Play on special teams is an excellent indicator of where a program currently is from the perspective of experience, depth, speed, and overall talent on the roster.
When Sark arrived in 2009 the situation was bleak which is a pretty honest assessment to make when you are taking over a team that went 0-12 the previous year. The exceptions were a QB named Jake Locker and a decent 2008 recruiting class that included players like Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse. (Only 3-6 players from that 2008 class will be on the roster in 2009.)
There was also an easy 25-30 pieces of dead wood on the roster that needed to be trimmed to make way for the future. That future wouldn't meaningfully start until 2010 when Sark brought in a 28 man recruiting class that would be ranked among the top fifteen in the nation.
Looking back at 2009 the Huskies weren't anything special as far as special teams were concerned. They didn't cover kicks particularly well and they weren't a threat to return any to the house either. They did play well enough for Washington to earn a 5-7 record...scare LSU, upset USC, get screwed at Notre Dame, and finish with strong wins over WSU, and Cal.
Sark tossed a large portion of his 2010 recruiting class into the fire by playing them early on special teams. The results weren't pretty. ABC announcer Gary Danielson called Washington's special teams performance against Nebraska the worst special teams performance he had ever seen from a BCS program.
Things didn't improve until Sark started playing his veteran starters over the last half of the season. Washington rebounded to beat Nebraska in a 2010 Holiday Bowl rematch with an excellent combination of defense and special teams play.
Overall performance was much better in 2011 but special teams miscues cost Washington a win...or at least the chance to win onw the road against Nebraska.
Does Washington have what it takes to make the break to a higher level in 2012?
Punt Returns - About to break out
So. Devin Aguilar and So. Johri Fogerson were the designated punt returners in 2009. They both flashed some potential but neither stayed healthy enough to keep the job over the next two seasons. So. Cody Bruns took over after Aguilar was injured in 2010 but his entire job consisted of catching the ball, falling forward, and not fumbling it.
Fr. Kasen Williams took over the job in 2011. He only averaged 7 yards per return and was never able to get going and break one. Incoming Fr. Melvin Hall will most likely take over the job this spring. Hall has the great initial burst plus all the slippery moves to become the next great UW punt returner.
Kick Off Returns - Definitely Improved
Nine different Huskies returned kicks in 2009. So. Quinton Richardson, Fr. James Johnson, RS Chris Polk, and So. Jordan Polk returned the bulk of them for 18.6 yard average and a long of only 37 yards.
Fr. Jessie Callier, Fr. Kevin Smith, Fr. Sean Parker took over the bulk of the return duties in 2010 for an average 0f 20.4 and a long of 57.
Callier and Smith averaged 23.8 in 2011 with longs of 64 and 58 yards and should be able to increase their numbers once again in 2012.
Kick Coverage - Better
One thing that would really help the kick off return coverage numbers would be having a kicker who can kick the ball deep or out of the end zone with some regularity. Erik Folk has been part of some great Husky moments but his leg was never strong enough to give Washington an edge in this area. Folk graduates after this season and the Huskies will be bringing in a kicker as soon as this spring to replace him.
Place Kicking - Up in the air
So. Erik Folk was an unproven and oft injured kicker going into the 2009 season. He responded well (kicked a game winner against #3 USC) and held onto the job for three years. Folk has been clutch for most of his career inside the 40 but he has always lacked the leg strength to be accurate at greater distances. Folk graduates after this season and UW hasn't picked up a commitment yet from a new kicker.
Punting - About the same
2009 was Jr. Will Mahan's only full season because of injury. He did a really nice job locating his punts and achieving hang time. He blew out a knee early in 2010 and Jr. Kiel Rasp came to the rescue for the next two years. Both of these guys are excellent punters who will graduate after this season.
Kory Durkee impressed everyone who saw him punt in the Dempsey (he hit the roof) this summer during camp. He arrives in 2008 to take over the punting job.
Deep Snapper - Up in the air
Danny Morovock was the deep snapper when Sark arrived. He was a four year starting specialist specifically recruited by Willingham to eliminate problems in the kicking game. It was one of the few things that Ty did that actually worked.
In 2010 Jr. Brendan Lopez took over the job. He was local guy who went to Bellevue HS and then walked on at Michigan to keep his buddy Steve Schilling company. Things didn't work out for him at UM but he earned a scholarship for a year and a half at Washington which is pretty sweet.
I am not really sure who will be doing the deep snapping in 2012 but I am sure they will have a good idea by the time spring practice rolls around.
Kick Blocking - Improving (Unintentionally omitted in earlier version)
Great teams block kicks and if Washington wants to be a great team again they are going to need to start following suit. The Huskies blocked a punt deep in WSU territory and returned it for a TD in the Apple Cup. It was the first time that they had done such a thing since 2006.
Consider that a very good sign and I think you are going to start seeing more of that in 2012 because you are beginning to deal with a more mature team that has had yearly upgrades in speed and talent since Sark arrived.
Factor in the future play of such freakish athletes as Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kevin Smith, Antavius Sims, and Marvin Hall. These kids are going to be involved in a lot of big time special teams plays over the next 3-4 years.