The bye week, of course, doesn’t come at exactly the midway point of the season for UW, which has played five games with seven to go.
But it’s close enough to allow for a little reflection on what we’ve seen so far, as well as projecting what may be to come. So here’s a review of each position at the midway point of the season, looking at “What We Thought” heading into the season, “What We Got” once the season began, and “What Now?” as the Huskies enter the home stretch:
What We Thought: That the Huskies would be in good shape if Keith Price (above against Utah in a Salt Lake Tribune photo) could manage the game well and not make a lot of game-changing mistakes while operating an offense that would feature the running of Chris Polk. And that Price’s strengths would be in his ability to run and hit the short and intermediate passes but that he might struggle with the deep ball.
What We Got:A touchdown-throwing machine who has already tied the number of TD passes Jake Locker had last year and is more than halfway to the single-season school record of 28. No one anywhere could have anticipated that Price would play the way he has, especially battling a string of injuries along the way. He’s also answered all questions about his arm, showing an ability to hit any kind of throw — UW is averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, third in the Pac-12.
What Now?: Price is completing 68.3 percent of his throws, and while the temptation is to wonder how good he’ll be as he gets healthy and more experience, it’s also almost impossible to expect that he’d really improve on his numbers a whole lot. The Utah game is also evidence that teams will start to gameplan more specifically to defend Price going forward — the good news being that he showed a nice ability in that game to adjust to those schemes. As he gets healthy, however, he should be able to run more, which will make the UW offense that much more dangerous. Price, though, needs to get and stay healthy.
What We Thought: That Polk would be one of the best running backs in the conference, if not the nation, and would get a little help here and there from an able corps of backups.
What We Got: After shaking off a little apparent rust and hesitancy from his August knee surgery, Polk has looked like his old self — his 611 yards are second in the Pac-12 behind only LaMichael James and in the top 10 in the nation. Due to injuries, however, Polk has probably had to shoulder more of the load than was thought — he has 116 of the 143 carries that have gone to running backs. And the injuries have lessened the depth to the point that true frosh Bishop Sankey — who some wondered in February why he’d sign with UW because of how deep the Huskies appeared at running back — was the backup last week at Utah. And worth noting the contributions of Jonathan Amosa, who has been the only fullback to play so far and has added some solid blocking and one touchdown in the only time he has touched the ball — a reception against Eastern.
What Now?: Barring injury, there’s no reason to think Polk won’t continue on the same pace and potentially pass his 1,415 yards of last season, which was second-best in school history. UW needs Jesse Callier to recover from the hamstring injury that dates to the Nebraska game to give the position more depth. And expect Sankey to get a few more carries, as well, as he gets more comfortable in the offense.
What We Thought: That the Huskies might have one of the best and deepest corps of receivers in the Pac-12.
What We Got: Just about what we thought as UW already has receivers with 10 or more receptions, already more than last year when just five receivers caught 10 or more passes all season. That list includes true freshmen tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (12 receptions, 202 yards) and receiver Kasen Williams (10-79), as well as a resurgent James Johnson (17-226). The added depth means Price has more options on every play as opposed to a year ago, when only three non-running backs caught 10 or more passes for the entire season — this year, there are already five, a list that doesn’t include Kevin Smith (6-44), who will surely pass that total soon. The added depth means Jermaine Kearse may not have quite the numbers he had a year ago, when he led the team with 63 catches for 1,005 yards — he has 18 for 200 so far. But he remains the team’s best big-play threat with five touchdown catches, on pace to match the 12 of last season. Devin Aguilar is also quitely putting together a nice season with 15 catches for 293 yards, an average of 19.5 per catch that is the best on the team.
What Now?: Assuming Williams can quickly put behind him a sprained ankle suffered against Utah, this group may only get better as he gets more acclimated into things. Some may have expected more out of Williams, but he has five catches in the last two games as the team is working him more into things and not unthinkable that he could end up with 30 or so. The one knock on this group is that there are still a few too many drops, especially from veterans Kearse and Aguilar. Price would likely be over 70 percent right now otherwise.
