to beat someone. The Huskies (0-11, 0-8 Pac-10) bounced on the sideline at the prospect of ending the worst skid in school history.

Then their misery was extended thanks to an unlikely hookup that added a new duo to Apple Cup lore.

Washington State quarterback Kevin Lopina, playing just a week after getting knocked out with a concussion, was erratic all day. He missed easy throws and open receivers. He ran when he shouldn’t and often threw to the wrong receiver.

But he was nearly perfect in the final minute as the Cougars drove 69 yards to force overtime. After hitting Brandon Gibson to convert a third-and-1 at his own 34, Lopina found freshman Jared Karstetter right in stride sprinting behind a beaten Washington secondary. Karstetter, with only three catches all season, raced for 48 yards to the Washington 18 with 24 seconds left and suddenly overtime was a possibility.

“You never really plan on something like that,” Karstetter said.

Karstetter then caught a 7-yard pass but didn’t get out of bounds, forcing Lopina to rush to the line and spike the ball with 2 seconds left. Grasu, with a nervous stutter step at the start of his approach, then hit the first of his three kicks to send the game to overtime tied at 10.

The Cougs would capitalize on two Ryan Perkins missed field goals, the last leading off the second OT, and WSU’s Nico Grasu would nail the game-winner from 37 yards out.

OFFENSIVE SYSTEM: It’s going to be different in ’09, that’s for sure. Expect a lot of what you used to see out of USC, with a decidedly west-coast-offense flavor. Look for a fullback, a tight end, and multiple WR sets on occasion. But the big change is supposedly going to be at QB, where Sarkisian has already claimed that Jake Locker is going to learn to be a more complete QB who stays home vs. tucking and running at the first sign of trouble. The QB running the ball isn’t going to be completely taken out, but, it will certainly be curtailed a bit in the new pro-style offense.

’08 OFFENSIVE RANKINGS:
117th in scoring offense (13.3 ppg), 106th in rushing offense (99.3 ypg), 101st in passing offense (163.8 ypg), and 116th in total offense (263.2 ypg). Granted, the majority of the season was with a redshirt frosh QB in Ronnie Fouch, who was clearly not the caliber of QB in Jake Locker. But a miserable year offensively.

’09 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Hard to say, but some accounts say six starters are back, others say up to eight. But no matter the number, there are a lot of familiar faces back from last year among starters and backups.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Who else but Jake Locker?


A fabulous athlete who could probably play running back, linebacker or safety in the PAC-10, he’s the best football player on the UW roster. He had a flashy ’07 season, but it was a little bit of fools gold if you want to know the truth. Sure, he ran for nearly 1,000 yards, and he threw for over 2,000 his first year. But he threw more INT’s than TD’s, and his completion percentage was a pedestrian 47%. In ’08, there was some improvement intially in terms of taking care of the ball, as Locker didn’t throw a pick in the three and 1/2 games he played. He completed 53.8% of his passes last year, up from the 47% the prior year. But he threw just one TD and was averaging only 128 yards per game through the air when he went down with the broken thumb in week four. He is really going to have to take some strides in the accuracy department as a passer if UW has any hope of making some noise in ’09.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: Think USC defense, only not as big, fast or talented. But seriously, it will be your garden variety 4-3. DC Nick Holt will bring the intensity, that’s for sure, and the USC defenses have been legendary of late.

’08 DEFENSIVE RATINGS: You thought they were bad in ’07, where Washington set school records for defensive futility? They were WORSE in ’08. Hide your eyes….

116th in the country in scoring defense (38.6), 117th in rushing D (240.6 ypg), 62nd in passing yards per game (211.2), and 110th in total defense (451.8). Washington would finish last in the PAC-10 in interceptions (7), and would tie for last in sacks (16). So basically a push-over defense that didn’t take the ball away OR get pressure on the QB. Yikes.

’09 RETURNING STARTERS: At least they’ll be experienced. UW returns eight starters on D, including the return of linebacker EJ Savannah.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: We could go with Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, he of his eight sacks on a terrible defense last year. He had exactly 50% of the team total in that category alone, so at least he didn’t quit in a lost year. Mason Foster had a breakthrough ’08, leading the team in tackles (105) and tackles-for-loss (12). But instead, I’m going with the number one player who will make the biggest impact in ’09, and that is EJ Savannah.


