The Washington Huskies come into the 2011 season with the burden of high expectations and the familiar hype that surrounds the dawn of a new beginning in Montlake. It's a yearly tradition, almost a ritual, for the Huskies. A strong recruiting class comes in, the long offseason encourages boundless optimism and, by the time Washington takes the field to open the season, expectations are off the chart. But are these expectations realistic this season?
After three wins to close the 2010 season and a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska that served as revenge, Washington fans are, rightfully, optimistic. And while head coach Steve Sarkisian continues to load-up on highly-touted recruits, forming a foundation that should, in theory, breed success in the long-term, the 2011 Washington squad does face questions. And these questions won't be answered this week, when the Huskies take-on defending FCS champion Eastern Washington to usher in a new season.
Gone is Jake Locker, the golden arm from Ferndale and unquestioned leader of the 2010 Washington team. It was Locker who, after being battered, bruised and beaten over the first nine games, led the Huskies to a bowl as they won each of their last three games, each of which was do-or-die.
If the Washington offense was a warehouse, Locker was the foreman, coming to work everyday with a lunchpale only to realize his place of business was a pile of rubble with a very nice forklift. The walls had crumbled, the roof had collapsed, but boy was that forklift nice. The result was Locker and the forklift battling the elements, essentially working by themselves to get a shipment out.
In this off-the-wall metaphor, the warehouse is the Washington offense, the walls are the offensive line and Chris Polk is the forklift. And while it wasn't pretty, Locker and Polk got the job done, leaning on each other to power the Washington offense to four-straight wins, including the Holiday Bowl, to end the season.
This year, the foreman is gone, replaced by a young and inexperienced whippersnapper who served as an assistant under Locker, the man who attempted to, almost single-handedly, rebuild the warehouse. The walls are back up, but nobody is quite sure whether a strong gust of wind will knock them over as autumn arrives. And that forklift is certainly back, with a cattle-pusher attached to the front and blades that serve as instruments of death.
Where Locker oversaw a place of business that was, for the most part, tattered and torn, Price steps into an upgraded facility with plenty of bells and whistles. He's surrounded by everything that should allow him to succeed. Jermaine Kearse is back, giving Price a reliable option in the passing game. He's joined by freshman Kasen Williams, who comes with much-deserved hype and is poised to be a breakout star in the Pac-12.
And there's a new department in Foreman Price's warehouse, giving him something Locker never had. His shipping department includes an armored car with high acceleration in the form of freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Where Locker rarely had a safety-valve at tight end, Price has an athletic specimen who can catch, adding another twist to the offense he oversees.
There's no replacing Locker and what he did at Washington. His physical tools were unmatched, and while his passing was far from refined, for four years he led the Huskies' offense and oversaw a rebuilding project while emerging from the nuclear fallout of the Willingham era. Price has large shoes to fill, but it's less about him being the man who runs around and does everything, and more about managing while utilizing the weapons that surround him.
On the other side of the ball, Washington loses its leader and quarterback, as well. Mason Foster was a treat to watch, even for this Washington State fan. He was consistent, and consistently good in the middle of the Huskies' defense. Foster was a prolific tackler at Washington and a bright spot on a much-maligned defense. There's simply no replacing him and the production he brought to the team.
However, a more experience and talented defensive line should take some of the pressure off the linebackers, the Cort Dennison steps into the MIKE role with experience. On paper, the Washington defensive line looks talented, with a mix of experience and up-and-coming impact players set to see time in the rotation. The secondary is experienced and the addition of Sean Parker at the safety spot provides a shot of young talent into the arm of the Washington defense.
So what happens this year? Chris Polk will continue to be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 as the Huskies lean heavily on the ground game. On the defensive side of the ball, Alameda Ta'amu is as advertised, the secondary is improved and Washington takes incremental steps forward. But does it all add up to another leap forward in the rebuilding process?
With Washington fans expecting improvement, and perhaps a leap to a bowl game, the hype has, once again, reached new levels. But this is still a team rebuilding and there will be growing pains. Is a bowl game realistic? It certainly should be. Expecting a giant leap forward, however, may be too much at this stage in the process.
Even still, taking baby steps while following a 7-6 team just a few years removed from an 0-12 season should be considered a positive, even if reality doesn't quite match the hype.