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UW Dawg Pound Roundtable - Week 9

In this week's roundtable, Sundodger, Lear Pilot & Ryan Priest join me in discussing the topic du jour: Coach Sark, the job he and his staff are doing and his future at Washington.

Steve Dykes

After a tough loss to Arizona last week, Husky fans are feeling frustrated, angry, concerned about the direction of the season and of the program as a whole. The grumbling is enough that there is now serious talk among fans about whether Sark's seat is going to start warming up. Naturally, the job he and his staff are doing and the direction of the program are the topics of this week's roundtable. First off is my question to the group:

How has your opinion of the job Sark is doing at Washington changed - if at all - from before the Arizona game to after?

kirkd: Going into the Arizona game I thought this team had a good shot at winning and setting themselves up nicely for a strong 2nd half run to the season. That Sark himself said in the days before the game that, prior to the season, he'd circled this game for his team as marking a key point in the season after what figured to be a tough first half indicated to me that he knew how important this game could be in shaping this season and that he'd push the right buttons with the team and overcome what has been a poor record in road games. On paper, Arizona looked vulnerable - a team that was winless in the conference and had a bad defense and couldn't rush the passer. Yes, they had a scary offense, but there was reason to believe DC Wilcox had the players to at least slow them down some. Boy, was I wrong.

It wasn't so much that they lost - it's that they were blown-out...again. At least against LSU in Baton Rouge and Oregon in Eugene, you could find some justification for losing big; but this one was different. Seeing Sark leaning heavily on the passing game from the start was a real head-scratcher - he had a QB who was struggling with his confidence, and OL that has been significantly better at run-blocking than pass-blocking and he was going against a defense that was worse against the run than the pass. Even Wilcox - who had shown himself to be an upgrade over Holt - had a bad game as he went with a very questionable personnel alignment on defense to face the Wildcats. Even worse, it became clear during the game - and was confirmed afterwards in interviews - that there was a brewing disconnect between Keith Price and Sark.

Even though it's just one game, it strikes me as a bellwether. There have been a number of reasons to be concerned about Sark prior to this game - his failure with his initial defensive staff hires, necessitating a wholesale change this off-season; his inability so far to develop above-average, or even average offensive and defensive lines; his difficulties on the road; the number of blowout losses he's had; and some notable recruiting failures with stud in-state recruits. As well, the failures of the offense this season hinted that perhaps the loss of Nussmeier was even bigger than we had realized, and that Kiesau has not been an adequate replacement. And the Arizona game gave fuel to those that accuse Sark of being too finesse and not valuing a strong running game enough.

While I'm not giving up on Sark yet, I am definitely more concerned now than I was a week ago.

Ryan Priest: More than anything else, the Arizona game was emblematic of Washington's tendency to ride consistently hot or consistently cold under Steve Sarkisian's leadership. With him at the helm, the Huskies have undergone four instances of a three-game-or-more losing streak, as well as a seven-game winning streak between the end of the 2010 season and the beginning of the 2011 season. That's no doubt closely related to the Huskies' horrid record away from Seattle since 2009: 5-16, with 10 of those losses coming by 8 points or more. This inability to play effectively on the road, I think, is more indicative of the team's overall youth than anything else. I suspect that the team's success in 2013, and with it Sark's ability to keep the vultures of a restless fan base at bay, will walk hand-in-hand with its performance as an away team.

That being said, no, my opinion hasn't changed. As I wrote a few days after the LSU game, I think it's difficult to discern much about Washington's (and by extension, Sark's) performance this year given the calamitous number of injuries that have afflicted this team, especially its starters. I've long thought that 2013 is the real measuring stick for this coach and his program, and the Arizona game --- as frustrating as it was to the players, the coaches and the fans --- did nothing to change that fundamental calculus.

Lear Pilot: Not at all, my opinion went south much earlier in the season. I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so. One of the big goals for the 2012 season was to end the blowouts. Yet, every road games has been a MISERABLE blowout. Over the past few weeks I’ve grown more and more concerned with Sark’s track record when playing on the road. I’ve also been concerned with the attitude and mannerisms of players on the team. I see a team that is unprepared, unfocused, and playing scared. We always hear how a team takes on the personality of the coaching staff; is this something the players are picking up from the coaches? During Sark’s pregame interview on ESPN, right before the Oregon game, I thought Sark himself looked overwhelmed and possibly even scared. I don’t know if this is the coaches attitudes rubbing off on players or not, but it better get fixed fast if Sark wants to be successful.

