This won't be the same as the other "fish wraps" we've been doing around here. Why? Because if you are reading this, you likely know UW pretty well. WSU fans are well aware of what's going on at UW (uw football blog east?). It's the little brother thing I guess. Whatever. It is what it is. So, I don't think what follows will actually be all that "newsy" to you, but here goes.
First of all, I thought about making fun of all things Jake Locker and UW. You know, the love affair with #10, the unrealistic expectations that he'll never fulfill. But I just can't do it. Why? Because Locker is a hell of a kid. A great leader on and off the field, with countless anecdotes of what a class act he is in every thing he does. There is no joy in trying to tear anyone down, especially a kid like Locker who does so many things right. So there won't be any BS about Locker.
That said, is Locker really all he's hyped up to be? Is he really the Tim Tebow of the west?
Now, Locker is a great athlete. He's a big, physical runner who is strong as an ox. He could probably play running back, linebacker or safety and be a top-shelf talent at any position. He's that athletic. He ran for an unbelievable 986 rushing yards last year, with 13 TD's. His yards per carry average of 5.7 was actually better than leading rusher Louis Rankin's 5.6 average. For a QB to average more yards per carry than the leading rusher on the team is very impressive. Even better, Locker's average of 82.2 rushing yards per game was good for 5th in the entire Pac-10. The only runners ahead of him were Jonathan Stewart, Justin Forsett, Yvenson Bernard and Louis Rankin.
And you know that he's a heck of a baseball player as well, reportedly armed with a 90+ mph fastball. He's even playing some outfield this summer for the Bellingham Bells. According to this article, Locker would have been a first-round MLB pick out of high school if he would have sent strong enough signals to baseball that he would consider signing. But this whole thing about playing QB and throwing the football, well, that part of his game needs a little polish.
For some proof (and you can't hide from the stats), check out Locker's passing line from 2007: 155 completions out of 328 attempts, good for a 47.3 completion percentage. Locker tossed 14 TD's, but he did throw 15 INT's. His 171 passing yards per game placed him 7th in the Pac-10. And his passing efficiency rating was 8th in the conference, ahead of only Stanford's Tavita Pritchard.
In other words, yes, this kid might become John Elway. But he isn't there yet.
I think the media hype can be a little much. For example, I heard KJR's John Clayton a few weeks ago claim that Jake Locker was "a better passing version of Tim Tebow." Seriously Mr. Clayton? Hmm, let's see - Tebow was "only" 234 out of 350 passing attempts last year, completing 66.9% of his passes with 32 TD's and only 6 INT's. And oh yeah, Tebow also ran for 895 yards and an amazing 23 rushing TD's. Granted Tebow won the Heisman, with arguably the greatest first-year starting QB that the game has ever seen. But this isn't a shot against Locker. It really isn't. It just shows that the media slant on Locker in the northwest is so strong that even John Clayton, the hall-of-fame NFL writer, can get lost in the glare.
The other thing with Locker is the whole running QB thing. You can run people over if you have the junk in the trunk, and Locker as is strong and thick as they come at the position. But ultimately kid, the tread will wear out on the tires. You have to wonder how many hits he can take before something serious happens.
There was the scary headline shot he took vs. Oregon State, where it initially looked like he might have suffered a major injury that could end his career. But he took an absolute beating last year vs. Ohio State and USC, including some very cheap shots as the opposing defenses looked to rattle the kid:
If I was a Husky fan, I would literally hold my breath every time #10 tucked it and ran. As exciting as he is, there is no doubt he's got a bulls-eye on his chest, and the opposing teams aren't going to lay off when they get the chance.
Anyway, on to the Dawgs, and how things look post-spring/pre-fall camp.
2007: A disappointing 4-9 record, including a 2-7 record in the conference, good for last.
Offensive scheme: Somewhat traditional/west coast offense, with two backs, a TE and two WR's in the regular offense. But UW introduced a lot more shotgun last year, and even looked at some schemes that teams like West Virginia ran with QB Pat White to see how they could take advantage of Locker's talents. Tim Lappano remains the offensive coordinator after some rumors about his head coaching candidacy last year, including some links to good 'ol WSU.
Top Offensive Player: Duh.
Defensive Scheme: It's a whole new world for Ty Willingham. Ed Donatell comes to Montlake, an experienced NFL defensive coach who brings a fresh approach to the defensive side of the ball. Donatell's ideas are welcome to improve maybe the worst Husky defense in SCHOOL HISTORY last year. The Dawgs allowed over 446 yards per game last year, ranking ninth in passing defense and last in the Pac-10 in rushing defense and total defense. Six different teams ran for at least 219 yards against them last year, topped by an unreal 465 yards rushing by Oregon at Husky Stadium. In a word, brutal. Nowhere to go but up here.
Top Defensive Player: I am tempted to say it's LB EJ Savannah, who totaled 111 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. But Savannah has battled some injury issues with his shoulder and neck, and to top it off, broke his arm in the last few weeks while arm wrestling? Strange story. Anyway, instead of Savannah I'm going to pick defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
The junior pass rusher had a team-high 8.5 sacks last year, and will be far and away the best defensive lineman on the team in '08.
Top Spring Questions:
1) How much will Ed Donatell really help the defense?
This has to be the top question for the team coming out of spring. UW nearly had UCLA's hot coordinator of the year, DeWayne Walker, but at the last minute he fell for Rick Neuheisel's charms. But Donatell is a really strong "get" for UW. However, it is hard to look at the numbers and think this will suddenly become a fearsome defense, no matter who's wearing the headset. 446 yards per game and 32 points per game in 2007 is overwhelming. But the spring produced some positive buzz about how much better things should be on that side of the ball. Some personnel was shuffled around to inject some energy into the unit, and Donatell's D showed more aggression and physical play.
But a coach can only do so much. It's still about the material he has to work with if he is going to be successful. While Te'o-Nesheim is a stud up front, he's the only one out of the top six defensive lineman from last year who is returning this season. You can bet opposing offenses will pay a lot more attention to him this year. Savannah's injury is a big question mark, as he's right there with Te'o-Nesheim as potential defensive MVP and all-conference selection. That said, the secondary might see a real boost this year. That area is Donatell's specialty, and three starters return in corners Mesphin Forrester, Byron Davenport, and safety Jason Wells. There's also some good young talent back there in Nate Williams and Quinton Richardson.
2) We know how great Locker can be, but what about the skill positions?
This is an exciting, yet scary area for UW. Louis Rankin became the first 1,000+ yard rusher for the Dawgs since 1997, but he's gone. Brandon Johnson will probably start at tailback, and he looked good in stretches last year, including 121 yards vs. a Cal team that simply quit last year. But the WR's are a real concern. Only ONE player out of the top seven pass-catchers from last year is back, and that's TE Michael Gottlieb with 12 catches. There is youth everywhere with kids like Curtis Shaw, De'Andre Goodwin, Anthony Boyles and Alvin Logan. But the young one everyone is drooling over is Chris Polk, the true frosh who was in for spring ball. Polk is a dynamic athlete with incredible speed and could be a real game-changer once he settles into the offense.
3) What is up with that schedule??
Say this about UW, they aren't afraid to beef up the schedule. They've had Notre Dame on the schedule off and on for the last several years. They've scheduled Ohio State and Oklahoma as well as up-and-comer Boise State. They've already added LSU to 2009. But this year could be the toughest yet, as Phil Steele has ranked UW's schedule as the toughest in the nation. In a year that has Ty Willingham on the hottest seat in the Pac-10, a brutal schedule might be the worst possible thing to happen to his job security.
WSU Football Blog bottom line: As good as Locker can be, there is bound to be some growing pains while the young skill position pups get their feet wet. They open at Oregon to start the season on 8/30, and that's no picnic. This first game could be a real land-mine in front of the Autzen crazies. So many times you hear the experts talk about how it takes a little while of game experience for WR's to "get it" in terms of the timing with the QB. You see it in the NFL all the time, where a WR is drafted high based on his college stats and his incredible combine numbers, but once they get to the NFL it's a slow start. Why? Because the instincts haven't taken over yet, and the player is thinking too much on the field. If the player thinks too much, maybe he's a couple of steps too slow in his indecision and route-running, and suddenly the phenom becomes rather ordinary. And it's one thing to throw the ball around in the indoor practice facility in shorts and a t-shirt, it's quite another to strap it on and have an opposing defense trying to get inside your head.
But it isn't just the Oregon game that is a concern. Then they have to come home and play BYU, a team that many are touting as "this year's Boise State" in terms of a talented, experienced team from a less-heralded conference that could upset the BCS apple cart. But the week after that? Oklahoma rolls into Seattle on 9/13, a team that everyone has in their pre-season top 5 and returns eight starters on offense from an 11-win team last year. There's also a potential sticky game at Arizona on 10/4, and they also travel to USC on 11/1.
At first glance, you would think UW will be improved just given another year's experience by Locker. His ability could elevate the game of those around him. And they will be better on defense with Donatell, but unless Locker absolutely explodes into another stratosphere, there will be some struggles on offense based on all the youth.
One huge key is that UW has potentially lost 6th-yr senior center Juan Garcia to the dreaded lisfranc foot injury, and that could make it even more dicey on the offensive line. Garcia is regarded as an excellent center and a real leader up front. His loss could put even more pressure on Locker's shoulders to lift the entire program. There really does look to be too many questions to place them high up the Pac-10 ladder, but I do believe they will be better than last year. How much better remains to be seen, but I don't think this is a last-place team.