With the season now just eight days away, it’s time to begin really focusing on the opener with San Diego State.
So for some insight on the Aztecs, as well as general thoughts on UW this season, I turned to Yogi Roth, who will be part of the broadcast team for the UW-SDSU game for the Pac-12 Networks. Roth is also known as the co-author of Pete Carroll’s book, Win Forever, and also worked for Carroll and alongside now-UW coach Steve Sarkisian at USC from 2006-08.
I intended to ask Roth five questions, but ended up with six. So here we go:
Q: What changes have you seen in the UW program since Sarkisian took over in 2009 and where do you think the Huskies are now as he enters year four as coach?
A: “I think there are two ways to answer it. One from an actual football standpoint. You just go to the practice fields and you see a different team — body type, speed, athleticism. So I think skill-wise they are so much more improved, he does such a good job recruiting and evaluating and recruiting to fit his program. A couple of months ago there was an event where a bunch of incoming recruits were at and a guy compared the kids coming here versus another bigtime school in the Pac-12 and said ‘you know, he may not have the kids who are 6-2, 205 but he’s got 5-11, 195-pound athletes who are better football players.’
“My point is they are doing a great job of recruiting guys with football intelligence who can play a variety of positions and fit his program. So I think the biggest thing I notice is ‘wow, these guys can play, they can run, they can move.’ The second thing, which I think might be even more important, is that Sark inherited a program that was on a 15-game losing streak. That’s difficult in football to go a whole year without a win, and a team and a culture where the morale was down and they weren’t really having fun. So to get a program that is so far down and that had such a great history, I think with the energy and enthusiasm that he has brought they have gone from hoping to win to expecting to win. And they are realistic about it — they don’t think they are just going to walk on the field and beat every team in the conference or on the non-conference schedule. They know they have to put the hard work in to make those big wins happen. And they’ve seen the hard work pay off with multiple wins against USC or Nebraska in the bowl game, so I think they understand success and they are no longer saying ‘oh gosh, I hope we play well,’ or ‘I hope the other team doesn’t play well.’ I think they have truly adopted a winning mindset.”
Q: Having said that, do you think they are ready to take that next step to compete with teams like USC and Oregon in the Pac-12?
A: “Yeah, I sure do. I sure do. I think what UW has is big on explosive set of playmakers on offense right now. You really break them down offensively, they’ve got answers for people. What are you going to play against them? Two-deep and force them to run the ball and give away the middle of the field when they’ve got arguably the best tight end or a top three tight end in America (in Austin Seferian-Jenkins). And they can beat you inside if you play man-too-man coverage. And they can take advantage on the outside with their quick backs and they can run their scheme and their West Coast offense at a really high level of efficiency. And I think defensively, personnel-wise they may not have the athleticism that some of the other teams have. But I think schematically you are going to see them in the right position a lot this year to make plays and allow their guys to make those plays. So I do think they have proven in the past they have for a half or a quarter, when you really learn to break down film you realize how easily a few plays here or there have put them in a jam and I think now heading into year four they will have the discipline to make those adjustments and make those plays to compete with those teams.”
Q: What do you think is the biggest hurdle they still have to overcome to take that next step?
A: “Well, obviously it’s the defense. Anybody could say that based on what happened last year. Obviously coach (Nick) Holt was a good friend. But they had difficulty stopping people and you’ve got to do that in this conference. The offenses are so impressive and teams are going to move the football, you’ve just got to minimize the amount of big plays and the easy plays and I do think when you break down the teams in this conference on film they do what they do really well. Stanford’s an extremely physical team and they are going to run power and utilize the play-action pass and utilize their tight ends and they are going to take advantage of certain matchups and they do those things really, really well. So all the sudden if you are a young linebacker and you overpursue it’s really tough to come back and a four-yard gain turns into a 40-yard gain. Oregon showcases that on a weekly basis where all the sudden you are tired mentally and physically and you make the wrong read and boom, they are out the back door for 60. So I do think that UW has to stop people, and that’s the question that everyone knows that they are going to have to improve there.”
