Huskies may start 3 freshmen in opener
At first glance, an outsider might be shocked to see three true freshmen listed as starters.
But after three weeks of fall camp, it comes as little surprise that defensive back Shaq Thompson and wide receivers Jaydon Mickens and Kendyl Taylor were listed as starters.
All three established themselves as contenders for playing time from the first day of camp, although an injury to senior wide receiver James Johnson and injuries to outside linebackers helped push them into the starting lineup.
"They've earned this right to start and play," Sarkisian said. "They've had a tremendous fall camp, big play after big play. Again with freshman we're going to have to go through growing pains. I'm excited for the big plays and I'm a little bit reserved on some of the mistakes that can occur Saturday night."
Thompson was the prized recruit of the 2012 class and he hasn't disappointed. He's been so good that, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has the Huskies playing 70 percent of the time in a hybrid nickel package with just two linebackers and five defensive backs. Thompson is the starter at the nickel back. But it's different in that he often plays like a strong safety near the line of scrimmage, almost like a linebacker.
At 230 pounds, Thompson runs like a cornerback and hits like a linebacker. He's impressed his offensive counterparts, who have had to go against him every day.
"Man, there's a lot of things that I haven't seen with a guy that big that can move the way he does and the ball skills that he presents," quarterback Keith Price said. "He's definitely a tremendous talent and a great attribute to our defense."
Mickens and Taylor bring an element of speed the Huskies simply haven't had the past few seasons. Mickens might be the fastest player on the team. That speed is important because Mickens isn't that big at just 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. Taylor is a little more physical at 5-10, 200 pounds and is comfortable playing inside as the slot receiver.
They make a solid compliment to Washington's lead receiver -- Kasen Williams.
"I think they're ready to play," Williams said. "They're learning a lot. They're extremely smart. They're route running is good. They get open. And that's the most important thing as a receiver."
It was just a year ago that Williams was in their position -- 18 years old and expected to contribute. His first game was an adventure.
"My first two balls, I dropped and I was kind of down on myself and I wasn't really into the game anymore," he said. "And the next ball I get is a touchdown. That's an experience they can learn from. One thing with Keith is he's going to hit the open receiver no matter if you dropped the ball two or three times already."
So what advice would he give them?
"Just be calm and take it for what it is, they're going to their opportunities in this game," Williams said. "The main goal is to maximize on those opportunities. Things are going to happen and there is going to be ups and downs in the game, it's the ability to bounce back. That's what makes you a good player."
Both Price and Sarkisian said the game-week game plan is significantly smaller than the sheer volume of the entire playbook that Mickens and Taylor were trying to grasp during fall camp. But the solution is simple if they get confused.
"I keep telling them that if you don't understand something, just come to me," Price said. "All season it looks like I'll be holding tutoring sessions all week."
Price's advice to them is to treat it just like practice. Of course, that's easier said than done. His first game was at Oregon and it didn't feel anything like practice.
"It definitely felt a little bit faster than in practice," Price said. "Obviously you can't simulate game speed, but once they get hit and banged around a couple of times, they'll wake up."
Sarkisian has no doubts the youngsters will make mistakes, but said he expects the big plays to outweigh the miscues.
"They're going to lineup wrong a couple times Saturday night," he said. "They might drop a pass they might run a wrong route. But ... their big-play potential makes us different offensively."
Sarkisian said defensive end Hau'oli Jamora, linebackers Nate Fellner and Jamaal Kearse, wide receiver James Johnson, H-back Cooper Pelluer and running back Deontae Cooper will all be out of Saturday's game. All were expected to miss the game with injuries. Jamora and Cooper are each scheduled to undergo knee surgery on Thursday. Cooper is done for the season. Sarkisian wasn't certain when or if Jamora would return.
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