After making a major climb last season, the Washington Huskies now try to reach the next rung.
Washington went from winless in '08 to one win from bowl eligibility in '09, its first season under coach Steve Sarkisian. Now, the Huskies aim to end a dubious seven-year streak of postseason absence and are boosted by the return of quarterback Jake Locker, a 1,000-yard running back and a rising group of receivers.
But they will need an improved defense because the Huskies won't get many breaks from a challenging schedule that will be among the most difficult in the country.
THE SCHEME: Washington uses a pro-set offense that proved efficient in the first seasons under Sarkisian. The Huskies nearly doubled their point production to 26.1 points per game while averaging about 111 yards per game more than they did in 2008.
STAR POWER: All indications are Locker would have been a first-round selection had he entered the NFL draft. Instead, he returns to the Huskies and will be a Heisman candidate if he builds on last season's breakthrough. Locker always was a great athlete and effective runner, but his passing was substandard. That was before Sarkisian's arrival. Last season, Locker completed nearly 60 percent of his attempts while passing for 2,800 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Nine starters return on offense, so there doesn't figure to be much opportunity for a new player. A productive backup for TB Chris Polk in needed, and freshman Deontae Cooper could be perfect for that role. After rushing for almost 7,500 yards in his high school career, he enrolled in January and was impressive in spring drills.
STRONGEST AREA: Listing the passing game here would have been absurd just two years ago. In'08, the Huskies ranked 101st in the nation in passing offense and managed just six touchdown passes. But last season, they climbed to 40th in the nation and had 21 touchdown passes. Locker returns, and so do the top six receivers, including big-play threat Jermaine Kearse. Washington's passing attack should be just as good this season, if not better.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Tight end was a productive position while Sarkisian was at USC, but his tight ends weren't much of a factor at Washington last season. Although Kavario Middleton had a respectable 26 catches, only nine came in the second half of the season. He's not assured of maintaining his starting role. Junior Chris Izbicki will challenge, even though he has only three career receptions.
THE SCHEME: The Huskies use a 4-3 base, but coordinator Nick Holt is expected to use some 3-4 sets as a way to deal with depth issues up front.
STAR POWER: LB Mason Foster is a sure tackler and ferocious hitter with big-play ability. He will contend for postseason honors if he matches last season's performance; he had 85 tackles, the second-highest total for the Huskies. He also led the Pac-10 by forcing six fumbles. Foster also returned an interception for a winning touchdown against Arizona.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: On National Signing Day Sarkisian raved about how freshman safety Sean Parker could come in and make an immediate contribution. Parker, a four-star prospect from Los Angeles, has excellent ball skills, which should help the Huskies upgrade a pass defense that was sorely lacking in '09.
STRONGEST AREA: Although the Huskies must replace two starters, the situation at linebacker looks good. Foster has all-league potential on the weakside. Meanwhile, senior Cort Dennison could develop into an anchor in the middle. He had 52 tackles in a backup role last season and followed that with a strong showing in the spring. There will be competition on the strongside. Victor Aiyewa is shifting there from strong safety.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Mounting a pass rush won't be easy without E Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who completed his eligibility. Te'o-Nesheim had a team-leading 10 sacks last season, and no one on this season's roster managed more than 2.5. Cameron Elisara, who spent last season at tackle, looks likely to move outside because of a lack of ends.
Erik Folk is easily overlooked in the kicking-rich Pac-10, but he gives the Huskies a sound kicker. A year ago, Folk was 18-of-21, including a last-second winner against USC. He hit 14-of-15 inside 40 yards and connected from as far as 48 yards. P Will Mahan also was solid, with a 40.6-yard average and 17 kicks killed inside the opponents' 20. The Huskies could use a boost on returns, though. Devin Aguilar on punts and James Johnson and Jordan Polk on kickoffs weren't bad by any means, but the Huskies had no return longer than 37 yards. The coverage teams were OK last season.
Washington sure isn't taking the easy route. The Huskies face eight opponents that posted at least eight victories in '09. In an age when teams frequently enhance their chances to attain bowl eligibility by scheduling one or two FCS opponents, the Huskies are one of the few teams that haven't scheduled any. In fact, 11 of Washington's 12 games are against teams from "Big Six" conferences. The one that's not? It's BYU, Sarkisian's alma mater, which is coming off an 11-win season that included a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Pac-10 member Oregon State. The Huskies will make their bones (or break them) in the first third of the season with games against BYU, Nebraska and USC. Road trips to Arizona, Oregon and California are in the second half of the season. If the Huskies reach a bowl, they definitely will have earned it.
Just 10 years ago Washington was a national championship contender. The fall was fast and steep. Three times in the past seven seasons, the Huskies won two or fewer games, and they haven't managed a winning record in that span. But all indications point to the Huskies ending that drought. Locker, Polk and Kearse are among the most productive offensive trios in the country. Defensively, the Huskies need to improve on pass coverage and the pass rush. If strides are made in those areas, the Huskies could be a factor in the Pac-10 championship race.