Q: What can Keith Price do for an encore?
A: “I just did a piece with him (last week) where we watched the Baylor game and talked about his season last year and the upcoming season. The thing (to realize) is that he’s only played a handful of games. So a lot of experiences are still new to him, and he understands that and recognizes how he got where he did, with a lot of hard work. From a numbers standpoint I don’t think it’s even fair to try to replicate numbers ever, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. He just has to play within himself because there may be times he throws 30 times a game and times he throws 15 times a game. So I don’t know about his numbers, but I do think after watching some of his practices at training camp that his decision-making and his patience has improved and I think those are some of his strengths from a year ago, so I think he has taken this offense and really tried to master his trade and really taking his craft seriously. I think the biggest jump from him you will see from him is a guy who walked in the huddle a year ago and fifth-year seniors are looking at him wondering ‘I don’t really know what we are going to get’ to know, like he said, that he thinks he has improved the most in his leadership role and how to become a leader and a vocal one on this team. And I think that’s massive as you try to turn the corner like this program is.”
Q: Can you give a general preview of San Diego State and what the Aztecs do that might present problems for UW?
A: “I think No. 1, it’s the first game of the season. And that’s what makes training camp beautiful is that every team is undefeated, one through 124, every team in American — doesn’t even matter what level you are at — thinks they are going to go to the championship game. So the confidence in week one is through the roof, so you are already going against that, No. 1. And San Diego State is not going to be intimidated — they beat Washington State (last season) and they played in Ann Arbor. They’ve played in big venues before so they won’t be intimidated at CenturyLink Field. But they do lose a lot of players, but what they don’t lose is their demeanor. When you watch them on tape, it jumps off the film defensively how hard they play. They are undersized, but they will fly to the football and they will bring a ton of pressure. They will play man coverage and they will get after it and take their swings. So that is what the offense of UW is going to have to face is being real efficient in picking up pressures and keeping pressure off of Keith and him getting rid of the football when it’s appropriate.
“On the other side of the ball they have some players. They have one of the top tight ends in the country (Gavin Escobar) and Brice Butler (their receiver) is a big-time wide receiver. Any school in the Pac-12 he is starting at other than USC (Butler transferred from USC). So I expect them to get them the rock. And (quarterback) Ryan Katz (a transfer from Oregon State who played against UW in 2010) is a guy who has been in the fire before and been through a lot. So they are going to lean on that expertise and aren’t going to be intimidated. On the other hand, if you are the University of Washington, you win these games — that’s what you do. You play hard, you play disciplined and you run your offense with great efficiency and I think it’s going to be a competitive game — they do have a lot of transfers at San Diego State, a lot of guys who can play at this level. It won’t be a walk in the park. But it’s definitely going to be a fun test to find out where UW is.”
Q: A lot is made of their 3-3-5 defense. What challenges does that cause and what makes that defense unique:
A: “I think three things. One, you don’t see it a lot and you don’t practice against it a lot. You don’t see it a lot unless you are Arizona and you see it every day. So that’s a challenge that it’s different and the first time Keith has really seen it. I also think the windows are tighter and with a young receiving corps, that’s going to be the challenge. You have to be really disciplined because these linebackers are dropping into coverage, and sometimes there is a safety dropping down into a box, so the windows are going to be tighter and the Jaydon Mickens and Kendyl Taylor and those kind of guys have to be really disciplined. And the third one is just the chaos that it could cause. The think I know about coach Sarkisian and coach (Eric) Kiesau as well, they are going to try to make this easy on their quarterback and easy on their offensive line and try to find a way to just identify people. Because at the end of the day you can only put 11 people on the field no matter where you line them up. Somebody is always going to be a middle backer and a strong side backer and a (weakside) backer and a safety. They may not be called that in the 3-3-5 defense but they are going to coin them that to make it easier for UW on the offensive side of the ball.”