Washington Huskies (2000: 11-1)
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Coach and programWhen Rick Neuheisel went into spring practice, he knew he would have a lot of work to do after the Huskies lost 10 starters from their No. 3-ranked team that went 11-1.
This season will offer some huge leadership challenges to the Huskies, who lost their heart-and-soul quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo to graduation. Neuheisel said Washington needs leaders to step up like Tuiasosopo did last season.
“Last season was a wonderful memory and something we all ought to cherish,’’ Neuheisel said. “Now it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ We come into this season with a completely new persona. The Washington Huskies are the Pac-10 champs, or at least the co-champs, and are the Rose Bowl champions and a national player.
“Everyone is going to be gunning for the Dawgs."
While replacing Tuiasosopo might seem like the No. 1 priority to fans, Neuheisel might have ever bigger troubles when he tries to replace four-fifths of his offensive line. Tackles Elliot Silvers and Wes Call and guards Chad Ward and Matt Fraize are all gone along with key reserves Matt Rogers and Dominic Daste. Those players helped the Huskies lead the Pac-10 in rushing at 211.7 yards a game.
Washington also has troubles on the defensive line, where Ryan Julian and rush end Jeremiah Pharms are gone. Pharms had 41 tackles for loss during his career. Gone at linebacker is Derrell Daniels, who was voted the team’s defensive MVP last season after registering 97 tackles.
Topping it off is the graduation of punter Ryan Felming, a three-year starter.
Adding to the challenge is a ferocious non-conference schedule that includes a home game against Michigan to open the season on Sept. 8 and a road game at Miami on Sept. 15. That’s not exactly good news for a team trying to get healthy and with a host of new starters. But Neuheisel said his players will enjoy every challenge.
“If someone gives you the trophy, it doesn’t mean as much as if you earned it. Earning it is the bottom line and earning begins now. In our locker room is a sign that says Rose Bowl Champions 2001, question mark 2002. It’s important we understand we are going to decide where we fall in terms of the finish line.’’
OffenseBattling to fill Tuiasosopo’s cleats are sophomore Cody Pickett (6-4, 205) and junior college transfer Taylor Barton (6-2, 205). Barton was previously paired with Neuheisel at Colorado and has reunited with him after spending one year at City College of San Francisco.
Pickett forged a bit of a lead over Barton in the spring, but the battle for the position was still too close to call.
“There is a very good possibility that two guys could share the position,’’ Neuheisel said.
Washington is solid at tailback as long as sophomore Rich Alexis' shoulder heals in time for the opening game. Last season, Alexis (6-0, 215) gained 738 yards, a Washington freshman record. He also led the team with nine touchdowns and averaged 6.3 yards a carry.
Dependable senior Willie Hurst (5-10, 200) will be available if anything happens to Alexis. Hurst averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season and accumulated 402 yards in nine games.
Wide receiver again is a suspect position for Washington, which is seeking big-play type receivers. Senior Todd Elstrom (6-3, 200) returns after a 47-catch, 683-yard season, and he anchors the group.
Whether wide receiver becomes a strength for the Huskies might be determined by the impact the incoming freshman have on this group. Parade All American Charles Frederick (6-0, 190) caught 29 touchdown passes as a senior at Pope John Paul High School. The other recruiting coup was Reggie Williams (6-4, 215), Prep Football Report’s top wide receiver in the country.
Right now, the major strength as a receiver is junior tight end Jerramy Stevens (6-7, 260), who will probably end up in the NFL before his senior season rolls around. He set a Washington tight end record with 43 catches for 600 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Defense and special teamsIt all starts with senior nose tackle Larry Tripplett (6-1, 300), a second-team All American last season. He had 11 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 quarterback sacks, tremendous numbers for a nose tackle.
“My job is to cause havoc in the backfield and try to make plays,’’ he said. “As long as I do my job, that’s the only thing I am concerned about, that and getting victories.’’
If senior Jafar Williams (6-0, 230) doesn’t have any more ankle injuries, Washington should be fine at linebacker. Williams is an experienced player who had 21 tackles last season before going down with the injury.
Senior cornerback Omare Lowe (6-1, 205) leads the secondary and sophomore cornerback Chris Massey (5-11, 170) is the other returning starter.
Sophomore Derrick Johnson (6-0, 175) handled the kickoff duties last season and led the Pac-10 with a 24.2 yards per attempt average, so the Huskies have that position in good hands.
Bottom lineThis might be a year that Washington has to get by on pure coaching. Certainly, the Huskies have tons of athletic talent based on their top-ranked recruiting classes season after season. But they lost far too many big-time players.
Breaking in a new quarterback against national powerhouses like Michigan and Miami is just one of Neuheisel’s many headaches. But that task pales in comparison to building an entire offensive line.
Washington does have one nice little factor in its favor in that it doesn’t play Oregon this season, and the Ducks figure to be an offensive nightmare for most teams. However, the Huskies do have to play Pac-10 favorite UCLA in Pasadena and Oregon State in Corvallis.
Washington appears to be far too stable a program to fall completely off the map this season, but a minor bowl seems the likely target.