What We Thought: A huge boost in production with the addition of Seferian-Jenkins and Michael Hartvigson.
What We Got: Exactly what was thought as Seferian-Jenkins is on pace for one of the best seasons ever by a UW tight end. Hartvigson, meanwhile, has four catches for 13 yards, and while that might not seem like much, his mere presence allowing the Huskies to use lots of two tight-end sets has added even another dimension to the offense, which thrives on throwing lots of formations and disguises at opponents.
What Now?: More of the same, but obviously maybe even a little more with each of the key players at this spot (including Evan Hudson) being freshmen and having lots of room to improve.
What We Thought: That UW would have a potentially improved group with four players returning with significant starting improvement in 2010, even if it might take a little time for it all to come together with three starters who are either true sophomores or redshirt freshmen.
What We Got: Like the receivers, probably about what we thought. In the big picture, hard to argue much with an offense scoring 34 points a game — on pace to become the second team in school history to score more than 400 in a season. The other? The 1991 team, which set the school record with 461 points. But the O-line has been erratic at times in its run blocking, and even in protection — UW has allowed 11 sacks, more than all but three other teams in the conference. The second half at Utah, though, was encouraging. And there’s no doubt that the coaches have appeared to settle on a starting five they are confident in as only once all year have they made a change in the lineup.
What Now?: The hope would be for continued improvement, especially as the younger players get more experience, and as the continuity that has been developed since the spring continues to take hold.
What We Thought: That this could be one of the more improved units on the team, if not the Pac-12, with the return of most of the key pieces from last season, including seniors Alameda Ta’amu and Everrette Thompson.
What We Got: Not quite what we thought through most of the first four games, before finally maybe seeing it begin to come together against Utah. Ta’amu struggled early, due in part to breaking his hand, and Thompson appears more comfortable playing more at end then being at tackle for every single snap — he moved to end against Cal and that will likely now be his primary position (though he’ll continue to be inside in some schemes). A season-ending injury to Hau’oli Jamora is obviously a setback, and while Josh Shirley showed promise in his first start, the pass rush has been an issue all season — UW’s eight sacks are fewer than all but two other Pac-12 teams that have also played five games. The whole thing, however, looked a lot better against Utah with the return of Semisi Tokolahi to regular playing status, giving UW a huge tandem in the middle and freeing up Thompson and Shirley and the other ends a little more.
What Now?: Expect ore of the winning formula UW found against Utah, with Tokolahi and Ta’amu in the middle and Thompson and Shirley/Andrew Hudson/Talia Crichton outside. The Huskies will also hope for continued progress from Danny Shelton, Sione Potoa’e and Lawrence Lagafuiana to add depth inside. UW looks like a solid run defense team but has to get a better pass rush, especially now playing what are most of the better Pac-12 passing offenses in the second half of the season.
What We Thought: That UW had a solid middle linebacker in Cort Dennison but big questions outside.
What We Got: Pretty much what we thought. Dennison has been as steady as advertised — his 44 tackles this week are the most in the Pac-12 (and third on a per-game basis). But it was expected that there’d be some growing pains at the other two spots — won by first-year starters John Timu and Princeton Fuimaono — and there indeed have been. The encouraging news is that backups Garret Gilliland and Jamaal Kearse have had their moments when inserted either for performance or injury reasons, giving UW additional options and depth at those spots. Kearse, in particular, has played well the last two games subbing for the injured Timu and the competition figures to continue to be intense for that spot the rest of the season.
What Now?: The hope — as it is at a few other spots — is that the young players continue to improve with experience. The Stanford and Oregon games will obviously be big tests.
What We Thought: That this had the potential to be a vastly improved group with the return of three full-time starters, especially at cornerback.
