"It's the emptiest, yet fullest, of all human messages: 'Goodbye."
With the conclusion of tonight's BCS National Championship, yet another NCAA football season will have come and passed. My, where does the time go?
There will be plenty of time for in-depth analysis of the season that has gone: the big plays, the key players, the impact of coaches (old and anew) and all of the various turning points that affected the sport, the Pac 12 and our beloved Washington Huskies. Needless to say, there is no shortage of things to discuss.
However, with the turning of the page of another year, it seems right to take some time to acknowledge all of those things that went right, all of those things that are as we, in PC-driven corporate America like to call "opportunities for improvement", and the year that is beginning to take shape before us. We also have a lot of "farewells" to pass along to our many friends that are leaving the program, one that is now in much better shape than when they found it.
UW 2013: Successes and Surprises
Rewind back to the middle of fall practices and where your mind was at as it related to this team. While UW had suffered very little in terms of overall roster churn, the players returning were still an unknown commodity to us, especially in the context of the mysterious new offense that Steve Sarkisian was installing. The defense was definitely ahead of the offense and Bishop Sankey was a stud ... that was about all we knew with certainty. Everything else was a question: could Keith Price bounce back? Would Mike Criste be successful at C and stabilize that porous O-Line? Could Justin Wilcox figure out how to slow a spread read-option team? Was it possible for the Huskies to actually get to 10 wins? There weren't a lot of answers, but plenty of opportunity.
Here are the top three things that "went well" for UW in 2013:
Tempo Attack: Sarkisian in 2013, once again, demonstrated one of his best coaching traits: a willingness to make a change when necessary. In response to an absolutely putrid 2012 offensive showing, Sarkisian and Co significantly reduced their "multiples" playbook into a simplified strategy that utilized the same base plays in a high-tempo attack. The idea was simple: take advantage of your greatest strengths (a mature QB, a bevy of playmakers) and cover up your greatest weaknesses (an inability to pass protect, an exposure to QB injury).
The results? The greatest offensive team that UW has ever produced.
We've had a huge debate over the last several months about the usefulness of "advanced metrics", so I won't bore you with what they tell us about this offense (though, it is impressive). I will say that what the average fan saw with his eyeballs is exactly what the stats bear out. This was an efficient team that was incredibly balanced and exceptional at converting on third downs and piling up yards. They had produced more yards and points by Week 9 than any full-season team in UW history and they produced two All-American level players in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey. They also restored the luster to Keith Price's career so much so that he may actually get drafted as a late-round pick in April.
ACL Club: Remember last year when we were debating whether or not the staff "was responsible" for the injuries - particularly the ACL injuries - suffered by key players. Fast forward to today. The seasons had by the so-called "ACL Club" were oustanding. Hau'oli Kikaha came back from two knee injuries to have the greatest season by a Husky Defensive End since ... well, since Hau'oli Jamora! 13.5 sacks and 17.5 TFLs are elite level stats and it bodes well for a man who had missed virtually all of the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Other comebacks from the ACL Club were equally as impressive. Kevin Smith demonstrated that he could simultaneously be both our best downfield threat and our most ferocious perimeter blocker (at least after Kasen went down) from the WR position. Jesse Callier stepped right back into his back-up RB role and was one of our most underrated special teams players. Finally, Deontae Cooper was the feel-good story of all of CFB after coming back from three ACL reconstruction procedures to have a healthy season that culminated in a 166 yard breakout in Corvallis. He found the end zone three times this year and enters 2014 squarely in the mix.
Restoration of Keith Price: I was tempted to go with Bishop as my "third thing" here, but given where KP left the 2012 season, this seemed the right pick. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bounce-back seasons Husky fans have ever seen from one of its own. KP was remarkably efficient in the new offense, finishing the season in the national top 20 in completion percentage, yards per attempt and QB rating. His ability to grasp the severe change in offensive philosophy is what enabled it to even be implemented in the first place and, when adversity struck this team, it was Keith Price who famously stood tall and proclaimed, "We all we got, we all we need". Price may seem under-appreciated right now, but I believe that history will show him both as the QB who led UW out of the cesspool that was 0-12 and one of the greatest of all-time Huskies.
UW 2013: Opportunities Missed
As with any season, not everything went exactly to plan ... so much so that fans were openly debating the merits of allowing Steve Sarkisian to come back for a lame duck season before he unceremoniously dumped UW for the bright lights of Los Angeles. Despite the nine-win season that met most expectations, it was the manner in which it went down that raised so many eyebrows. Here are the top three whiffs of 2013:
No Signature Wins: Despite handing Chris Petersen the worst loss that he had ever seen (and hopefully ever again will see), UW failed to notch any big wins against elite level competition and, in fact, seemed to have its most disappointing efforts against the best teams on its schedule. While every good team feasts on "lesser competition", the Huskies inability to end losing streaks to the likes of Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon was very disappointing. And each disappointment had its own vibe. The win that should have been versus Stanford. The annihilation in Tempe. The bad breaks at UCLA. And, of course, the achievement of the "Win the Decade" versus Oregon. Fans wanted to see something unexpected happen in 2013, but it was not to be.
Offensive Line Struggles: The success of offense in 2013 can assuredly be partly credited to this offensive line which, as expected, was successful in the run game and quite improved in overall pass protection. The production of a record-setting running back and the reduction of sacks allowed by a total of eight are feathers in the cap for this unit. However, this remains a below-average unit that still surrendered 30 sacks (same total as in 2008) and was unable to keep a clean pocket for Keith Price against virtually every team it faced. I will say that the unit definitely got better as the season progressed, but still checks in as an opportunity to improve in 2014.