Sundodger: I’m not sure the Arizona game changed things too much for me as much as it was an affirmation of my evolving opinion of him. He’s not consistent, and he can’t get his team to play consistently, either. You simply have no idea what to expect from a Washington team as far as gameplan, execution, and effort from a week-to-week basis. He made a comment in the last few days to the effect that he thought the players were looking for answers in the playbook instead of in executing their assignments. Maybe that’s true about the guys on the field, but that, to me, is a comment that most aptly applies to Sarkisian himself. I’ve called him a tinkerer before (and several others have as well) with respect to the offense. When it works, it’s beautiful (see what he did with Sefarian-Jenkins and Kearse against Utah last season as a prime example). When it doesn’t, it can be really ugly. Either way, it comes at the expense of establishing an identity for your team. What’s started as an already huge playbook gets bigger each week. I don’t think one of his teams has ever really established a core identity.

One of my biggest concerns is that his teams seem to struggle as much with prosperity as they do adversity. Their best games are often followed by their worst.

The next topic comes from Sundodger:

Moving forward, if you were Sarkisian, what would you do to get things right?

Sundodger: 1. Simplify things. Over the next three weeks, the Dawgs play 3 teams that are mostly straight forward defensively. Decide on a game plan or a core set of plays that will work for all 3 teams, and spend the next three weeks perfecting them. Make practices about fundamentals and less about strategy. The same for the defense. As much as I liked Wicox's plan for Stanford, I hated the flex end alignment against Arizona. Make the next few weeks about recognition, and alignment and tackling.

2. I think Sarkisian is wrong in the way he's handling Price. I don't think the answer comes from working harder or spending more time preparing. It's 100% mental with the guy right now. I'm sure Sarkisian understands this. Now is the time to change the way that message is being delivered, though. Price needs a shakeup in his routine. Something - anything - to change his focus and get him to just relax and get back to playing instinctive football. I think Price is overpreparing to a degree, and it's leading to him overthinking on the field.

3. Speaking of the message....If you don't think that it should be changed, then change the way it's being delivered. Team-wide. Just like with a boss, parent, spouse, etc. that keeps saying the same thing in the same way over and over again, it's easy to tune out a coach that's doing the same. Sarkisian is a big-time talker. Sometimes less is more (I'm the same way both as a speaker and a writer - there'll be times that I'll write out a four-paragraph soliloquy, only to see somebody like thecassino get the same exact message across in two sentences). Chew more ass. Chew less ass. Yell more. Or less. Whatever. But freshen up the approach so the team hears what you're saying instead of just the way you're saying it. I don't think Sarkisian has lost the team yet. But that's a danger, and one that he distinctly needs to avoid.

kirkd: Obviously Sark went into games with LSU, Oregon & Arizona with what he thought was a gameplan that could get his team the win; just as obviously, he was wrong. When things aren't working, you have to do some serious self-examination and question what you are doing. IMO, one of the key things Sark did wrong against Arizona is not try from the very start to establish the running game. The pass-blocking with this makeshift line is clearly a problem, and Price is clearly rattled. So don't try to hammer a round peg into a square hole - let the OL get some confidence by running the ball; let Price settle into a game and realize he doesn't have to win it by himself; and most importantly, establish a mindset within the team that they are the toughest guys on the field.

More than that, Sark also needs to look at the relationship Price has with the coaching staff. If it has to do with Kiesau, Sark needs to determine if he can coach up Kiesau to better coach up Price, and if he can't, he's got to look at making a tough choice in the off-season.

Sark also needs to look at how he's delivering his messages to the team. The inconsistency that the Huskies have shown under his watch could certainly be attributed to them being a relatively young team during his time here, but that doesn't absolve him of needing to figure out how to get better performances out of them. Too many times this season his players have dug themselves big holes in the 1st half through mental errors, and they simply aren't talented enough yet to be able to overcome those mistakes and win.

