Several Huskies used a strong spring to catapult themselves into the thick of the battle for starting jobs when fall camp opened this week.
Junior Chris Izbicki all but solidified his starting job when teammate Kavario Middleton was kicked off the team last month, but the Kirkland native had already moved ahead of Middleton on the depth chart after a strong spring.
Left tackle Senio Kelemete made a seamless transition from guard, so much so that head coach Steve Sarkisian has been tagging him as a future "all-Pac-10 player" at his new position.
Safety Will Shamburger, who spent last season recovering from injuries, opened some eyes in the spring and is splitting snaps with Nate Fellner as starting free safety this fall.
And defensive linemen De'Shon Matthews and Alameda Ta'amu used strong springs to move into possible starting roles heading into the fall.
The spring was an important time for plenty of returning Huskies.
"That's the first time back playing football again," said Matthews, who is one of several defensive ends battling for two open starting positions this fall. "So it's key for us to learn the playbook, show we're not a liability and earn that spot."
The player who seems to have ascended the highest is Izbicki.
Once considered a blue-chip recruit who wasn't living up to expectations, Izbicki cleaned up his life off the field, got into tip-top shape and emerged as the likely candidate to start at tight end this fall.
"He can be a playmaker for us in the passing game," Sarkisian said Tuesday. "He's just got to believe in himself."
Izbicki, who caught just three passes last season as Middleton's backup, said a renewed focus heading into the spring helped him earn the depth-chart promotion.
"It was just a different mindset," Izbicki said Tuesday. "I felt like I pushed myself harder than I had before. And heading into spring ball, I said I wanted to do whatever I had to do to have the position in the fall. So that's what I did."
Unlike Izbicki, Kelemete already had a starting job when the 2009 season ended. But when coaches toyed with the idea of moving him from guard to the all-important left tackle position, it was a bit of a gamble that could hold the key to the future of UW's offensive line.
By all accounts, Kelemete has passed the test with flying colors. Even though he has yet to protect quarterback Jake Locker's blind side in a game, Kelemete continues to earn praise from Sarkisian as the left tackle of the present and future.
"He's still a little bit raw; it's a new position for him out there," Sarkisian said this week. "But athletically and physically, and then from the mentality standpoint, he believes he's dominant. And that's half the battle for that position.
"I think he'll only continue to grow, especially once we get in pads. His comfort level is only going to continue to grow after that."
Shamburger and freshman running back Deontae Cooper used the spring to show coaches that they're ready to contribute right away.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Shamburger, who redshirted last year after suffering a knee injury as a senior at St. John Bosco High School in California, made the coaching staff take notice after a strong spring.
Cooper was among four incoming freshmen who enrolled in school last spring. He took part in spring ball and showed the coaches enough that he is being looked at as a possible immediate contributor behind starter Chris Polk.
"What I noticed the first couple days here (at fall camp) is Chris Polk showing up, and I think that's because of Deontae's presence," Sarkisian said. "And I think now, with Chris doing what he's done with his first two days, Coop came back and had a really good day (Tuesday)."
When it comes to playing time, the most opportunities appear to be on the defensive line. While Sarkisian continues to be impressed with prized freshman Sione Potoa'e, veterans like Matthews and Ta'amu have done their best to hold him off.
Ta'amu has lost 25 pounds since the end of last season, thanks to a little extra motivation from the coaching staff, and now he's No. 1 on the depth chart at the nose guard position.
"I only have two years left (at UW), and the coaches asked me what I wanted to be remembered here as," said Ta'amu, who now weighs 325 pounds. "So I worked toward that. I have a family, and I want to take care of them."
After taking advantage of their spring opportunities, several Huskies like Izbicki have risen on the depth chart.
"When spring ball rolls around, we can really focus on individuals and where they can improve and get better," Sarkisian said. "And Chris has been one of some of the guys that have capitalized on it."
Among the people attending Tuesday's open practice was former NFL quarterback Joe Montana, whose son Nick is a backup quarterback for the Huskies. ... Crowds have been pretty sparse at practices this week, due in large part to the mid-afternoon starts. ... The Huskies will don pads later this week and begin full-contact drills on Friday. ... Cornerback Quinton Richardson sat out Tuesday's practice because of ongoing back spasms, and Sarkisian said the coaches are just being cautious with injuries this time of year.
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