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In one of his first moves as Washington's new football coach, Tyrone Willingham elected to close spring practice for the first time that anyone could recall. So people heard very little about a Pac-10 program badly in need of repair.
Considering what happened in 2004, maybe that was a good thing. The once-proud Huskies bottomed out with a 1-10 ledger, worst in the school's 115 seasons.
Hired at UW after his firing from at Notre Dame, Willingham has been entrusted with righting a traditional league contender and bowl team that suffered through its first losing campaign since 1976. The new coach inherits a bevy of young, game-tested players, with 16 returning starters trying to reclaim jobs. However, team speed and overall skill level remain serious points of contention.
Willingham is going to need time to fix this mess, especially on offense. The score of the spring game was 3-0.
A program previously rich in NFL-bound quarterbacks couldn't find a consistent offensive leader, and this position remains the most daunting of any for Willingham to restore. Three players started during the Huskies' 1-10 freefall, and four auditioned for the job during the spring. Junior Isaiah Stanback, a player as exciting as anyone on the team yet prone to disastrous mistakes, and sophomore Johnny DuRocher, a transfer from Oregon, are the likeliest candidates to claim the job.
The Huskies return junior running back Kenny James, a 10-game starter and 702-yard rusher, but sophomore Louis Rankin will be given every opportunity to wrest the job away and provide much-needed breakaway speed.
Long, lean sophomore Craig Chambers is the closest to a gamebreaker among the wideouts, five of whom are one-time starters.
The offensive line is the Huskies' offensive strength, beefed up by the conversion of starting tight end Joe Toledo to tackle. A senior with NFL potential, Toledo joins returning starters in center Brad Vanneman, guard Clay Walker and tackle Rob Meadow to form a veteran front line.
While the Huskies collectively had a bad year, senior defensive tackle Manase Hopoi did everything asked of him. Hopoi ranked second in the nation in tackles for a loss with 22, and will team up front with the oft-injured senior Mike Mapuolesega, who has made a permanent move from end to tackle. Greyson Gunheim, who started seven games as a freshman, has a lock on one end position and is an honors candidate.
No position area is better stocked with experienced players than linebacker, with all three starters returning. Yet senior Joe Lobendahn and junior Scott White missed spring drills with a back injury and mononucleosis, respectively. When healthy, these two players, along with senior Evan Benjamin, cover a lot of ground.
The Huskies have plenty of able safeties; the same can't be said for their cornerbacks, where just one experienced player, junior Matt Fountaine, returns. Help comes from a pair of transfers, Roy Lewis from San Jose State and Chris Handy of Nevada. Both starting safeties are back in Dashon Goldson and C.J. Wallace.
Junior Sean Douglas returns as the starting punter after averaging 42.6 yards per kick, second in UW history. Protection, however, was a problem. Douglas had four kicks blocked in '04. Senior Evan Knudson will handle the place-kicking chores again. His 41-yard field goal represented the only points in the spring game.
Washington should find out fairly quickly whether its 1-10 collapse was a temporary glitch or something long-term. Was its last-place Pac-10 finish more the result of a crush of injuries and bad luck, or the absence of talent? And will a coaching change from Keith Gilbertson to Willingham be enough to pull this team off the mat?
The Huskies open with four games in Seattle, starting with Air Force at the Seahawks' Qwest Field and ending with Notre Dame, Willingham's old team, at Husky Stadium. They don't go on the road until October.
Considering the task at hand, Willingham may have to perform minor miracles to exceed last season's win total. The new coach is trying to maintain a brave face. He said, "I don't worry about talent. Whatever we have, we have. We have to find a way to win."