Lear Pilot: The first thing I would do is sit Keith Price for the first half of the Oregon State game. It’s time for drastic measures. Sark is on the verge of losing this team and he needs to send a message to each and every player: do your job and do it the way I want you to, or you’ll ride the bench. Enough is enough; I’m tired of hearing about players being undisciplined and not doing their assignments. If you don’t do what I told you to do, sit down and I’ll find somebody that will. You drop a pass, you sit out a series, even if you are Kasen Williams. As my high school track coach (retired Navy Master Chief) would say: "When I say jump, you jump. When you get in the air, you can ask me how high." It’s time for a Jim Owens death march, it’s time to do something drastic.

Ryan Priest: First off, let me say that I think Lear's solution of benching Keith is a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. There's no question that the kid has got to pick himself up from his absolutely lackluster performance this year, but you don't do that by not giving him a chance to prove himself. Price is not going to get into a rhythm holding a clipboard, after all, and unless you're suggesting burning Cyler Miles' redshirt in the eighth game of the season, that means asking Derrick Brown to make his first career start, and see his first meaningful playing time, against a top-10 team. I just don't see how that's fair to either player.

To figure out how to "get things right," it's important to first diagnose what things are wrong, and I don't think that many would disagree that foremost among the Huskies' woes seems to be the team's absolute lack of an offensive identity. I'm sure he would deny it with his every breath, but Keith Price clearly has no trust in his offensive line to protect him, nor in his receiving corps (beyond Kasen and ASJ) to make big plays in clutch moments. The good news is that even with the injuries to Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper, the tailback position has been a pleasant surprise under workhorses Bishop Sankey and Kendyl Taylor. Mind you, neither one of them is playing at the level that Chris Polk consistently turned in, but that's hardly something that can be held against them. What Washington needs is a game in which they jump out to an early lead, and afford Sark the ability to lean on his running back corps to carry the game without having to resort to the passing attack out of necessity of getting back into the game. Unfortunately, Saturday's game against Oregon State (with the No. 5-ranked rushing defense in the nation) doesn't look to offer that opportunity.

The next topic comes from Ryan:

There's little question that, along with Keith Price's seemingly unshakable funk, the poor play of the offensive line is a major factor in the offense's inability to find an identity this year. Say we finish this season with our current ranks of 106th and 115th in sacks and tackles for loss allowed, respectively. Do you chalk that up as a natural outcome of losing three of your five projected starters for the entire season, or is it time to conclude that offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto simply isn't getting the job done?

Ryan Priest: Unless the offensive line improves its performance in the second half of the season dramatically, I think Cozzetto will end up playing the role of sacrificial lamb to appease the Husky masses. Certainly things have not gone well for him this year, personnel-wise: I can't think of any team that could lose three starting linemen to injury and not suffer a drop-off in offensive production (we all saw what happened to USC when they lost just their starting center against Stanford), but "drop-off" doesn't come close to adequately describing the FCS-level performance that this offensive line has turned in against its opponents in the first seven games of this season. When you allow Arizona's defense to sack your quarterback four times after they registered just six sacks in the entire season up to that point, it's time to start looking for answers in the form of new blood, and I'm not talking just about players. An FBS-level program cannot afford to play as poorly as the Huskies currently do in the offensive trenches if they hope to win --- it's as simple as that.

Sundodger: The ultimate conclusion is that the offensive line isn’t getting the job done, particularly in pass protection. The injuries would be tough for most programs to mitigate, and moreso for the large group of BCS teams that get hung with the "mediocre" moniker. These guys weren’t world beaters to begin with, but the fact is that they were the best options at their positions that the UW had. That can’t be disregarded. But there’s also the worry that the players that have been in Cozzetto’s system for multiple years don’t seem to progress at the rate you’d reasonably expect. If I was a player, especially when you look at the personalities virtually every other coach on staff, I’d have a tough time wanting to play for a guy like Cozzetto. He’s just a mean SOB. I don’t hear too much to suggest that he’s a big asset as a recruiter, and I wonder if his reputation would turn off a potential recruit.