Savannah had a huge 2007 season. He led the team with 111 tackles, 14 for loss, a couple of sacks and an INT from the outside linebacker position. But grades and other issues, including not seeing eye-to-eye with Willingham, plus a broken arm suffered from arm wrestling (?), had Savannah on the sidelines for ’08. But with the hire of Sarkisian, Savannah gets a clean slate. He’s back for his senior year, ready to lead in ’09. Health has been a problem for Savannah in the past, where he missed some time in ’06 with a hand injury and ’05 with a neck issue lingering from high school. But if he’s healthy, he’s a lead-pipe cinch to rack up at least 100 tackles.

TOP THREE SPRING QUESTIONS:

1) How does Locker look in the new offense? This might have been the biggest story of the entire spring, and that is Locker looks to be over the broken thumb from last year. He had a productive spring, and was reportedly improving with each practice.


But, like it or not, the heat – and weight of the UW program – will be on Locker to improve, quickly, in the revamped UW offense. Sarkisian knows his QB’s, playing the position at BYU and coaching several good ones at USC (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez). You have to believe he knows what he’s doing with a talent like this. We’ll see if it actually translates to the field. I wouldn’t count Locker out though. He is on a special level in terms of ability, among the most physically gifted to ever play the position in the conference.

2) Can the offensive line give Locker a chance to be special in ’09?


Everyone thought the return of Juan Garcia for a PAC-10 record 17th season at center last year would mean UW would road-grate their way to all sorts of rushing records (note – Garcia only played five years. It just felt like he’d been at UW since a young upstart named Bill Clinton won the White House). But the line was a disappointment, as the running game averaged only 2.8 yards per carry.

And quite honestly, as a group they might have been exposed a bit once Locker was out of the lineup. Locker’s scrambling ability kept defenses honest, but he was so elusive that he helped mask a line that was strong, but below-average at pass-blocking and looked a little soft around the midsection. They gave up 32 sacks last year, not a terrible number, but 10 of those were in the first 3 1/2 games with Locker at QB. Even he couldn’t get out of the way of the opposing pass-rush.


Three starters are back up front, including the entire left side plus the center in Ryan Tolar. But the right side is new, featuring converted defensive tackle Senio Kelemete moving across the line to right guard. Their top priority has to be keeping #10 healthy and confident in the new scheme, or else it could be another long, brutal season on offense.

3) Can the D get any worse? After a school-worst ’07 defensive season, UW brought in Ed Donatell with his shiny NFL resume’ to turn it all around, but they actually took a step back in ’08. Pretty amazing, but ’08 was WORSE than ’07. But as stated above, they will be experienced, and the return of EJ Savannah will be a huge boost to the defense. The top five tacklers are back from last year, and that doesn’t even include Savannah. I bet that with the number of experienced returners, combined with the energy and intensity of Holt, will see this group improve by leaps and bounds over ’08.

WSU FOOTBALL BLOG SEZ: It’s been a slow roll down the hill for UW, but in ’08, they finally hit bottom. The reality though is that this thing didn’t just flatline overnight. It’s been flickering for years. Including the 2000 season, where UW won the Rose Bowl and went 11-1, the Huskies are now just 44-62 this decade, 29-29 at home. That puts UW 8th in the conference since the 2000 season. But instability has had a lot to do with it. UW is now on their fourth coach since that glorious Rose Bowl year (Neuheisel-Gilby-Willingham-Sarkisian), and that’s just far too many changes to build anything with consistency. Compare that string with the Oregon schools for example, where it’s been Mike Riley for several years, and Mike Bellotti for many more than that before Chip Kelly got the Oregon gig this year.

It’s hard to know exactly what they are getting with Sarkisian. A positive salesman and showing to be a pretty good recruiter right now, absolutely. And it’s hard to argue against his success with QB’s at USC. But as is often the case, predicting what a long-time assistant is going to do when he gets his own BCS program and all that goes with it is very difficult.

