You can measure the Huskies' changing football attitude by the gear the players are wearing as they prepare for spring practice.
First, you should know what the University of Washington football players are wearing. It helps explain their ongoing transformation from exasperated losers to expectant winners.
In 15 months under coach Steve Sarkisian, they’ve changed their bodies, their mind-set and their self-esteem, but the easiest way to understand their new culture is to look at their clothing.
Wherever they go, they wear Husky football attire now.
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Sarkisian can remember a time, just a year ago, when his guys would’ve felt more confident donning one of Johnny Weir’s figure-skating outfits than a UW hoodie. Now, with the memory of a winless 2008 season all but gone, with the excitement of Jake Locker 5.0 building, and with legitimate hope that 2010 will be a glorious year, the Huskies don’t need to be shy because, well, they’re the Huskies again.
“They’re proud to be on our football team,” Sarkisian said. “Last year, when I took the job, there wasn’t a whole lot of UW gear getting worn.”
It’s a fitting anecdote as spring practice begins Tuesday. The Huskies will practice three days a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — for the next five weeks leading up to their April 30 Spring Game. This time, they’re not about to start a rebuilding process with an untested new coach. They’re a known commodity with a fifth-year star quarterback who spurned NFL millions to stay in school and lead what should be a natural progression from a 5-7 record in 2009 to a bowl game this winter.
If you’re already excited, imagine how the players and coaches are feeling. The Huskies aren’t without question marks, especially on the defensive line, but there’s little reason to believe they won’t develop into a winning team. The players believe in Sarkisian’s system, and most important, they believe in themselves again, too.
A fun ride now begins. The focus won’t be as much on changing culture and developing identity anymore. It won’t be as much about rebuilding confidence. It’ll be about football, about a team with good athletes improving and pursuing a higher standard.
The Huskies haven’t been to a bowl game since 2002. Every spring has brought some level of enthusiasm, only to succumb to a fall season that would prove the emotion misguided. It’s been easy to kindle the fire, but impossible to keep it burning.
Finally, the spring fever feels appropriate.
“The expectations are higher,” Sarkisian said. “I think they’re in the outside world, but they’re high within our locker room. These guys, they want to achieve greatness. They feel like it’s there. They feel like there were some missed opportunities last year. There’s a lot of belief. Our guys are believing in our systems. They’re believing in our offseason program. They believe in each other. And it’s created a very exciting atmosphere.”
Sarkisian and his staff are excited about teaching this spring. As was the case last year, the theme of spring practice will be competition. The coaches know the Huskies have ample room for improvement, and despite the excitement swirling around them, there’s plenty of uncertainty.
The defense remains the most uncertain unit. Coordinator Nick Holt will have to rebuild a D-line that looks particularly thin now that Everette Thompson is out with an Achilles injury and Andru Pulu has been suspended indefinitely. The linebacker corps must replace departed seniors Donald Butler and E.J. Savannah. It means that a still young but talented secondary becomes the strength of the defense.
But on offense, the Huskies have the potential to be special. Two key starters, running back Chris Polk and offensive lineman Cody Habben, won’t participate in spring practice because of shoulder injuries. But by fall camp, if everyone is healthy, the Huskies return nine offensive starters. Over the next five weeks, Sarkisian wants his offense to become more physically imposing in the run game.
“My vision is to become a more physical offensive football team,” he said. “We were flashy in that area of our play sometimes, but when it really came down to punching people in the mouth, we weren’t able to do that. You can point to some of those games where we kind of got knocked around when we really tried to run the football, and for us to take this offense to another level, we need to run the football. That’s only going to create more big plays in our passing game. So that’s the goal. That’s what we’ve got to get to.”
If desire can get the Huskies there, they’ll get there. Last season was about reclaiming their dignity. This season will be about leaving an impression.
Husky football isn’t back just yet, but at least the clothes are. The players are proudly wearing the threads of a proud program, and you know what? It’s a good look, very snazzy.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer