By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — All the returning offensive talent and reinvigorated defensive players spent a few valuable seconds at the end of a University of Washington football practice last week gathered around a kid whose name many of them probably didn’t know.
Erik Nothstein, a 191-pound freshman, calmly drilled a practice-ending field goal to send his new teammates into a brief celebration at the end of a session inside the Dempsey Indoor facility.
The next time a UW kicker steps up for a kick that really matters, things might not be quite so relaxed.
The Huskies’ kicking game is currently in a state of disarray, thanks to the graduations of clutch place-kicker Erik Folk and solid punters Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan. Their most likely 2012 replacements aren’t participating in spring ball, adding to the mystery as the Huskies head into the fall.
And yet coach Steve Sarkisian hasn’t shown any sweat in regards to the UW kicking game.
“I think there’s some natural curiosity with how good they’re going to be,” Sarkisian said of the revamped kicking game that will mainly be made up of players who aren’t yet on campus. “I think we’ll be talented. I think we’ll have the right pieces in place. There will be enough competition to push guys.
“But there is some curiosity. As we come back into the summer and back into the fall camp, those 29 practices are really going to be critical as we prepare those guys for the moment of playing actual football.”
The general perception is that the Huskies will have junior-college transfer and one-time San Diego State punting recruit Travis Coons handling the place-kicking in the fall, with incoming freshman Korey Durkee of Gig Harbor looking like the Huskies’ punter of the present and future. Neither player is practicing this month because they’re finishing up classes at their respective schools.
Sarkisian said Wednesday that Coons, who made just two of 10 field-goal attempts at Mt. San Antonio College last year, could be used as a specialist and long-yardage field-goal kicker and added that he could use a different kicker for extra points and shorter field goals.
When asked who that kicker would be, Sarkisian said: “We’ve got a few guys coming.”
He added that he likes the potential of Coons, despite the statistics. Coons went 0-for-3 from inside 40 yards last season but has such a big leg that his junior college twice had him try field goals of beyond 50 yards.
Whoever does this kicking this year will try to replace a man who made some of the more memorable kicks in recent UW memory. Folk, who was 42-of-57 on field goals during his career at UW, twice beat USC with game-winning field goals. He is the younger brother of New York Jets kicker Nick Folk and seems to have a legitimate shot of earning a spot in an NFL camp this summer.
Durkee, who at 6-4 and 215 pounds looks more like a linebacker than a punter, also has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rasp had one of the best seasons of any UW punter last season, and the two years before that he couldn’t even beat out the rock-steady Mahan.
Mountlake Terrace High School product Nate Ryals, a walk-on, is the only punter practicing with the Huskies this spring. Walk-ons Nothstein and Kyle McKnight are handling kicking duties, and Nothstein has shown a pretty consistent leg over the last week.
Neither one appears likely to be in the mix when the field goals actually matter, but Sarkisian is prepared to split time between Coons and someone else this fall.
“I’ve been down this road before where we have a kickoff guy who’s also our long, deep kicker, and we had an extra-point, mid-range guy who’s also very accurate,” he said. “And we may do that here.”
Sarkisian said injuries will prevent the Huskies from holding a true scrimmage with two full squads on both offense and defense this Saturday. So the Spring Game will be divided into an offensive team and a defensive team, with a scoring system that gives the defense three points for a stalled drive, five points for a turnover and seven points for a return touchdown. Offensive points will be scored in the traditional manner. … Center Drew Schaefer (knee) and wide receiver James Johnson (concussion) returned to practice Wednesday. Linebacker Scott Lawyer (groin) and defensive lineman Alec Kimble (leg) are also back in action. Sarkisian said it was nice to have Schaefer back after his starting center missed about two weeks of action. “Having your veteran center back is like having the quarterback of your offensive line back. So communication is better,” Sarkisian said, adding that Schaefer could participate in Saturday’s scrimmage. “With Drew, is he 100 percent? Maybe not. But he competed well today and brought a calming effect to the huddle, which was good.”