The schedule gets off to a rough start. They open with LSU in Seattle, where that SEC speed and power will be on full display to open the Sarkisian era. They get a layup the next week in Idaho, where the losing streak should finally come to an end. But then it’s USC on 9/19, where Sarkisian gets first crack at Pete Carroll. They close out September with a tough road game at Stanford, where Harbaugh and the Cardinal are looking like they could be one of the surprise teams of the PAC-10 in ’09. Then they open October at South Bend, where Notre Dame has the look of a potential BCS bowl written all over them! It could very well be a 1-4 start to ’09.

They also go to ASU, UCLA and Oregon State, while they host Arizona, Oregon, WSU and close the year against Cal on 12/5.

In the end, there is nowhere to go but up here. And they will be better, probably a lot better defensively. But it’s going to be a process. If I’m a UW fan, I’m looking at things with the idea of improvement across the board as the ’09 season goes on. Not so much the W’s and the L’s, but what kind of effort and intensity are the Jimmie’s and Joe’s putting out on a weekly basis? And with that, if they show some real improvement, well, 2010 could be a year they return to respectibility. Locker will be a senior by then, and right now there are a lot of sophomores and juniors up and down the roster. In 2010 those young kids will be upper classmen, and it could be a year where they make some noise. But we’ll see. Sarkisian is a lot of “sizzle” right now, but will there be any steak to go with it? We’ll find out!

That’s it for a Tuesday. I hope you have enjoyed the ’09 WSU Fish Wrap series. We have a link to the top-left of our links, so you can go back and see every ’09 WSU opponent, plus you can check them out here. ENJOY YOUR DAY, and GO COUGS!

Advertisements

A Tough Goodbye and Some Post-ASU Thoughts

November 16, 2008

I know the season is winding down (thankfully), and we’re officially in Apple Cup week. Sorry for the hoops-only post yesterday, but circumstances prevented much of a gameday thread. Besides, we lost 31-0 and the game wasn’t on TV. What do you want??

We’ll get to that in a moment. But I wanted to start off today by writing a few thoughts about our beloved golden retriever, Barkley.

Sadly, we had to say good-bye to the best dog ever yesterday, as he finally lost his battle with lymphoma. He was initially diagnosed in the spring, and we decided to fight for him by going the chemotherapy route. It was expensive and emotionally draining, but to us, it was worth it. He was, in our mind, just too young to let go. But the vet was very up front with us from day one, saying this is a terminal diagnosis. While we could kick it back into remission, it will return. And when it comes back, that will be it. We had, at BEST estimates, one year left with him, and that was as optimistic as it gets. Barkley was closing in on his 9th birthday, and while 8 years and 9 months might seem like a good amount of time for a dog, well, to us he was taken far, far too early.

Initially the chemo did wonders, as he bounced back quickly to at least somewhat like he used to be. Not all the way back to normal, but not too far away. We did everything we could to make this last summer his best, taking him with us everywhere we went, making sure to give him extra attention and love at every turn. But in the last few weeks, and especially this last week, we knew time was running out. The cancer had returned, making him weaker than ever. Even worse, Barkley had suddenly developed severe arthritis in his hips, making it very difficult to not only climb the stairs in our home, but just getting up from laying down became a struggle.

The one thing my wife and I pledged to do when we started the chemo treatments was that we didn’t want to simply keep him alive for OUR own reasons. If he was ever in some real pain, we would let him go. At the end, the situation became unbearable, and these last few days were beyond painful for all of us.

I know, I know. Some of you are rolling your eyes and saying “it’s just a dog, get over it.” Yes, I understand that. He was just a dog. Some of you have gone through much, much worse. But to us, he was very special. Not just his loving personality, where everyone he met instantly became his best friend, but for many other reasons, big and small. I know you all have your own pet stories, so I won’t go too far into the details that made him exceptional to us. But I will share one big thing that made him such an important part of our lives.

Back in 2000, my wife was pregnant with our first child. Anyone who has been down that road knows the overwhelming experience that can be, as a father, mother, or any other family member. The excitement and anxiety, all rolled into one, is almost indescribable. But just over halfway into the pregnancy, something went terribly wrong. We ended up losing the baby, a girl we named Megan. To say an event like that is devastating is an understatement, and if any of you have been down that dark road, you understand.

But after we lost our baby, well, we needed something. We needed a new soul to enter our home, a soul we could love and cherish and care for, something to pull us through a difficult time. That’s when Barkley, an 8-week old puppy, entered our lives. His presence helped get us through those days, and for that, Barker Boy, we will always love you. I will see you again some day. And I know you will be waiting for me at the front door, tail wagging, thinking “Finally, you’re home!”, just as you always did in life. Rest in peace.

