By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — On a perfect day along the shores of Lake Washington, the Washington Huskies opened fall camp with an imperfect practice, which is to be expected of a team going through its first practice of a new season.
There were miss-timed routes, tipped passes, blown defensive assignments and plenty of other mistakes typical of a first practice, but there were also the type of moments that get fans excited (or that would get fans excited if they were able to attend practice, which they cannot because of space limitations created by the Husky Stadium renovation project).
At one point Monday afternoon, sophomore receiver Kasen Williams streaked down the sideline and beat his man, only to have a perfectly-thrown pass from Keith Price go through his hands. A frustrated Williams stared at the hands that had just betrayed him, but he also quickly put any frustration aside, and a few plays later made a spectacular leaping grab on a similar play.
It was the type of play the Huskies know Williams is capable of making following an impressive freshman year. And it is exactly the type of big play Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian knows he’ll need to see more of out of players like Williams, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and whichever running backs have the unenviable task of being the act that follows Chris Polk’s impressive UW career.
With Polk gone, as well as last year’s leading receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, the Huskies are looking to replace 30 of the 57 touchdowns they scored last season, and more than 3,000 yards of offense. And if the Huskies are going to take another step forward, which is the expectation for a team coming off back-to-back bowl appearances, a young crop of talented, yet to a degree unproven playmakers will have to step up.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why, if the Huskies defense was bad enough last year for Sarkisian to overhaul his defensive coaching staff, is it up to offensive players like Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and running back Jesse Callier to step up their games? Shouldn’t the defense, which yielded a worst-in-program-history 453.3 yards per game last season be on the hook for helping the Huskies win more games?
Well yes, the defense does need to be better if the Huskies have any hope of being among the top teams in the Pac-12, but let’s not kid ourselves here. New defensive coordinator or not, the Huskies aren’t going to suddenly dominate on defense, particularly not in a conference that features as many dynamic offenses as does the Pac-12.
And for what it’s worth, the offense is just fine with shouldering that burden.
“I think we’re going to score more touchdowns,” said Callier, who rushed for 260 yards last season. “We’ve got a lot of talented players and young guys. We’re all hungry and we know we have to pick it up to replace (Polk).”
Is it really fair to be asking an offense, which was very good last season, to be even better this year despite losing a first-team all-conference running back and its two leading receivers, and having as much uncertainty at offensive line as any position group on the team? Quite frankly, no, it isn’t. But that is the reality for the Huskies if they want to live up to what they admit are higher expectations in 2012. Sarkisian views Washington as one of the top team’s in the conference, and if the Huskies are going to live up that after two straight 7-6 seasons, then the offensive players, whether it is fair or not to ask it of them, are going to have to elevate their games.
“We are not flying under the radar anymore,” Sarkisian said. “Teams have circled us on their schedules. You have to understand where you are and the lay of the land, that’s where we are at. We aren’t sneaking up on anybody anymore. We have to throw our best punch every Saturday if we expect to win.”
And for the Huskies, their best punch every Saturday is not a defense growing in its first season under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, it is the Price-led offense that will need to score points early and often in games to keep up with the other high-scoring teams on their schedule.
Price, who should be one of the top quarterback in college football this season, is less focused on the playmakers he lost, and he has reason to be optimistic. While Washington undoubtedly lost some important players, Price will still be throwing to Williams, one of the most physically gifted receivers to ever wear a Husky uniform, and Seferian-Jenkins, who showed tremendous big-catch ability as a freshman.
“We’re still going to be humming this year,” Price said. “I’m not worried about it. That’s more for you guys, who we lost. I’m not worried about the offense at all.”
Back in April, Sarkisian said replacing the offense he lost from last season was a big concern, and in all likelihood he won’t know for sure if he has until we’re well into the 2012 season, but he is expecting good things from his young playmakers.
“The levels of expectations have risen, just as our program has,” Sarkisian said. “Whether that’s Kasen, whether that’s Austin, whether that’s James Johnson, whether it’s some of the newer players coming into the program, if it’s Jesse or Bishop (Sankey). I know the standard of the bar for which we’re setting for them is higher. And it’s higher for them within. I don’t know if I’ll feel better about it until I actually see guys making those plays and creating those touchdowns and all those things. Hopefully we can put those questions to ease sooner rather than later.”
In a perfect world, the pressure would be on Washington’s defense to do a lot more this season, and to a degree it is, but the reality in 2012 is that for Washington to succeed, its offense, despite losing some very important players, needs to pick up where it left off.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.