No Breakouts in the Defensive Front Seven: Husky fans have been hearing for the last few years about all of the talent being amassed by UW recruiters along the defensive front seven. 2013 was to be the year that one of those young players were to break out. While UW got very high-level contributions from guys like Kikaha and Danny Shelton, these were players that had already acquired their notoriety in the conference. The expected "break outs" amongst the pool of candidates that included Shaq Thompshon, Josh Shirley, Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton never fully emerged. It is not to say that any of these guys had bad seasons. In fact, you could argue that they all had "good" to "very good" seasons. However, if you were looking for one of these players to move into the conference elite in 2013, it didn't happen for any of them. The good news is that they all come back for another go in 2014.
UW in 2014: Our New Year's Hopes and Resolutions
Every new year comes with new aspirations and determinations. Here are ours for 2014:
10 Wins or Bust: With a new coaching staff coming in, this may be a little unfair. However, UW has an amazing schedule in 2014 that happens to coincide with its oldest and most experienced overall roster in a decade. The Huskies have a 13 game regular season schedule thanks to their extra game road trip to Hawaii. That is four out of conference games with the toughest matchup likely to be Illinois in Seattle. On top of that, UW's Pac 12 schedule is quite favorable. While we'd rather not miss Utah or USC, we get the majority of our tough matchups at home. Our road schedule should consist of at least three winnable games @ Colorado, @ California, and @ WSU. The fourth is @ Oregon which, if we could find a way to win, would be the signature of all signature wins for Chris Petersen. Regardless, 10 wins is an expectation that should motivate this team.
An Even More Dangerous Offense: I get that the graduations of Price, Sankey and ASJ create a lot of interesting offensive questions heading into the offseason. However, on paper, this team looks more dangerous in 2014 than it did in 2013. Whomever wins the QB job will have more overall tools than KP did in terms of his own game - in particular in the running department. The receiving corps will be nasty with Kasen being partnered with Jaydon Mickens, John Ross and Demore'ea Stringfellow. The rushing attack will have a legitimate committee comprised of both thunder (Dwayne Washington, Lavon Coleman, Ryan McDaniel, Psalm Wooching) and lightning (Callier, Cooper). Most importantly, the Offensive Line returns all of its starters and adds some experienced depth to the mix. This team, coached right, could challenge Oregon as the most explosive offensive in the Pac in 2014.
The End of Spread Read-Option Struggles: The Huskies have been amassing "creatures" at each level of their defense over the past few years and, in 2014, many of those should come into their own. You already know about guys like Shaq, Marcus Peters, Feeney and Littleton - tall, fast, rangy guys who disrupt throwing lanes and can win a footrace to the sideline. 2014 should see the arrival of a few more freaks like Marcus Farria, JoJo Mathis, Elijah Qualls, Azeem Victor and Jermaine Kelly into the regular rotation. This team was assembled with speed and length in mind as the keys to stopping the types of offenses that are proliferating throughout the Pac. Combined with the talents already on the field and under the guidance of John Timu in the middle, Husky fans should have a lot of reasons to expect UW to play tough against the better offenses in our league in 2014.
...and, some Goodbyes
Every year ends with the passing of the proverbial baton from one generation to the next. In 2013, we say goodbye to an abnormally high count of Dawgs and friends of the program.
To Keith Price ... you didn't come with the biggest cannon or the highest number of stars, but you did come to develop into a true leader and you'll go down as one of our best.
To Bishop Sankey and ASJ ... it is hard to believe it is already over, but you two have earned all of your accolades and an opportunity to demonstrate your talents on the grandest stage. Good luck.
To Kevin Smith ... In the end, you leave with a lot of Husky fans ruing the red shirt year that never was. Nobody expected you to become the player that you were in 2013 or even the guy that had the greatest special teams play in the Steve Sarkisian era. How you played the game - blocking and receiving - set the tone for everybody.
To Eric Kiesau ... You were overshadowed by everybody else, but your offensive contributions were appreciated as was your coaching of one of the best blocking WR corps we've ever seen.
To Travis Coons: You were so good that Justin Wilcox once invited you to a Defensive Personnel Meeting so that his guys could give you a standing ovation. Not bad for a Kicker. You will be missed.
To Steve Sarkisian: A lot of Husky fans still feel stung, but the truth is that you did exactly what you were tasked to do: to rebuild a winner while maintaining a high standard for our student athletes. You earned the right to chase your dream and everybody has won in the end.
To our graduating Seniors: I can't name you all, but you all committed to UW in an era where the future didn't look too bright and you contributed to something that looks so much better than it did when you arrived. So, to Will Shamburger, Sione Potoa'e, Taz Stevenson, Josh Banks, Antavius Sims, Andrew Hudson and everybody else that I may have missed ... thank you.
To Marques Tuiasosopo: It was a short-ride, but seeing your fiery emotion on that sideline as you were coaching your alma mater to one last win that would, ironically, make it the most accomplished team since you were its QB was a sight to behold. Best of luck to you. I hope that our paths shall cross again.
And, to my Dawg Pound brethren, I hope that you enjoyed the season that was. It has certainly provided us with about all of the drama and emotion that one season could. It should make for an interesting off season dialogue that, as you well know, we are more than happy to moderate. Happy New Season.