Moving on, ASU. You know what? Even though the final score was awful, the first half was actually pretty entertaining, just a 10-0 game at the break. There were some promising moments early, offensively moving the ball through the air. They even ground out a long drive early in the game, but missed a field goal that seemed to zap any momentum they might have discovered on offense.

But defensively, they really hung in there and fought hard. Playing exclusively early in a 3-3-5 defense, per the radio broadcast, they did a good job of getting some pressure early on Rudy Carpenter. They even logged back-to-back sacks one one possession, and on the next, drew a holding penalty on what looked like another sure sack. They were even stout against the run, not anything close to the outfit allowing 279 yards rushing per game. 132 rushing yards allowed, on 35 carries? That’s pretty damn good. And as a whole, they allowed under 400 total yards, and in a year like this? MAJOR victory.


But once again, the offense let the team down. That’s now the third shutout in our last four games. Think about that. For a team that hadn’t been shut out since the early 80’s, to now roll three goose-eggs? 130 total yards? Seven rushing yards? SEVEN?? Simply awful. Unfortunately they come out of this one a little banged up as well. Chance Staden was lost to a knee injury, adding to the list of injured backs in Chris Ivory and now Logwone Mitz. Basically it’s down to Dwight Tardy….and Marcus Richmond…..that’s about it for the running game.

And of course, Kevin Lopina was lost with the concussion. I know we have openly pined for the youngster to get his chance, and now it looks like he might if the doctors don’t clear Lopina for next week. Concussions are obviously tricky, and today’s day and age they take every precaution in the world, so the odds are probably good that JT gets the ball this week. Young Levy got into the game and made a few plays, but generally struggled to a 7-for-14, 41 yard, 1 INT performance, as well as a fumble on a sack that ASU scooped up for a score. Oh yeah, the kid also injured his left wrist on the play, but HOPEFULLY he’s ok!?!? Whether he’s ready or not, with the Lopina injury, the J.T. Levenseller era might be here after all. And what a week to start it, vs. UW.

Here’s a rumor for you regarding UW. We got this from a reliable source too. But UW might unleash a surprise at QB this week. No guarantees, but let’s just say you shouldn’t be shocked if #10 is under center for UW.

Finally, the hoops team won. Hooray hoops! And the kids played well too. Baynes led with 14 points, but Marcus Capers had nine boards and six assists?? Wow. And DeAngelo Casto had four blocks?? NICE. 16% shooting, and 25 points allowed, the lowest total given up since 1948?? This is going to be a fun, interesting season of college basketball (and I KNOW from comments yesterday some of you despise basketball!).

ENJOY YOUR SUNDAY, and GO COUGS!

Spring Fish Wrap – The Jake Locker’s Edition

June 26, 2008

This won’t be the same as the other “fish wraps” we’ve been doing around here. Why? Because if you are reading this, you likely know UW pretty well. WSU fans are well aware of what’s going on at UW (uw football blog east?). It’s the little brother thing I guess. Whatever. It is what it is. So, I don’t think what follows will actually be all that “newsy” to you, but here goes.

First of all, I thought about making fun of all things Jake Locker and UW. You know, the love affair with #10, the unrealistic expectations that he’ll never fulfill. But I just can’t do it. Why? Because Locker is a hell of a kid. A great leader on and off the field, with countless anecdotes of what a class act he is in every thing he does. There is no joy in trying to tear anyone down, especially a kid like Locker who does so many things right. So there won’t be any BS about Locker.

That said, is Locker really all he’s hyped up to be? Is he really the Tim Tebow of the west?

Now, Locker is a great athlete. He’s a big, physical runner who is strong as an ox. He could probably play running back, linebacker or safety and be a top-shelf talent at any position. He’s that athletic. He ran for an unbelievable 986 rushing yards last year, with 13 TD’s. His yards per carry average of 5.7 was actually better than leading rusher Louis Rankin’s 5.6 average. For a QB to average more yards per carry than the leading rusher on the team is very impressive. Even better, Locker’s average of 82.2 rushing yards per game was good for 5th in the entire Pac-10. The only runners ahead of him were Jonathan Stewart, Justin Forsett, Yvenson Bernard and Louis Rankin.

