The Washington Huskies have been the fourth best team in the Pac-12 over the last three years. The only problem: it’s been a three-team race between Oregon, Stanford, and USC. Entering Steve Sarkisian‘s fourth year, the Huskies are finally “his” team and are poised to make the move from “good” to “great” in 2012. A defensive collapse down the stretch, with the exclamation point coming in a 67-56 track meet against Baylor and Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl, along with allowing fewer than 21 points just one time all season, prompted change in the Huskies’ coaching staff. Change that Sarkisian and company hope will make all the difference.
But with change comes questions. So what questions await the Huskies as they open up fall camp?
Can Justin Wilcox salvage this defense?
After finishing 108th in the nation in points allowed last season, Sarkisian was forced to fire his long-time assistant and friend Nick Holt and bring in Justin Wilcox to be his new defensive coordinator. Wilcox is considered a top-notch coordinator, but how quickly can he turn this Huskies defense around? Surprisingly, it could be sooner rather than later. The defense this year figures to feature some returning players who could be very good. Outside linebacker Josh Shirley, defensive end Hau’oli Jamora, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, safety Sean Parker, and cornerback Desmond Trufant will all return and are expected to be improved players. Add in freshman Shaq Thompson to the secondary, and Wilcox will have plenty of talent to work with.
Who is going to replace Chris Polk as a playmaker?
Chris Polk was an all-conference running back last year and the engine to the Huskies offense. He’s now gone along with the top three receivers from last year’s team. Sophomore Kasen Williams leads a receiving corps built on potential and tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins has the capability of becoming an all-American candidate. But the running back depth chart is still up in the air, and nobody is sure just how much of the “potential” this receiving corps is going to live up to. That leaves it up to second-year quarterback Keith Price, one of the few sure things in this offense, to step up and become a star. Can he get some help? The Huskies hope they can find some contributors during camp.
What will the offensive line look like?
One of the more stressful situations for the Huskies heading into camp is the glaring questions on the offensive line. More specifically: who is going to play tackle? The interior of the line looked solid coming out of the spring, but those pesky edges were still unprotected. Sarkisian is going to try and shift players around looking for the right fit, including moving Drew Schaefer, a two-year starter at center, out to tackle to see how he does. That Sark would consider moving his center, the lynch-pin of the line, out to the edge is not a great sign for the state of the Huskies’ tackles. The team will have to hope that someone emerges that can hold that edge or Price at quarterback will be running for his life against the bevy of edge rushers in the Pac-12 (if he survives not having tackles against LSU, that is).
How many freshman will play this year?
In Sarkisian’s first year as head coach in 2009, he inherited a roster that was among the worst in the Pac-12. As a result, he started 16 true freshman. Sarkisian has stated that he would never not start a player just because he is a freshman and is committed to putting the best player out on the field. Now in his fourth season, however, he’s starting to get the good players sticking around making it harder for freshman to crack the starting lineup, which is common for most successful teams. Last year, he played just four. This year? Thompson, who will likely see time on both sides of the ball this season, is the only sure thing. Could other young players emerge in camp? Absolutely. But this Washington team is finally starting to look like the team that Sarkisian wants, which means the players he’s already got are going to be pretty good.
The Huskies are on the cusp of returning to national prominence and joining the conversation as being one of the great teams in the Pac-12. However, they will have some questions to answer about how quickly the defense can get turned around, how deep the skill positions will be, and who will step up to play tackle which will determine if the Huskies remain just “pretty good.”
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