2013 Spring Previews:
2/28 Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
It was a mixed-bag for the coaching staff during the 2012 season. On the one hand, an entirely new group of coaches on the defensive side (DC Justin Wilcox, DL Tosh Lupoi, LB Peter Sirmon, CB/S Keith Heyward) oversaw a major turnaround in the performance of the Husky defense as they rose from 106th to 31st in yards allowed and from 103rd to 37th in points allowed in just one year. On the other hand, the offense - with a new OC & QB coach in Eric Kiesau - declined from 25th to 88th in scoring and from 38th to 97th in yards. Those two trends ended up offsetting each other as the Huskies posted their 3rd consecutive 7-6 finish and left some fans grumbling. Given the roster scenario and a number of season-ending injuries to key players, I think the coaching staff on the whole graded on the positive side (as I detailed here), and they were able to sign a recruiting class generally regarded as being in the top-15 in the country - not bad for an unranked team.
Coming and Going:
After having the same coaching staff intact for the first three years of his tenure, Sark has experienced quite a bit of turnover over the last two seasons. Part of that has been his doing (i.e. firing Nick Holt, Mike Cox & Jeff Mills last year), and part of it has been natural attrition. This year Sark had to fill two spots on the offensive side as RB coach Joel Thomas joined Brett Bielema's new staff at Arkansas and WR coach Jimmie Dougherty was hired to be the Offensive Coordinator and QB coach at San Jose State. Thomas ingratiated himself to Husky fans with the success of Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey under his watch. Dougherty was not as universally lauded, but he did help produce the #2 and #7 all time leading receivers in Washington history (Jermaine Kearse & Devin Aguilar).
Sark took the opportunity in filling those spots to promote from within and shuffle some guys around. Johnny Nansen takes over for Thomas as the RB coach while keeping his Special Teams Coordinator role. Nansen - a LB in college - has coached exclusively on the defensive side thus far in his career, so this will be a new role for him. Sark clearly values the recruiting chops of Nansen, as he's been a key figure for the Huskies in recruiting Southern California (particularly the L.A./Long Beach areas). Eric Kiesau retains his OC role but is switching his position coaching duties from QB's to WR's. Kiesau was a QB himself in college, but the bulk of his coaching experience has been with WR's where he's had a very good track record, including stints overseeing Keenan Allen, Marvin Jones, DeSean Jackson and Geoff McArthur while at Cal. Former Grad Assistant coach Jordan Paopao clearly impressed Sark and was promoted to a full-time position with his 2-year GA stint completed. He'll continue to oversee TE's.
But the big news was the (re) hiring of Husky Legend Marques Tuiasosopo to return to Seattle and coach the QB's. Sark - who had coached Tui during his 1 year as an NFL QB coach in Oakland - gave Tui his first break in college coaching, bringing him on his initial staff as part of the Strength & Conditioning staff. Tui left after two years for an intern job with Rick Neuheisel & UCLA and was hired full-time by Jim Mora last year as the Bruins TE coach.
Filling the two open Graduate Assistant roles are two recent former Husky players: 2012 grad Eric Guttorp, a walk-on kicker who will assist with the Special Teams, and D'Andre Goodwin, a WR who graduated in 2010.
Three Questions for the Spring:
1. How will the players respond to the new coaches?
The staff turnover means that all of the offensive skill position players - save for the TE's - will have new faces coaching them this year. All eyes will be on Tui as he and Sark attempt to restore Keith Price back to his 2011 level of efficiency and confidence and to develop a highly-regarded stable of young quarterbacks behind Price. KP has already responded positively to the hire, and hopefully that carries through Spring practices and into the Fall. Ball security will be one of the key areas of focus for them as they rebuild Price. Also key will be restoring his trust in his receivers, which is where Kiesau comes in. He has a strong resume when it comes to WR play under his watch, and the hope is that he & Goodwin can transform a group that is heavy with youth and talent into a productive group that can provide KP with multiple reliable targets, and to guide Kasen Williams from Honorable Mention All Pac-12 to an All-American level. For the RB's, they have to hope that Nansen is a quick learner and was taking some notes while Thomas was around. While Sankey seems well on his way as a RB, it will be interesting to see if any of the younger RB's shows the hard-running and ball-security traits that helped define Washington RB's under the watch of Thomas.
2. Roster management - who will play where, and who might not make it to Fall camp?
With a Spring Roster that stands at ~73-75 scholarship players (depending on which walk-ons retain their scholarships from last season) and up to 20 new players arriving in the Fall (or in the middle of Spring Practices in the case of K Cameron Van Winkle), you can see a numbers crunch on the horizon. These practices will become especially crucial for a number of players on the roster in positions that are heavily stocked. Some might find themselves moved around, such as Taz Stevenson moving back to S from LB, some will opt to transfer (as Rush End Corey Waller has opted to do), and a few may end up taking medical retirements as OG Colin Porter did last Summer. While the exact number is fuzzy since a few of the incoming recruits are going to be touch and go to be cleared by the NCAA, it appears that roughly 8 more spots will probably have to open up, so expect to see more player personnel news as Spring progresses and into the Summer months.
3. What new wrinkles will Sark and the staff introduce this Spring?
This is a great time for experimentation and adding new pages to the playbooks. Sark has already mentioned a few things that are new - this is the earliest start for Spring Practices in recent memory, as they are starting in the latter half of Winter Quarter and spanning into Spring Quarter. Sark is also shaking up the practice times, ranging from early in the morning to late in the evening in an attempt to shake the team out of their "comfort zone" and get them used to a variety of game times they'll encounter. He's also mentioned bringing a faster pace and more no-huddle to the offense. This has been a staple of the Ducks under Chip Kelly, bringing the dual benefits of more practice reps as well as gaining a conditioning edge over opposing defenses. This appears to be more than just talk, as the first practice of the Spring was reportedly all no huddle, with upwards of 130 plays run in just under 2 hours.
With tighter restrictions on what the beat reporters can and can't discuss with the public, we'll be mostly relying on what Sark & his staff choose to share themselves, so there may well be more new stuff incorporated into the Husky playbook that we won't know about until August 31st against Boise State.
This is obviously a big year for Sark at the UW. While going 7-6 in 2010 was cause for celebration among Husky fans (especially with the way they shut down Nebraska in their Holiday Bowl rematch), two more years of 7-6 has left the Husky fanbase wanting more and wondering if progress under Sark has stalled out. Sark himself isn't shying away from the expectations, as he's embracing the thought of challenging to be the North Division Champions in the Pac-12 and going to toe to toe with Oregon & Stanford. He's being as aggressive as ever with his roster construction and obviously had no qualms oversigning for the 2012 class, figuring that he'll get as much talent on board as he can and let the chips fall where they may. He's also continuing to evolve how he operates as he continues to learn on the job, and it's good to hear him embracing methods used successfully by other coaches.
While it will be tougher to get a lot of official news via the media this Spring, it will be still be interesting to see the post practice interviews with coaches & players and get a sense of how things are going with the new coaches and new approaches and track the progress of the players recovering from injury (while hoping they are spared from any new serious injuries).