It's been arguably eight years since the buzz around Washington football was as charged up as it has been this off-season. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Jake Locker, the Huskies appear to be on the verge of returning to the national spotlight once again.
Despite going just 5-7 overall and 4-5 on Pac-10 Conference play last season, a slew of returning experience across the board on both sides of the football is giving UW head coach Steve Sarkisian and Huskie fans plenty of reason for optimism.
HuskersIllustrated.com sat down with Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times to get his insight on things coming out of the spring and to find out what Nebraska fans need to know about the Huskies for their Sept. 11 showdown in Seattle.
There seems to be a lot of excitement about the future of Washington football going on right now. What's the feeling out there about this team coming out of spring ball?
"They've got probably the highest expectations they've had since probably 2002 with Jake Locker coming back. Basically they return all but two offensive starters, so they expect that they're going to have one of the better offenses they've had since 2002 and one of the better offenses in the Pac-10, if not the country this year. They look like they should be able to move the ball against most of the teams they play.
"The big question would be on defense. They lost about four or five defensive starters, including their two best guys in (defensive ends) Donald Butler and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Then they kind of had some injury issues at defensive end in the spring, so that was kind of the big question mark position for them in the spring.
"But they felt pretty good about it coming out of the spring, and they thought they found some answers. I think the secondary looks like one of the best secondaries they've had in a while. The whole team is a lot more experienced than they have been in a while. They look like they're in a position to be one of the better teams they've had in a while."
Obviously Jake Locker is getting all kinds of hype this off-season. From what you've seen, how has he handled all of the attention?
"Locally and I think internally, he's had these high expectations forever. Nationally I guess it might be easy to say, 'Wow, he's got big expectations on him.' But he's kind of been regarded as the savior of the program ever since he committed here in the summer of 2005, so he's kind of been living with this for a long time, and I think this is kind of the natural next step. You go from being the most well-known high school player to being the freshman everybody has all these expectations of, and as your career kind of progresses, this is where it ends up as a college football player. So I think it's just another step for him.
"He's one of those kids who I really don't think pays a lot of attention to it or cares a lot about it, so I've never gotten the sense that it bothers him at all. I think it's just can he take the next steps on the field to play the way everybody thinks he can. I think that's the bigger issue, simply can he get those things done on the field."
So do you think he'll be able to live up to all of those expectations?
"Most of the signs in the spring were pretty positive that way, but for me, most of the spring is irrelevant, really. The kind of game that people hope Jake Locker can keep playing will be like the couple of games he played at the end of last year. You go back to the Cal game last year, he was 19-of-23 (passing) and ran for about 90 yards. That's what everybody is hoping to see more of this year. That's what everybody is going to be looking for, if he can do that for 12 Saturdays this year."
Have you ever been around a team that has gotten this much hype after winning just five games the year before?
"Well, is the team getting that much hype or is it just one guy? To me, it seems like Jake Locker is getting a lot of hype, and so then you can't mention Jake without mentioning the team he plays for. I mean, they're not rated or anything. Nobody's picked them to finish higher than fourth in the Pac-10 that I've seen.
"I will say that they really improved as the year went on last year. Locally, all the excitement is about the last few games. Nationally, probably nobody even saw those. But the way they played against Washington State - which is a terrible team - and Cal - which was more talented, and they just blew Cal out. They scored 42 points like it was no trouble at all.
"So when you've got a guy who's potentially the No. 1 draft pick in the country and is a fifth-year senior coming back and basically you have everybody else on the team other than a couple of defensive players coming back, I think it's justified that they could take that step from five wins to about eight or nine. I think that's what most people are projecting them to do on the high end."
I know a lot of Nebraska fans are looking at that Sept. 18 trip to Seattle as the game that could really set the tone for the rest of the season. Are Washington and its fans viewing that game the same way?
"I really don't think the team is looking past the BYU game. They've had quite the series with BYU the past couple years, and obviously Sarkisian is one of the more famous quarterbacks in BYU history, so there's a lot that goes into the game. There's also the fact that BYU's quarterback is probably going to be the kid who was the Washington state player of the year last year.
"I'm sure a lot of fans are looking at Nebraska because it is a big-name team coming in, but you know to be honest, (Washington) has had a lot of big-name teams come in here the last few years, and Nebraska itself has been here a couple times. But you know, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State have all been in the last three years, so they've had a lot of big-name, non-conference teams come in. While people will get excited because it's Nebraska and everything, and it will be kind of a big game, but I think the focus is to go 2-0 by that time.
"I think first it's play BYU and get past that and then see where things are. Definitely (Nebraska) is the big non-conference game of the year and people will be excited by that, but if (the Huskies) are 0-2 at the time, fans won't be quite as excited about that. So I think everybody wants to see what happens against BYU first."
When they do finally meet up, how do you see Locker and Co. attacking Nebraska's defense?
"The one thing Washington has done under Sarkisian is they're not a team that necessarily varies greatly in what they do. They're more of a team that wants to get to where, 'We're going to do what we do and try to stop us.' Obviously Nebraska's got a great defense, so the whole key for Washington is going to be trying to control the ball, move the ball on offense and try and score some points and take advantage when they do get opportunities.
"I guess I would doubt the game plan is going to vary incredibly from what it would be for anybody else, which would be try to run the ball with (running back) Chris Polk and then put the ball in Locker's hands and have him go out and make plays. The offense is really set up to try and give Jake options on plays to run it or throw it, and it's not always predetermined going in what they're going to do."
Who is one player not named Jake Locker that Husker fans need to keep an eye on when Nebraska takes on the Huskies?
"That should be Chris Polk. He had the best season for a freshman running back they've ever had. He had 1,100 yards last season, but he's probably one of the more under-rated running backs around I guess just because there were a lot of good running backs in the Pac-10 last year. So he didn't even make second-team All-Pac-10 despite rushing for 1,100 yards.
"But he's really good. He committed to USC initially and changed his mind for a variety of different reasons, but one of them was the chance to play immediately, so he's kind of been starting here since Day 1. He was hurt in 2008 and some people might have lost track of him a little bit, but he really had some big games last year. He had a shoulder injury at midseason that held him back a little bit, but otherwise he might have put up really big numbers. They've got a couple of pretty good receivers as well, but Chris Polk is probably the main guy after Locker."
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