2012 Washington Football Preview: Time For Another Step?

EUGENE OR - NOVEMBER 6: Quarterback Keith Price #17 of the Washington Huskies is chased by defensive tackle Zac Clark #99 of the Oregon Ducks in the third quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on November 6 2010 in Eugene Oregon. The Ducks won the game 53-16. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Related: Washington's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Huskies football, visit Washington blog UW Dawg Pound, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Seattle.

This wasn't exactly Bill Snyder building something from nothing at Kansas State. It wasn't Al Golden at Temple or Greg Schiano at Rutgers either. When Steve Sarkisian accepted the job of Washington head coach in 2009, his Huskies were still just nine years removed from a Top Five finish and seven years removed from a bowl appearance.

Still, Washington had gone 12-47 from 2004-08. And they were still really, really bad in 2008, finishing 0-12 and ranking 117th in the country in F/+. And job Sarkisian did in immediately restoring a level of competence to the program (they have ranked 68th, 57th and 64th in F/+ the last three years) was astounding. But now it's time to find out if Sarkisian is a true program builder or just a reclamation specialist.

And to be sure, he has pressed the right buttons lately. Washington's last three recruiting classes have ranked 28th, 23rd and 21st according to Rivals.com. The Huskies' offense has been Top 40 caliber in each of the last two years (they matched 2010's No. 35 ranking in Off. F/+ last year despite the loss of quarterback Jake Locker), and when the defense completely bottomed out in 2011 (104th in Def. F/+) Sarkisian brought in potential upgrades in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (from Tennessee) and defensive line coach and recruiter extraordinaire Tosh Lupoi (from California). We'll see how quickly the defense can turn around, and we'll see if the Huskies can continue to produce a solid special teams unit despite the loss of every interesting leg on the team. But on paper, Sarkisian is pressing the right buttons. And that's good because the Pac-12 North isn't getting any easier.


Related: Check out Washington's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Huskies last year:

It's time for another game of Are You An Optimist Or A Pessimist?

What pessimists see: a team that has risen a bit too quickly in two years and had very little margin for error in terms of reaching a bowl last season. The Huskies were outscored by almost 100 points last year, and they lose both the face of their offense and perhaps their three best defensive play-makers in Aiyewa, Foster and safety Nate Williams. Plus, there are a ton of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.

What optimists see: a team whose YPP margin suggests the blowouts were somewhat fluky, a team whose turnover margin was dinged significantly by an unlucky number of fumble recoveries, and a team with downright solid recruiting rankings (those freshmen and sophomores are on the depth chart for a reason -- they're good).

People will be paying a lot of attention to the travails of Nick Price in replacing Jake Locker, but Washington's 2011 fate will likely be decided by the Huskies' overall youth. If Seferian-Jenkins, Price, and a host of young offensive linemen, receivers and outside linebackers can be trusted enough to run what Washington coaches want to run, then the ceiling is pretty high. But the best odds are on Washington hovering around .500 in 2011 while putting together serious potential for 2012 and beyond.

We'll say this was more or less correct. Thanks to a late slide (they lost four of their final five), the Huskies finished 7-6, which qualifies as "hovering around .500," and while the youngsters on offense acquitted themselves well, some young (and undersized) ends and linebackers were susceptible to getting pushed around a bit, and the secondary couldn't pick up the slack.

As problematic as the defense was, however, the offense was equally responsible for a late-season slide from 5-1 to 7-6. After a bit of a dud against Oregon dropped the Huskies to 6-3, Keith Price injured his knee against USC and was still nursing it heavily in minimal action against Oregon State. As a result, we can break the season into, basically, three acts:

Act I (First Eight Games): Washington 31.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 29.9 (plus-1.9)
Act II (Next Three Games): Opponents 28.7 Adj. Points per game, Washington 23.3 (minus-5.4)
Act III (Final Two Games): Washington 32.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 29.9 (plus-3.0)

In the end, the fact that Washington matched its 2010 record of 7-6 is probably enough. But after three straight seasons of grading out right around college footballs midpoint, Husky fans might start getting restless if a few more 7-6 seasons follow these two.

Offense

Looking at Washington's offensive stats in 2010 and 2011, you might be surprised to learn that there was a quarterback change at all. The Huskies' run-pass rates were almost exactly the same (they ran on passing downs slightly more with Jake Locker, but that could have just been Locker scrambling), and there were only slight differences in quality -- UW ranked 32nd on standard downs and 49th on passing downs in 2010, and they ranked 39th and 24th in 2011. Keith Price completed 10 percent more of his passes than Locker did, but the Huskies' passing game was slightly less explosive overall. In all, though, they treaded water.

Despite the fact that a couple more mainstays have exited the program, there is little reason to believe there will be much change in either personality or production in 2012. Price returns for his junior season after finishing 2011 with a bang; he completed 44 of 66 passes for 729 yards, seven touchdowns and no picks against Washington State and Baylor to close out the season, and while that should be taken with an enormous grain of salt (Wazzu and Baylor ranked 118th and 92nd, respectively, in Def. F/+ last year, so you probably shouldn't plan a Heisman party for Price just yet), that was still a nice way to head into the offseason. Price will be working without the services of star running back Chris Polk or longtime receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar this year (the three combined for 1,508 rushing yards, 1,642 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns in 2011), but on a per-touch basis, their backups actually proved quite a bit.