And you know that he’s a heck of a baseball player as well, reportedly armed with a 90+ mph fastball. He’s even playing some outfield this summer for the Bellingham Bells. According to this article, Locker would have been a first-round MLB pick out of high school if he would have sent strong enough signals to baseball that he would consider signing. But this whole thing about playing QB and throwing the football, well, that part of his game needs a little polish.

For some proof (and you can’t hide from the stats), check out Locker’s passing line from 2007: 155 completions out of 328 attempts, good for a 47.3 completion percentage. Locker tossed 14 TD’s, but he did throw 15 INT’s. His 171 passing yards per game placed him 7th in the Pac-10. And his passing efficiency rating was 8th in the conference, ahead of only Stanford’s Tavita Pritchard.

In other words, yes, this kid might become John Elway. But he isn’t there yet.

I think the media hype can be a little much. For example, I heard KJR’s John Clayton a few weeks ago claim that Jake Locker was “a better passing version of Tim Tebow.” Seriously Mr. Clayton? Hmm, let’s see – Tebow was “only” 234 out of 350 passing attempts last year, completing 66.9% of his passes with 32 TD’s and only 6 INT’s. And oh yeah, Tebow also ran for 895 yards and an amazing 23 rushing TD’s. Granted Tebow won the Heisman, with arguably the greatest first-year starting QB that the game has ever seen. But this isn’t a shot against Locker. It really isn’t. It just shows that the media slant on Locker in the northwest is so strong that even John Clayton, the hall-of-fame NFL writer, can get lost in the glare.

The other thing with Locker is the whole running QB thing. You can run people over if you have the junk in the trunk, and Locker as is strong and thick as they come at the position. But ultimately kid, the tread will wear out on the tires. You have to wonder how many hits he can take before something serious happens.


There was the scary headline shot he took vs. Oregon State, where it initially looked like he might have suffered a major injury that could end his career. But he took an absolute beating last year vs. Ohio State and USC, including some very cheap shots as the opposing defenses looked to rattle the kid:

If I was a Husky fan, I would literally hold my breath every time #10 tucked it and ran. As exciting as he is, there is no doubt he’s got a bulls-eye on his chest, and the opposing teams aren’t going to lay off when they get the chance.

Anyway, on to the Dawgs, and how things look post-spring/pre-fall camp.

2007: A disappointing 4-9 record, including a 2-7 record in the conference, good for last.

Offensive scheme: Somewhat traditional/west coast offense, with two backs, a TE and two WR’s in the regular offense. But UW introduced a lot more shotgun last year, and even looked at some schemes that teams like West Virginia ran with QB Pat White to see how they could take advantage of Locker’s talents. Tim Lappano remains the offensive coordinator after some rumors about his head coaching candidacy last year, including some links to good ‘ol WSU.

Top Offensive Player: Duh.


Defensive Scheme: It’s a whole new world for Ty Willingham. Ed Donatell comes to Montlake, an experienced NFL defensive coach who brings a fresh approach to the defensive side of the ball. Donatell’s ideas are welcome to improve maybe the worst Husky defense in SCHOOL HISTORY last year. The Dawgs allowed over 446 yards per game last year, ranking ninth in passing defense and last in the Pac-10 in rushing defense and total defense. Six different teams ran for at least 219 yards against them last year, topped by an unreal 465 yards rushing by Oregon at Husky Stadium. In a word, brutal. Nowhere to go but up here.

Top Defensive Player: I am tempted to say it’s LB EJ Savannah, who totaled 111 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. But Savannah has battled some injury issues with his shoulder and neck, and to top it off, broke his arm in the last few weeks while arm wrestling? Strange story. Anyway, instead of Savannah I’m going to pick defensive end Daniel Te’oNesheim.


The junior pass rusher had a team-high 8.5 sacks last year, and will be far and away the best defensive lineman on the team in ’08.

Top Spring Questions:

1) How much will Ed Donatell really help the defense?

