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March 30, 2010

Washington will work to end bowl drought

Even though rain seems to fall incessantly in Seattle, Washington is in the midst of an historic drought.

The Huskies have gone seven consecutive seasons without a winning record, the longest such streak in school history.

That may be coming to an end, though.

After going winless in 2008, the Huskies made major strides in '09 with five victories, including a stunner over USC. A one-point loss to UCLA, a last-play loss to Arizona State, an overtime defeat at Notre Dame - win any of those and the Huskies would've been bowl-bound.

The postseason is a possibility in 2010. Quarterback Jake Locker's decision to forgo the NFL draft gives hope. So does an offensive unit that returns its leading rusher, top three receivers and four line starters.

Still, the Huskies need to see significant progress on defense this spring or the drought could continue, no matter how much rain falls.

Here's a look at Washington as it readies for spring football.

WASHINGTON AT-A-GLANCE
QB Jack Locker gave Washington a big lift when he decided to return to school.
THE BASICS
Coach: Steve Sarkisian
Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10.
Spring dates: March 30-April 30.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (10): WR Devin Aguilar, G Gregory Christine, T Cody Habben, WR James Johnson, WR Jermaine Kearse, G Senio Kelemete, QB Jake Locker, TE Kavario Middleton, TB Chris Polk, C Ryan Tolar.
Defense (7): T Cameron Elisara, LB Mason Foster, CB Adam Long, CB Quinton Richardson, T Alameda Ta'amu, CB Desmond Trufant, SS Nate Williams.
Special teams (2): K Erik Folk, P Will Mahan.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The talk among NFL scouts was Locker would be a first-round selection if he chose to declare for the draft. Instead, he opted to stay for his senior season. That gives the Huskies a three-year starter coming off the best season of his career. Always a tough runner, Locker often was criticized as a poor passer. But he completed almost 60 percent of his attempts for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. He should be even better in his second season under coach Steve Sarkisian. Plus, his top three receivers from last season are back and all were either sophomores or freshmen. Prospects also are excellent at running back with Polk, a sophomore, coming off a 1,000-yard performance in his debut season.

HELP IS NEEDED

The defense was mediocre at best in '09. The Huskies gave up more than 30 points in half their games, and there isn't much cause to assume the defense will be much improved. The secondary could be upgraded, but big questions loom at linebacker and along the line. Defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, the school's career sacks leader, completed his eligibility. His projected replacement, Andru Pulu, is indefinitely suspended for violating team rules. On top of that, junior DE Everrette Thompson will sit out spring practice because of injury. The only returning starter up front is Ta'amu, who made 19 tackles in '09. Washington also must replace two starting linebackers, including leading tackler Donald Butler. The defense could have as many as four freshmen in the starting lineup.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

LB Cort Dennison: Dennison, a senior, was a part-time starter in '09 and finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles. He figures to take over a starting job at a position where the Huskies desperately need someone to step up.

QB Nick Montana: A three-star recruit and the son of NFL legend Joe Montana, Montana already has enrolled and could end up being Locker's backup this fall. His spring performance likely determines whether he'll redshirt. Other than Locker, no one on the roster attempted more than one pass last season.

CB Desmond Trufant: Though inconsistent at times as a freshman last season, Trufant showed the ability to be shutdown corner. Continued development can be expected, and he is a future all-conference candidate.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

SS Victor Aiyewa: Aiyewa, a senior, has made three career starts, with two coming last season. But he has made just 43 tackles in his career, with a lot coming on special teams. He desperately needs a strong performance this spring to stave off younger guys on the roster. If Aiyewa doesn't impress the coaches, he may have trouble making any more starts.

THE BUZZ

Washington exceeded expectations in Sarkisian's first season. That's the good news. Now, expectations are raised, and that could be bad news if the defense doesn't improve. The Huskies have come a long way from a 0-12 finish just two years ago. The next step is posting a winning record and making the program's first bowl appearance since 2002. The play of the defense this spring should give an indication of whether the Huskies are ready to take that next step.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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