SEATTLE — In the fraction of a second Steve Sarkisian needed to take a breath between words earlier this week, the college football world fell into a momentary state of disarray.
During his press conference leading into this week’s opening of spring practice, the University of Washington football coach said that the most intriguing competition of this month might be at the quarterback position.
Then Sarkisian talked about the battle between untested freshmen Keith Price and Nick Montana for the role as backup quarterback to Heisman hopeful Jake Locker.
Suffice to say, the experienced UW football team doesn’t have too many all-out battles for starting spots in the fall.
Ten of the primary 11 starters from last year’s offense are back, as are nine of the 11 defenders who started the bulk of games down the stretch. That experience could do wonders in the fall, but it’s taken a lot of the intrigue out of spring ball.
Center Drew Schaefer, defensive end De’Shon Matthews and linebacker Alvin Logan — all of whom were playing different positions this time last year — are among the few former backups who could play their way into starting roles this time of year.
“It’s huge for them,” Sarkisian said of this time of year. “Inevitably, when fall camp rolls around, we’re going to have 20 more players and we’re going to put them in those spots to see what they look like.
“For Alvin Logan and De’Shon Matthews and those guys, this is an opportunity to put their resume on film.”
For Logan, a converted safety who added 13 pounds of muscle, the stakes are as high as they are at any position on the field. He’ll be playing outside linebacker, where Cort Dennison finished the season as starter, but will essentially be filling the shoes of leading tackler Donald Butler, whose middle linebacker spot is now being manned by Dennison.
The linebackers were the heart and soul of last year’s defense, so Logan knows he could have his work cut out for him.
“The shoes are very big to fill, very big,” said Logan, whose main competition this spring is senior Matt Houston, sophomore Tim Tucker and early-entrant freshman Victor Burnett. “Hopefully, I can fill in those shoes.”
Matthews was a defensive tackle last season but has moved to end, in large part, because of need.
The 261-pound senior from Sacramento is filling in at a position where sophomore Andru Pulu and juniors Kalani Aldrich and Everette Thompson were expected to compete for the starting spot after star Daniel Te’o-Nesheim used up his eligibility. Pulu’s indefinite suspension and injuries to Aldrich and Thompson created an opportunity for Matthews, while sophomore Talia Crichton looks like the odds-on favorite to take over as full-time starter at the other end position.
“There’s some great opportunity for some of those guys: Alvin and Talia and some of those guys,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. “Hopefully, they can practice really well and stay healthy and learn the stuff. I think they will. They’ve done it now for a year, and they’re ready to meet the challenge.”
Despite the wealth of returning players on defense, Holt maintains that there are plenty of starting jobs open for competition. Dennison, senior linebacker Mason Foster, senior defensive tackle Cameron Elisara and senior safety Nate Williams look like the only returning starters with guaranteed roles.
“Nobody has their job set in stone,” Holt said. “Obviously, there are some players out there that have played a lot of football for us, and they’re really good football players, and they’re going to be hard to beat. But there are only a couple of those guys that we have on our defense. Everybody else, it’s open competition, and that’s why we’re practicing.”
On offense, the only starting jobs to be had are on the offensive line. UW returns its leading passer (Locker), rusher (Chris Polk) and top seven top receivers. But the key to the Huskies’ offensive success could be a realigned front five.
Senior Ryan Tolar moved from center to guard, Senio Kelemete moved from guard to tackle, and Schaefer has been given the inside track to the starting job at center after spending most of last year at tackle.
The most important role on the line might fall upon Kelemete. Sarkisian said he was the unit’s most consistent player last year, so he decided to move him to left tackle while Cody Habben recovers from an injury. The 6-foot-4, 281-pound Kelemete could conceivably win the position and push Habben back to right tackle, where Habben started the 2009 season.
Kelemete, who first found out about the position change upon returning from spring break a couple weeks ago, realizes how important his new role could be.
“I was a little bit surprised, because that’s Jake’s blind side,” he said. “It’s a lot on me to make sure he doesn’t get hit.”
And it could be up to Kelemete to make sure that the battle between Price and Montana isn’t all that significant to the Huskies’ immediate future.
The pass-rush drill got a little heated Thursday afternoon when Kelemete and defensive end Clarence Trent continued to scuffle well after the whistle. Trent was taking part in his second practice after spending the previous six months playing for the UW men’s basketball team. … Linebacker Brandon Huppert, an Edmonds-Woodway product, is sitting out practice as he continues to rehab from knee surgery. … The four true freshmen at camp — Burnett, Montana and running backs Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier — aren’t the only ones making their UW debuts this week. Defensive tackle Chris Robinson and safety Will Shamburger, both redshirt freshmen, are getting extensive practice time after sitting out the 2009 season with injuries. … The Huskies’ will don the pads for the first time at their next practice, Saturday at 1 p.m. The session is open to the public.