SEATTLE — When Steve Sarkisian left his home in sunny California and arrived in a gloomy Seattle 20 months ago, his initial job description had more to do with marketing, cheerleading and psychotherapy than it did X’s and O’s. The University of Washington football coach had to tell anyone who would listen — lukewarm fans, UW students and his new players — that Husky football would be back sooner than expected.
Now, as the Huskies prepare for the second fall camp of the Sarkisian era, no such pep talks are necessary. After a 5-7 campaign that included upsets of Pac-10 powers USC and Cal, as well as a two-game winning streak to close out the season, UW football begins the 2010 year with as much excitement as it has had in years.
“I think people are excited and anxious about what is to come,” Sarkisian said last week. “It’s like last year was a little bit of the appetizer, (and now,) what is the main course?
“… I think people are proud to wear their UW gear again, and hang their flags and put on their sweatshirts and hats and those things.”
The open practices, which begin this week with sessions every day at 3 p.m., are likely to take place in front of more curious fans than the 2009 sessions. With star quarterback Jake Locker returning for his senior year, and being surrounded by plenty of talent, the Huskies should have the kind of offense that brings home fans out of their seats.
The USA/Today coaches poll included 26 votes for UW, which unofficially ranked the Huskies 36th in the country. The media tabbed the Huskies sixth in the Pac-10, but UW received one first-place vote and was within 53 votes (262 to 209) of third-place Oregon State.
The reasons for optimism are aplenty, starting with Locker’s decision to return for his senior year. The 6-foot-2 quarterback, despite an all-time record of 9-20 as starter, is being hyped as a Heisman candidate. Many scouting experts believe he’ll be the top overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Locker has plenty of options this season, when six of the Huskies top seven targets in terms of receptions return from the 2009 squad. Wideouts Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson combined for 131 receptions last year, while leading rusher Chris Polk is also back after setting a school record for rushing yards by a freshman last year (1,113).
Even some of the so-called question marks on this year’s team include reasons for optimism.
The offensive line returns seven players with starting experience, including team captain Ryan Tolar, senior right tackle Cody Habben and converted left tackle Senio Kelemete, whom Sarkisian touted in the spring as a future all-Pac-10 player.
On defense, 17 players who have started are back in the fold, while the recruiting class includes several freshmen who could contribute immediately — most notably defensive tackle Sione Potoa’e, defensive end Josh Shirley, linebacker Victor Burnett and safety Sean Parker.
Throw in a more balanced Pac-10 that includes a USC program on probation, and Husky Nation has plenty of reasons for excitement.
“We look like a good football team now,” Sarkisian said last week. “I don’t know if I could say that a year ago, but (this month), as I start to bump into our players and see them and visit with them — not only our returners but our freshmen — we’re a better-looking football team today than we were a year ago at this time. So the challenge is to continue to ride this wave.”
Among the areas where the Huskies can improve this camp is to be more physical on the offensive line, to get tight end Chris Izbicki more involved in the passing game and to find both full-time starters and playmakers on a defense that struggled through most of 2009.
There are also areas in which UW can’t do much until the season begins next month, the most notable of which are playing better on the road and dealing with the kind of expectations that haven’t surrounded this program in about seven years.
“It’s very clear that expectations are very high outside of our football program,” said Sarkisian, whose entire coaching staff returned in tact. “They’re high in the community; they’re high somewhere in the Pac-10 — because somebody gave us a first-place vote. But I can tell you expectations are higher within.
“We believe we have a very good football team. The locker room believes that. Our coaching staff believes that. And we’re going to perform like a good football team. We’re going to prepare really well, we’re going to practice extremely well, and we’re going to go out and compete really well.
“Whether or not that means wins or more wins than five from last year remains to be seen. But I can tell you we’re going to play better football, we’re a deeper football team, we’ll be a more physical team, we’re more athletic, we’re going to execute. And we’re just all anxious to get started.”