This has to be the top question for the team coming out of spring. UW nearly had UCLA’s hot coordinator of the year, DeWayne Walker, but at the last minute he fell for Rick Neuheisel’s charms. But Donatell is a really strong “get” for UW. However, it is hard to look at the numbers and think this will suddenly become a fearsome defense, no matter who’s wearing the headset. 446 yards per game and 32 points per game in 2007 is overwhelming. But the spring produced some positive buzz about how much better things should be on that side of the ball. Some personnel was shuffled around to inject some energy into the unit, and Donatell’s D showed more aggression and physical play.

But a coach can only do so much. It’s still about the material he has to work with if he is going to be successful. While Te’oNesheim is a stud up front, he’s the only one out of the top six defensive lineman from last year who is returning this season. You can bet opposing offenses will pay a lot more attention to him this year. Savannah’s injury is a big question mark, as he’s right there with Te’oNesheim as potential defensive MVP and all-conference selection. That said, the secondary might see a real boost this year. That area is Donatell’s specialty, and three starters return in corners Mesphin Forrester, Byron Davenport, and safety Jason Wells. There’s also some good young talent back there in Nate Williams and Quinton Richardson.

2) We know how great Locker can be, but what about the skill positions?

This is an exciting, yet scary area for UW. Louis Rankin became the first 1,000+ yard rusher for the Dawgs since 1997, but he’s gone. Brandon Johnson will probably start at tailback, and he looked good in stretches last year, including 121 yards vs. a Cal team that simply quit last year. But the WR’s are a real concern. Only ONE player out of the top seven pass-catchers from last year is back, and that’s TE Michael Gottlieb with 12 catches. There is youth everywhere with kids like Curtis Shaw, De’Andre Goodwin, Anthony Boyles and Alvin Logan. But the young one everyone is drooling over is Chris Polk, the true frosh who was in for spring ball. Polk is a dynamic athlete with incredible speed and could be a real game-changer once he settles into the offense.

3) What is up with that schedule??

Say this about UW, they aren’t afraid to beef up the schedule. They’ve had Notre Dame on the schedule off and on for the last several years. They’ve scheduled Ohio State and Oklahoma as well as up-and-comer Boise State. They’ve already added LSU to 2009. But this year could be the toughest yet, as Phil Steele has ranked UW’s schedule as the toughest in the nation. In a year that has Ty Willingham on the hottest seat in the Pac-10, a brutal schedule might be the worst possible thing to happen to his job security.

WSU Football Blog bottom line: As good as Locker can be, there is bound to be some growing pains while the young skill position pups get their feet wet. They open at Oregon to start the season on 8/30, and that’s no picnic. This first game could be a real land-mine in front of the Autzen crazies. So many times you hear the experts talk about how it takes a little while of game experience for WR’s to “get it” in terms of the timing with the QB. You see it in the NFL all the time, where a WR is drafted high based on his college stats and his incredible combine numbers, but once they get to the NFL it’s a slow start. Why? Because the instincts haven’t taken over yet, and the player is thinking too much on the field. If the player thinks too much, maybe he’s a couple of steps too slow in his indecision and route-running, and suddenly the phenom becomes rather ordinary. And it’s one thing to throw the ball around in the indoor practice facility in shorts and a t-shirt, it’s quite another to strap it on and have an opposing defense trying to get inside your head.

But it isn’t just the Oregon game that is a concern. Then they have to come home and play BYU, a team that many are touting as “this year’s Boise State” in terms of a talented, experienced team from a less-heralded conference that could upset the BCS apple cart. But the week after that? Oklahoma rolls into Seattle on 9/13, a team that everyone has in their pre-season top 5 and returns eight starters on offense from an 11-win team last year. There’s also a potential sticky game at Arizona on 10/4, and they also travel to USC on 11/1.

At first glance, you would think UW will be improved just given another year’s experience by Locker. His ability could elevate the game of those around him. And they will be better on defense with Donatell, but unless Locker absolutely explodes into another stratosphere, there will be some struggles on offense based on all the youth.

One huge key is that UW has potentially lost 6th-yr senior center Juan Garcia to the dreaded lisfranc foot injury, and that could make it even more dicey on the offensive line. Garcia is regarded as an excellent center and a real leader up front. His loss could put even more pressure on Locker’s shoulders to lift the entire program. There really does look to be too many questions to place them high up the Pac-10 ladder, but I do believe they will be better than last year. How much better remains to be seen, but I don’t think this is a last-place team.