What We Got: Maybe the most hotly debated position area on the team. UW is allowing 323 passing yards per game, 118th out of 120 teams in the country, and has to be one of the few to ever win four straight games in which it has allowed 300 or more passing yards (the only game it lost was against Nebraska when the Huskers threw for just 155). That’s obviously not all the fault of the secondary — a lack of a pass rush is partly to blame, and a lot of the underneath routes are the responsibility of linebackers, as well. But the cornerbacks, in particular, have been the brunt of far more completions that optimistic fans were expected. Quinton Richardson hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain in August and replacement Greg Ducre struggled for a few games before seeming to find his footing the last two weeks. Desmond Trufant, meanwhile, has been one of the team’s biggest enigmas — he has 22 tackles, more than any other cornerback in the conference, speaking in part to how many passes have been completed in front of him. On the other hand, he always seems to come up with the big play at the most opportune time, none moreso than the interception against Eastern Washington (how different might the season be without that play?) Coaches cite Tufant as eptiomizing the entire UW defense in its ability to hang tough when it matters most, though it’s worth wondering if that ability to cause the key turnover is really an easily replicable formula each week, especially against the better offenses of the Pac-12. Justin Glenn has been a nice surprise filling in for the injured Nate Fellner at free safety (not so much in that there were doubts about his ability but merely about his health) and Sean Parker has shown gradual improvement at free safety.
What Now?: The hope is that the bye week will allow Richardson to return to full strength. For now, Ducre is the other starter at CB with Richardson filling a nickeback role. Same holds true for Fellner, and when he returns, it will give UW three proven safeties to rotate at those spots — you need depth to play well against all these fast-paced teams that now dot the schedule. If James Sample can get healthy quickly — he was back practicing last week in full pads — he might also figure in some at safety.
What We Thought: That UW would have solid kickers and that there was nowhere to go but up in every other department.
What We Got: About as thought. Erik Folk has been his usual reliable self, making 7-8 field goals so far (the only miss from 52). He also has five touchbacks — three more than UW had all of last season. The punting tandem of Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan has been mostly solid (despite a couple poor punts, Rasp is averaging 42.9 per kick, while Mahan — used so far solely in a “pooch” punting role is averaging 38.7, downing two of his three inside the 20). And the return games have finally shown promise other than the one notable mishap at Nebraska. UW is averaging three more yards per kick return than its opponents and almost four more yards per punt return. UW’s 26.8 per kickoff return is second in the Pac-12. However, the kickoff coverage has been spotty at times, UW ranking ninth in the conference at 23.7 per return.
What Now?: Mostly more of the same. Working Williams in more to the return units will give UW one more weapon there. As noted above, the one area to watch is the coverage units, especially as the Huskies play more teams with dangerous returners, especially on punts.
THE ENTIRE TEAM
What We Thought: That this was a team capable of winning seven games or so, finishing as high as third in the Pac-12 North, and getting back to a middle-tier bowl.
What We Got: A team that for the first few weeks made the above sentiment look a little optimistic, and a team now that makes it look like that might be a little pessimistic. After the Eastern game, some disgruntled fans questioned whether the Huskies could even get to a bowl. Now, after a 4-1 start, fans are beginning to envision scenarios for winning the North. All part of the rollercoaster that usually is a college football season.
What Now?: The last two games — giving UW a 2-0 Pac-12 start — have Husky fans thinking big. And indeed, at the moment you figure UW would be favored in four remaining games — Colorado, Arizona, Oregon State and WSU. Simply win those and UW would have eight wins for the first time since 2001. Fans, though, are now thinking UW might have a shot at a few more of the other three — at Stanford, home to Oregon and at USC. No doubt, UW has so far shown that it may have the ability to score on anyone — it has scored 30 or more points in every game so its lofty scoring average isn’t the result of just piling up big numbers once or twice. That may be especially true if UW can continue to run the ball as well as it did at Utah. The one note of caution remains the defense. After hosting Colorado (and aside from Oregon State) UW will face what are the top six offenses in the conference in the final five weeks of the season, all of whom can throw the ball well. Teams that give up as many yards as UW has so far — the per-game average of 427 remains on pace to be the third-worst in school history, with the admitted caveat that offensive numbers seem to be up everywhere, so maybe some of that is simpy due to inflation — rarely win nine or 10 games. The obvious hope is that the defense continues to play as it did against Utah and that the offense continues on the same path it has been all season. A North Division title still seems a pretty lofty goal for this year. But the first five games have indicated that true contender status doesn’t appear all that far away.