SEATTLE – Khalif Barnes knows the score.
The Washington Huskies senior offensive tackle knew it in spring and he knows it now.
His team has fallen from the upper echelon of the Pacific-10 Conference and may be fortunate to finish with a winning record, which would be the first time that’s happened around Montlake since 1976.
“I don’t think a lot of people think we’ll be successful,” Barnes said last spring. “We think we can be.”
For the last two seasons, the Huskies are 12-12. They missed a bowl game last season and were upset at home by Nevada. This year, they will be without their primary offensive weapons in quarterback Cody Pickett and receiver Reggie Williams.
Their head coach, Keith Gilbertson, fought the distractions left by the shenanigans of preceding coach Rick Neuheisel, but in the end, even he admitted that the task of putting the turmoil in the rearview mirror was easier said than done. After all, Gilbertson was named head coach mere weeks before the 2003-04 season started.
“It was a huge period of adjustment,” Gilbertson said. “The transition was not easy. It was hard for a lot of people.”
One year removed, Gilbertson still is faced with a lot of questions as Washington begins fall camp. Freshmen report Thursday. The squad will be together for two-a-day practices at The Evergreen State College in Olympia starting Monday for five days with the hope of hashing out a few answers before the season opener against Fresno State Sept. 5.
Foremost is the quarterback issue. Although Casey Paus is the likely No. 1 guy when camp starts, he didn’t overwhelm his competition, Isaiah Stanback and Carl Bonnell.
It’s likely that Gilbertson will use more than one signal-caller. While Paus is the traditional, big, pocket passer, Stanback is a great athlete who can run the option. Bonnell is one who can do both.
“In my career, I’ve used more than one quarterback,” he said. “I have no problem doing that. I think it helps to get more than one guy involved.”
Whoever takes Pickett’s place will have Charles Frederick as his primary receiver. Frederick, who caught 59 passes for 831 yards and five TDs last season, heads a young group that got thrown into the fire and may benefit. Corey Williams and Quentin Daniels, both second-year sophomores, figure to fight it out at split end. Sonny Shackelford and Bobby Whithorne also saw action last season as true freshmen.
Tight end is a question. Joe Toledo figures to be the starter, but he has been hampered much of his career with injuries. Jon Lyon and Ben Bandel both have played, leading to the possibility that the position will be played by committee.
Offensive line is a question, especially in its depth. Beyond Barnes and guard Clay Walker, there’s little experience. Gone are Nick Newton and Todd Bachert. Dan Dicks had to retire because of bad knees. Tusi Sa’au missed much of last year and all of spring because of back problems.
On defense, the line is young and unproven, but must produce a better pass rush than it did last year.
The linebackers include converted safety Evan Benjamin, a hard hitter and great athlete, but typifies a young, inexperienced group.
The backfield may be the most solid aspect of the team. Corner Derrick Johnson was a second-team all-conference selection and safety Jimmy Newell is a very good leader who rolled up 84 tackles and three interceptions.
Sophomore C.J. Wallace, a fearsome hitter, may be the guy at strong safety. The other cornerback will be senior Sam Cunningham.
“We don’t have a lot of veteran players,” Gilbertson said, “but we like how athletic they are.”
He was talking about his defense, but he could have been talking about the team in general.