The other factor is that the line has sucked for all four seasons Sarkisian has been here. It’s been mitigated to a large degree by the presence of Polk. He masked a lot of the deficiencies on the line for 3 solid seasons. While Sankey has been admirable, he just doesn’t command the same respect from a defense. I think that Cozzetto’s continued employment is going to be the first thing Sarkisian evaluates at the end of the season. If I had to wager on it, I’d bet the Dawgs have a new line coach for 2013.

kirkd: I've been concerned about the job Cozz is doing for a few years now - I just am not seeing the improvement in our players that I think is reasonable to expect. I know that he has his defenders, and he's supposedly a guy that Gilby loves and thinks the world of. Coming from an OL coach the caliber of Gilby, that's high praise indeed. But coaches can be wrong about their peers, and sometimes a good coach just isn't a good fit in a certain situation. I know that OL coaches are typically tough sumbitches (Gilby was a perfect example), but I wonder if Cozzetto takes it too far. Some of the stories from his first stint here in 2003 lead me to believe he crosses the line between "tough" and "asshole" too much of the time.

That said, it's absolutely true that this OL has been hit especially hard by injury. We thought heading into this season we'd have 4 returning starters; of those 4, only one is still playing (Drew Schaefer), with one retired due to chronic shoulder problems (Colin Porter) and two more out for the season (Colin Tanigawa, Erik Kohler). Add in the injury to Ben Riva - who had stepped up to take a starting role in Fall Practices with Porter gone - that cost him 5 game, and you have a tough situation for any OL coach. Not to mention the fact that, other than Schaefer, every other OL on the roster is a 3rd year guy or newer, and you have a recipe for trouble.

The other factors to consider here are: has the OL scouting and recruiting been good enough, and has the strength and conditioning been good enough? You can certainly make the argument that Sark hasn't done Cozzetto any favors by signing so few true OT guys, though we don't know how much of the blame lies on Sark for recruiting misses or on Cozzetto for poor talent scouting. And I'm not convinced that Ivan Lewis has done a good enough job with the physical development of our linemen.

Lear Pilot: I have very mixed feelings about Cozzetto. He has done some pretty good things with very, very little talent, but the current product is less than stellar to say the least. The bigger question, is there a better option available? I’m not an expert on offensive line coaches, so I don’t know. I do find it interesting that Coach Sark’s blog had an article on Mykenna Ikehara this week, he had nothing but glowing praise for Coach Cozz, so I’m not quite ready to throw him under the bus. I blame as much of this on Price as I do on the offensive line. Lately, the offensive line has been showing marked improvement, yet Price is still missing easy throws and not trusting the system and working within the system. My biggest concern is the overall attitude of the team. Where is the cohesiveness? Where is the fight? Where is the expectation to win? Most of these issues have shown up throughout the Sark era in different ways. I think we have a bigger issue, the question is can Sark fix the problem?

Our last question comes from Lear Pilot:

As Dawg fans, we want the UW Football program to compete for conference titles on a regular basis. After the Arizona game, do you think Sarkisian is capable of getting Washington to the point where we are contending for conference titles on a regular basis?

Lear Pilot: No. When Sark was hired, I was highly concerned about a coach with no head coaching experience; there are so many factors that go into making a complete coach. Years 2 and 3 I began to buy into Sark as a Head Coach; he wasn’t perfect, but he was doing a very good job of learning on the job. Sark is great with the media, he is great with the college age generation, he is a great offensive mind and he can make the tough call to fire a friend on his staff. But, after four years at the helm, there are many areas that are concerning to me. First, the strength and conditioning staff: our players still don’t seem to pass the eye test. Not to mention the injury epidemic; after so many injuries, you eventually have to stop blaming "bad luck" and start looking at what else could be causing the problem. Second, Sark is 4-16 on the road. This was an issue in year one and is still an issue in year 4, not good. Third, can this staff evaluate and develop talent? Guys that have been in the program for 3-4 years are still getting passed up by freshmen. The guys that are playing look mediocre, at best. The others never see the field. Look at all the upperclassmen that haven’t panned out or haven’t developed into starters, especially on the lines. Good coaches develop players. I could list many other areas, but I’m getting long winded. I see too many issues four years into the Sark era to think that he will be anything more than a mediocre coach. I hope I’m wrong, but I was hoping I was wrong about Nick Holt and was hoping I was wrong about Sark’s road record too.

