Washington has failed to live up to high preseason expectations two years in a row. With a team of no-names and a second-year coach who needs to turn the program around in a hurry, the Huskies find themselves dropped from the perceived upper echelon of the Pac-10.
"I don't think a lot of people expect us to have success," UW senior offensive lineman Khalif Barnes said.
The Huskies were only 6-6 last season despite the potent passing combination of Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams, and now both of those players are gone. There is a three-way competition to replace Pickett at quarterback, and no receiver will be expected to match the abilities of the highly talented Williams.
"We're not a big-name Husky team," UW coach Keith Gilbertson said. "There's not many guys picked on preseason All-America teams. But that doesn't matter. This will be a fun team to coach."
Fun, if they can win. Gilbertson plans to bring back the option and create a more aggressive defense that comes up with more stops and big plays, something the Huskies have lacked the past few years. Besides cornerback Derrick Johnson, the defense appears to be bereft of playmakers. They need to find a few.
Leadership on the field has been another problem. Gilbertson expects Barnes, fullback Zach Tuiasosopo and safety Jimmy Newell to be leaders.
The Huskies failed to play in a bowl last year for the first time since 1994, when they were ineligible. They could miss out on a bowl again.
"We qualified for a bowl, we just weren't invited," Gilbertson said. "The only way we solve that is to play better and win more games."
OffenseWith Pickett no longer around, the Huskies will return to more of an option-based attack that will remind fans of the Marques Tuiasosopo days. Casey Paus, Isaiah Stanback and Carl Bonnell are the top candidates to run the show. "I think someone will come out of this group and be the next really fine player at Washington," Husky coach Keith Gilbertson said.
Charles Frederick will be the go-to receiver. He has all-conference ability and will have an opportunity to shine now that Williams has moved on to the NFL. Expectations are also high for redshirt freshman Craig Chambers, but he must show more maturity and dedication.
The running game appears to be in fine shape with tailbacks Kenny James and Shelton Sampson ready to show that the option will fit their styles well. James could be the guy to put up some big numbers. Tuiasosopo has the ability to be a dominant blocker and a tough short-yardage ballcarrier.
If anything slows the offense besides the development of a new quarterback, it will be the lack of depth on the line. Barnes leads the starting group that will be solid as long as no more injuries strike. A freshman or two might even make the two-deep chart because there are so few bodies to work with.
DefenseThere was a time not too long ago that the UW defense was one of the most feared units in the nation. Gilbertson would like those days to return.
Johnson, who has 11 interceptions over the last two years, brings the big-play ability needed to turn the defense around. Newell and cornerback Sam Cunningham are two other veterans who help make the backfield the strength of the defense.
Evan Benjamin was switched to outside linebacker from strong safety to give the defense more speed, another emphasis this season. Inside linebacker Tim Galloway needs to show that he can be a leader and make the big hits that lift the defense and excite the crowd.
The defensive line is inexperienced, but there is plenty of potential. Manase Hopoi, the lone returning starter, might switch to tackle from end because of his ability as a run-stopper. He'll also be looked to for leadership.
SpecialistsSean Douglas will take over the punting duties, but it's a two-way battle at kicker between Evan Knudson and Michael Braunstein. Knudson, a walk-on, won the job last year over Braunstein, a freshman scholarship player. Knudson needs to be more consistent to keep the job.
Frederick will return punts and kicks for the fourth season. He has two career punt returns for touchdowns.
Final AnalysisThe offensive line is thin and cannot afford any injuries or the running attack will be stopped dead. On defense, Johnson is a star, but more playmakers need to emerge in order for Washington to squeeze out at least six wins. The Huskies must overcome a tough road schedule, which features trips to Notre Dame, USC, Oregon and Washington State, but that won't earn the team any patience from the fans, who will become extremely restless if Gilbertson fails to produce a winning season in his second year.