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August 27, 2011

Could Washington be a Pac-12 dark horse?

Third-year coach Steve Sarkisian knows all about Washington's football history, about how the Huskies used to rule the old Pac-10.

"I know the pride here," he says. "This is a tremendous place that embraces the past and looks forward to tomorrow. And I think we have a bright future."

Bright enough, in fact, to perhaps be a dark horse in the rugged Pac-12 North Division.

NEW DIGS ON THE WAY


Few venues in the nation can match the picturesque setting of Husky Stadium. The venue, built in 1920, sits above Union Bay in Lake Washington and has a view of the Cascade Mountains.

While it has fallen into disrepair over the years, that's about to change.

A renovation costing $250 million, one that will be funded fully with private donations, begins this fall. Gone will be the track that used to encircle the field, giving Husky Stadium an even more intimate atmosphere.

"We break ground on a new stadium the Monday after the Oregon game [Nov. 5]," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian says. "Old Husky Stadium is coming down. We'll play our final home game [vs. Washington State on Nov. 26] at the Seahawks' stadium, and then we will play our entire 2012 season at the Seahawks' stadium.

"We will play in new Husky Stadium in 2013, which will be great. It will have a huge impact on recruiting and will put us up to where we should be with the other stadiums in the country."
Signs of progress are tangible for Washington. Last season, the program made its first bowl appearance since 2002. That's a long way from the 0-12 mark the Huskies posted in 2008 in the final season of the Tyrone Willingham era; the Huskies were 11-37 overall and 6-29 in league play, with three last-place finishes, when Willingham coached from 2005-08.

"We are moving forward," Sarkisian says. "We have laid a good foundation and have a chance to make an impact."

To make an impact this season, the Huskies need good quarterback play. That's why the spotlight will be on Keith Price, who will take over for the departed Jake Locker. Price is a dual-threat quarterback who played in eight games last season as a freshman and started at Oregon on Nov. 6. He was 19-of-37 for 164 yards with two touchdowns in 2010.

"The reality of it is we're not going to be able to rely on that quarterback position like we were able to with Jake for two years," Sarkisian says. "It's going to be more on relying on Chris Polk and Jesse Callier running the ball, then utilizing the one-on-one matchups on the outside with Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, Kevin Smith and maybe the emergence of a newcomer in Kasen Williams.

"I love where we're headed."

It's all about reconnecting to the good ol' days, the Don James era, when the Huskies often were the "Monsters of Montlake." James built Washington into a national power during his run in Seattle from 1975-92, forging a 153-57-2 record with six conference championships and a share of the 1991 national title. Washington - not USC, not Oregon - ruled the conference for a good portion of the 1980s and '90s.

Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback (1995-96) who was an assistant for some great teams at USC (2005-08), is off to a solid start to reclaiming some of that glory. James went 11-11 overall and 8-6 in league play in his first two seasons at Washington. Sarkisian's comparable numbers are 12-13 overall and 9-9 in conference action.

In James' third season, in 1977, he led the Huskies to the league title and a victory in the Rose Bowl. Could Sarkisian be poised for a similar breakout this fall?

If so, the Huskies will have to earn it. The new-look Pac-12 will be an obstacle. The additions of Colorado and Utah have made this a 12-team, two-division conference. And Washington plays in the North Division, which happens to be the tougher of the two divisions.

Maybe U-Dub is 'Quarterback U.'
Few schools can match the roll call of quarterbacks at Washington. The Huskies' tremendous quarterback legacy began with Don Heinrich in the early 1950s. From there, Washington has produced the following standouts, all of whom either played in the NFL or were NFL draft picks:
PlayerYears started
Sonny Sixkiller1970-72
Warren Moon1975-77
Tom Flick1978-80
Steve Pelluer 1981-83
Hugh Millen1984-85
Chris Chandler1986-87
Cary Conklin1988-89
Mark Brunell1990, '92
Billy Joe Hobert1991
Damon Huard1993-95
Brock Huard1996-98
Marques Tuiasosopo1999-2000
Cody Pickett2001-03
Isaiah Stanback 2005-06
Jake Locker2007, 2009-10
"It's tough," Sarkisian says. "You are talking about two top-five teams [Oregon and Stanford] in one division. It's tough, not to mention what California brings, Oregon State brings and what Washington State was able to do at the end of last season."

Still, Sarkisian likes the direction of his program.

"I always felt it wouldn't take us that long here, with what this place has been in the past, the history, tradition and great players that have been here," he says. "This is by far and away our most athletic football team and explosive team. It's also the youngest team that I have had. That's encouraging.

"We have recruited really well, especially the last two years. We have brought in the type of players I think will help you win a Pac-12 championship. And it has made practices here very competitive. There are big plays on both sides of the ball."

One of the Huskies' best players will be Polk. The offensive likely will revolve around the junior, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark (1,415) for a second season in a row, joining Napoleon Kaufman and Greg Lewis as the only Huskies to do it more than once.

Polk must be a leader with Locker now playing for the Tennessee Titans.

"It's a lot different," Polk says. "I can't be the guy in the back anymore. I can't be quiet. I'm going to have to step up and accept my leadership role."

Sarkisian and Washington faithful are hoping Polk can help the Huskies write some new history.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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