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COACHES HAVE BEEN FIRED OVER FIVE-WIN SEASONS, BUT IN Seattle the five wins that first-year coach Steve Sarkisian presided over in 2009 were five more than his predecessor had managed in '08. The Washington defense allowed 12 fewer points and 62 fewer yards per game than it did in '08. Quarterback Jake Locker led the conference in total offense (3,188 yards), and along with 1,113-yard rusher Chris Polk he enabled the Huskies to average nearly 40 more yards on the ground. "Our kids are buying into who we are and what we're trying to accomplish," says Sarkisian, who is also quick to point out that he wasn't hired to win five games.
The key to continued improvement this season is the defense, which last year allowed as many points per game as the offense scored (26). In two wins at the end of the season, however, Washington held Washington State and Cal to a combined 10 points, a vast improvement on the average of 38 points the Huskies had allowed in the three previous games. "Our kids got better in our system," says defensive coordinator Nick Holt. "At the end of the year we were playing really good defense, and the kids were having fun."
Whether or not the defensive fun will continue into 2010 depends on the development of the front seven, which lost its top two players to the NFL: linebacker Donald Butler (Chargers), the team's leading tackler (94); and end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (Eagles), the leader in sacks (11). Senior outside linebacker Mason Foster moves to the weak side, and junior Cort Dennison takes Butler's spot in the middle. "Cort's like having a coach out there," says Holt. "He really had a good spring and has developed into our emotional leader." Holt is more confident about the secondary, with senior Nate Williams at strong safety and sophomore Desmond Trufant at corner.
Personnel is important, but building on the confidence the team showed in late-season games—and in its monumental upset of USC last September—is paramount for a program one year removed from 0-12. "I think they trust us," says Holt of the players. "When there's trust and there's consistency, you build a foundation to move forward." Five wins won't cut it in Seattle this season. But yes: It's a good foundation.
COACH Steve Sarkisian (2nd year)
5-7 (4-5 in Pac-10)