Ryan Priest: I still believe quite strongly that Steve Sarkisian is a coach capable of achieving great things at the University of Washington for a long time to come. Under his tenure, we've seen Washington leap back into the national recruiting rankings and consistently flirt with a top-25 ranking. Husky football is widely regarded to be a team on the rise with its best days under Sark ahead of it, and as discouraged as I am by the team's tendency to fall into losing streaks by not staying competitive in winnable games, that feeling is outweighed by the knowledge that our recruiting efforts are up and that we have assembled one of the finest young coaching staffs in the nation. It's easy to forget, but this is a team that had four head coaches in the span of seven years during the last decade, and there's nothing that kills a program's momentum like head coaching turnover. In 2008 (hell, in 2007, for that matter), I was dead certain that Willingham had to go; today, I have no such feeling regarding Steve Sarkisian, and I'll be shocked if I do before the 2014 season. Of course, last week I said that the Arizona game "will be the springboard that launches Washington into a second-half run that takes them into their bowl game with a top-25 ranking," so that tells you exactly how much stock you should put into my predictions.

Sundodger: The Arizona game didn’t change my opinion of Sarkisian’s ability long-term. Even though he’s only shown it in fits and spurts so far, I still think that he’s a coach that can ultimately have consistent success here. Last offseason showed that he has the ability to make difficult football decisions at a quick rate, and that working for him at the University of Washington is a desirable option for an assistant coach. I think he might have to make more, similar decisions again this offseason, particularly with Cozzetto, and to a lesser extent possibly with Dougherty and maybe even Ivan Lewis. I think Sarkisian has some growing to do as a coach, and I think he knows this. To his credit, he seems to seek and accept the input of more experienced coaches. I think he has to continue to do this, and maybe even do it more.

Everyone is aware of the issues recruiting linemen, and it’s a problem that has been exacerbated by the injuries this year. I’m sure that Sarkisian would be the first guy to admit that the team simply needs to do better at bringing in quality linemen, particularly on offense and even more so at offensive tackle. Unfortunately, it’s not really something that gets fixed overnight or even in a year, and that lack of success might ultimately lead to Sarkisian’s "failure" at the UW. This offseason will be very interesting in that regard, and could be somewhat predictive for the success of the team moving forward.

Even if Sarkisian is ultimately dismissed in the next couple of years, there’s no doubt that the program is in much better shape in pretty much every aspect than it was when he took over.

kirkd: I guess I can't say I'm confident Sark can do it, but neither am I convinced he can't. I've thought for a few years now that the 2013 season would be the first, best opportunity for this program under Sark to be a legit conference title contender. I still think that's true, though I'm a little more concerned about whether the play in the trenches will be good enough. There are certainly many reasons to have faith in Sark - he's clearly a bright guy, I think he's shown he's got a very keen offensive mind, he's done a good job bringing the talent level back up on this team (much more so at the skill positions than the lines though), he's shown that he's willing and able to make tough decisions like firing virtually all of his defensive staff last year, and for all the disappointing losses to teams the Huskies probably should have beaten, he's also had some notable wins over teams where we were big underdogs and some clutch wins.

On the flip side, he's still a young coach learning on the job what it takes to be a successful head coach. He clearly got it wrong with his initial defensive hires, and there's growing concern that his offensive staff - outside of Joel Thomas - isn't as good as it needs to be. And while I'm impressed with his defensive hires, there's some cost to changing position coaches as it means the players have to learn a new way of doing things, and that can often take multiple seasons to fully absorb. There's concern about his offensive identity, and the identity of the team as a whole. The comment this week by columnist John Canzano calling Sark's Huskies the softest team in the conference is provocative, and while perhaps not entirely true, it's still a damning indictment.

I think there's plenty of time to gain positive momentum heading into what may well be a make-or-break season next year. Oregon State will be a tough game, but it's also a great opportunity for this team and this coaching staff to prove something to the fans, the doubters and to themselves, and the schedule only gets easier from here on out. Win this game, and/or win at least 4 of the remaining 5 games, and things still look on track for next year to be the break out year. For all our angst, we need to remember the number of important injuries - not just the OL, but others like Hao'uli Jamora, James Johnson & Jesse Callier. Those are all good players that would be starting (or at least getting significant time in the case of Callier) and would make this a better team in areas of need. We need to remember that the failures of Ty's last class, and the first class Sark had (which was basically doomed from the start) meant that this season was always going to lean heavily on young players, and that most outside observers figured 6-7 wins against this schedule was a reasonable projection. Sark has a small amount of margin left, but that margin is nearly used up - time to prove it on the field, or he's going to find his seat very, very hot heading into next year.