It looks like four-star sophomore Bishop Sankey and Jesse Callier will be the primary replacements for Polk. The two combined for 447 rushing yards (6.0 per carry), a pair of touchdowns and a plus-1.8 Adj. POE (meaning they were 1.8 points better than the average back given their carries, blocking and opponents) in 2011. Obviously the odds are good that those numbers will go down with more (and more important) carries, but it is worth pointing out that Polk only produced 5.1 yards per carry and a minus-0.4 Adj. POE. Polk was good but replaceable, and Sankey, Callier and others could be more than up for the job, especially running behind a line that returns three starters and 58 career starts. The losses of second-team all-conference tackle Senio Kelemete (to exhausted eligibility) and guard Colin Porter (to degenerative arthritis) could hurt, but while the line might regress, it shouldn't regress TOO much after ranking 36th in Adj. Line Yards last year. (This sentiment changes if guard Colin Tanigawa hasn't fully recovered from last season's ACL tear.)

Of course, Washington was ever so slightly a pass-first team last year -- how does the receiving corps look? Pretty good, actually. What the Huskies lack in experience, they make up for in upside. Four-star sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins shined as a freshman (41 catches, 73 percent catch rate, 9.6 yards per target), as did last year's No. 3 wideout, four-star sophomore Kasen Williams (36 catches, 74 percent catch rate, 8.7 yards per target). Throw in senior James Johnson (28 catches, 80 percent catch rate, 10.5 yards per target) and maybe four-star junior Kevin Smith (15 catches, 75 percent catch rate, 10.4 yards per target, recovering from a December ACL tear), and you have a potentially outstanding top four. You never want to assume those players will step into marquee roles and succeed, but they proved about as much as they could last year. Their odds of success are pretty high, especially considering running backs Callier and Sankey showed in limited opportunities that they could replicate what Polk brought to the passing game (31 catches). The components and potential across the skill positions are quite high; as long as the line stays reasonably healthy, the offense should improve at least a bit.

(And seriously, while Washington hasn't suffered a cataclysmic, Colorado level of injuries, they've had more than their fair share, haven't they?)

Defense

While the overall transition of personnel went rather well on the offensive side of the ball, the defense struggled. Washington sank from 73rd to 104th in Def. F/+ and from 82nd to 107th in Rushing S&P+. While the line play was at least mediocre (69th in Adj. Line Yards), the Huskies couldn't stop giving up big plays (114th in Rushing PPP+). Depending on whether you are more inclined toward optimism or pessimism, you see one of two things regarding the front seven in 2012. The pessimist would point out that Washington must replace its best defensive end, best defensive tackle and best linebacker. The optimist would point out that they almost literally have to replace no one else.

New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is engineering a shift from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, and in theory this move could pay off. Josh Shirley played as a sub-230 pound defensive end last year, and while he made his share of plays (12 tackles for loss), he seems more well-suited to an OLB/DE hybrid role like what the 3-4 offers. If monstrous sophomore nose tackles Danny Shelton and Lawrence Lagafulana are ready to swallow up blockers up front, the 3-4 could do good things for the Huskies, who don't lack for speed, even if they are still a bit light overall. Players like Shirley and linebackers Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu could become excellent playmakers.

If the front seven is a bit less leaky, the secondary could thrive. Despite serious issues both against the run and on passing downs, Washington still fielded a decent pass defense that prevented big plays (37th in Passing PPP+) as well as the run defense gave them up. The top four safeties return, as do three of the top for cornerbacks. Sean Parker was potentially asked to do a bit too much in the tackles department, but he is a solid playmaker (1.5 tackles for loss, four picks, two passes broken up), and Desmond Trufant (two picks, 14 passes broken up) is a star at cornerback. Others like safety Justin Glenn and corners Gregory Ducre and Marcus Peters (who had himself a lovely spring) fill out what is a deep lineup. And if a pair of big-time freshmen -- five-star Shaq Thompson (a fruit of hiring Tosh Lupoi) and four-star Brandon Beaver -- are ready to contribute something immediately, this unit should be fantastic. Washington's chances for improvement, though, still depend on improvement in the front seven.

Defining Success

So Washington is breaking in a new defensive alignment, and in the first half of the season they play the following games: at LSU (September 8), Stanford (September 27), at Oregon (October 6), USC (October 13). That makes it quite difficult to set the bar for 2012. It will take a pretty good team to go 3-3 in that stretch, but if the Huskies can keep it together, the last half of the schedule is full of potential wins. Still, that start means that the Huskies might have to improve just to win seven games again. We'll set the bar there.

Prognosis

Let's once again play Optimist vs. Pessimist.

What optimists see: a team that has a potentially dynamic offense, a rebuilt and almost certainly improved defense, recruiting rewards ready to be reaped, and a team that should knock off Stanford at home (and potentially do the same to USC) to start, at worst, 3-3 or 4-2 (and hey, LSU is typically a slow-starting team, just saying), then roll toward nine or 10 wins.

What pessimists see: a team that, like Mike Stoops's 2007-10 teams at Arizona, hasn't actually gotten better or worse since its initial improvement, has been pummeled with injuries (especially on the all-important offensive line), might take a little while to gel defensively and is as likely to lose to San Diego State in its opener as it is to beat Stanford or USC.

While I struggle to see a team capable of beating both Stanford and USC, I do think Washington is pretty likely to take a nice step forward in 2012, from the 60s to the 30s or 40s. (Predicting any more than that would be scary.) A team that good should finish 7-5 here, max, though with so much youth the Huskies are probably still a year or so away from peaking with this group. Get to the 30s this year, and you can start thinking about the teens next year.

For more on Huskies football, visit Washington blog UW Dawg Pound, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Seattle.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

Check out the SB Nation Channel on YouTube

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