For my story for the Thursday paper, I wrote a little review of the first of the season, along with brief overviews of the offense, defense and special teams, assigning letter grades to each spot.
I thought I’d supplement that with a quick review of each of the position groups at the midway point, as well.
QUARTERBACK: The play of Keith Price has been pretty well-examined, As I note in the story, don’t be surprised to see his play get a lot better now that UW faces a lot of defenses not as stout as those the Huskies have faced so far. As also noted in the story, the troubles of the offense obviously reach far beyond Price. That said, even Price admits he thought things would have gone a lot better than they have so far. And obviously the turnovers of the past two games have to stop.
RUNNING BACK: As also noted in the story, while there were high expectations for Bishop Sankey entering the season, it was fair to wonder how he’d hold up as the main back once Jesse Callier went down. But Sankey has lived up to the challenge so far, standing as one of the breakout players of the season for the Huskies — it’s sort of slipped under the radar, but with 487 yards he’s not far off a 1,000-yard pace for the season, and as is the case with Price and the passing game, now faces a few defenses a little more lax against the run. In something of a surprise given that he began the season as a receiver, Kendyl Taylor has emerged as the No. 2 option of late with Dezden Petty in the “big back” role and Erich Wilson II adding depth. Coaches said early on they wanted more blocking from Jonathan Amosa. Given the improvement in the running game, it appears he’s given that of late.
WIDE RECEIVER: I’ll throw Austin Seferian-Jenkins into this mix, and while there’s a sentiment out there that the Huskies should be using him more, his 29 receptions so far is more than any tight end in the country — from a receiving standpoint, he’s been what was hoped, and coaches say his blocking is improving daily. Kasen Williams has taken over the lead receiver role and for the most part has delivered, with a team-high 33 receptions for 362 yards, and made the play that won the Stanford game (pictured above in a Dean Rutz photo). If there’s a quibble, it’d be getting a few more big plays out of Williams (he’s averaging 11 yards per catch) and that he was held down against LSU and USC (a combined five catches for 41 yards). The big disappointment here has been the injuries to James Johnson and Kevin Smith and the subsequent continuing search for someone to emerge as a No. 3 receiver. Best bet for a second-half breakthrough may be Jaydon Mickens, who quietly has eight catches in the last three games, or Cody Bruns, getting more action of late.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Here’s another spot where the issues have been well-chronicled, so I won’t go over those again in detail other than to reiterate that the injuries obviously mean the line looks little like was envisioned a year ago, or even six weeks ago. The rawness of the line has been most evident in pass protection issues, and while the running game has at times been better than might have been anticipated, UW’s overall rushing average of 3.7 yards per attempt is eighth in the conference, a number that will have to get better as the season progresses (and likely will given some of the defenses upcoming). Give Drew Schaefer an unsung hero award for the first half for his role in keeping the OL together. And the good news is that a lot of young players are getting a lot of playing time and that next year the Huskies should finally have a balance of depth and experience for which they seemingly have been searching since their last Rose Bowl appearance (and in the immediate good news category, Ben Riva also could be back as soon as this week to give the line an instant boost, as well).
DEFENSIVE LINE: We now switch to the defense, the area of the team has overall has shown vast improvement from a year ago. The line is no exception — and fans are left to wonder how much better it might look if Hau’oli Jamora had made it back — while also showing there’s still lots of room for improvement. New DC Justin Wilcox has shown a great ability and willingness to mix and match defensive personnel depending on the opponent, and the line has had lots of varying looks from game-to-game. But the basic four-man front now appears to be solidifying, with Danny Shelton and Josh Banks at tackle and Andrew Hudson and Talia Crichton at end and Josh Shirley in a situational pass rushing role. Coaches think that makes the line better against the run on early downs while still allowing Shirley the chance to rush the passer on obvious passing downs. The pass rush has been the most significant issue as the Huskies have just nine sacks — 11th in the Pac-12. UW had 28 last year, 24 in the 12 regular-season games. Banks has been the surprise player here, going from apparently headed for a redshirt season the first three games to suddenly starting. True frosh Pio Vatuvei has also gotten some key minutes and is another adding hope for the future (Crichton and the Semisi Tokolahi are the only seniors getting significant time on the line). The line’s depth, though, will get a real test this week against Arizona’s fast pace.
LINEBACKER: What was one of the bigger areas of concern on the entire team has been surprisingly solid, and linebacker coach Peter Sirmon no doubt deserves his share of credit. Working in tandem with Wilcox, Sirmon has also shown a willigness to move players around — few might have imagined before the season that the starting linebackers at the moment would be Travis Feeney, Shaq Thompson and John Timu. Or that Thomas Tutogi, who has officially started just one game, would be the team’s leading tackler with 38. Feeney is a converted safety who is third on the team in tackles with 35. Thompson also is essentially playing linebacker while remaining listed on the depth chart as a nickelback. Those four have been the primary linebackers of late, but others remain in the rotation, especially when the Huskies play spread teams — as they will this week — such as true frosh Cory Littleton, whose ascension from redshirt to start against Oregon was both one of the bigger surprises of the first half and another example of the willingness of the new defensive coaches to leave no stone unturned to turn the defense around.
SECONDARY: Statistically, no area has improved more from 2011 to 2012 — last year, UW gave up a school-record 284.6 passing yards per game. This year, that number is down to 172.7 through six games. Obviously, it’s way more complicated than that — every aspect of the team plays a role in pass defense, and it can be argued that in some games opponents didn’t throw much after getting comfortable leads. There will be some stiff challenges coming soon (Arizona, Oregon State the next two weeks most prominently) that will give a truer picture of the improvement here. Still, there’s no doubt that Desmond Trufant is playing at an all-conference level and that the Huskies are getting better overall play out of the safety spot than a year ago. Marcus Peters also appears to have settled the question at the No. 2 cornerback spot, as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: It’s sort of amazing how many of the stats in this area are even between UW and its opponents — the Huskies are averaging 6.6 yards per punt return, allowing 6.8; getting 23.1 yards per kickoff return, allowing 23.2; are averaging 61.5 yards per kickoff, opponents 61.0. A couple of differences — UW is 3-5 on field goals, opponents 6-9; and UW is averaging 37.1 yards per punt, opponents 41.1. Travis Coons has taken over as the kicker and punter, handling all kicking duties, something Steve Sarkisian admits isn’t ideal. Jaydon Mickens and Marvin Hall have emerged as the top returners (with Bruns also working in on punts) and each has shown promise. The big negative here are the breakdowns that helped turn the Oregon and USC games — Hall’s fumble against the Ducks and the blocked punt against USC. Those sorts of plays obviously can’t continue.