The freshmen's performances will be watched closely, and coach Tyrone Willingham's job may hang in the balance.
There isn’t much pressure on Washington’s Class of 2008, really.
Just save Tyrone Willingham’s job once again.
OK, that’s obviously overstating things a bit. But the acquisition of the Class of 2008 — a group generally regarded to be in the top 20 in the nation and top four in the Pac-10 — played a key role in the decision to keep Willingham as coach last December.
Now that the class is officially here with the beginning of practice today, the spotlight on it will be heavy. Observers are waiting to see whether the players are worth the hype — and whether they can help give UW its first winning season since 2002 and secure Willingham’s future.
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“There’s an awareness of that,” said tight end Kavario Middleton of Lakes High, maybe the most-heralded of the group. “The coaches tell us, ‘Be the class that turns this around.’ Within ourselves, the guys, we talk about how we can make an impact, or try to make an impact, anyway possible. So it’s among us.”
Not that it’s fair to expect true freshmen to make a program-altering influence right away. In fact, the Washington way used to be to redshirt almost everybody.
But times have changed, and the Huskies, short on depth at some crucial spots, will have no choice but to hope for some immediate contributions from some of the 21 members of the class expected to take part in their first practice today.
The class numbers 25 if you throw in receivers Devin Aguilar and Anthony Boyles, who signed in 2007 but sat out last fall for academic reasons and arrived in the spring, and slotback Chris Polk and linebacker Kurt Mangum, who each graduated early from high school and participated in spring practice. (Three frosh are not expected to report today because of academic issues: quarterback Dominique Blackman, who will enroll in January, defensive tackle Craig Noble and running back Demitrius Bronson).
Aguilar, Boyles and Polk are expected to contribute this season at a receiving position that doesn’t return any starters from a year ago. Two or three of the running backs arriving could also play as the Huskies search for a replacement for Louis Rankin, and Middleton is also likely to hit the field at tight end, where just one player returns who has seen game action.
With the experience at defensive line also thin, one or two true freshmen could see time there.
But it’s the offensive players in the group, including the likes of receivers Jermaine Kearse and Cody Bruns, and running backs Johri Fogerson, Terrance Dailey and David Freeman, who figure to be tossed most heavily into the immediate crossfire.
Counting on so much youth is a situation UW coaches admit isn’t ideal. But they also think that if there’s a group that can handle it, this might be it.
“If we can bridge that experience gap [at receiver and running back], then both of those positions can be strengths for us,” Willingham said at Pac-10 media day.
UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano says the class of receivers, including Boyles, Aguilar and Polk, could be “as good a group of receivers as I’ve been around in my 20-plus years of coaching college football.”
Lappano says the key will be determining how much the young players can handle in terms of learning the system.
“It’s going to be a huge learning curve for all these receivers, Kavario, and the running backs,” he said. “I’ve got to be smart enough to figure out what’s enough and what’s too much. Playing with this many young kids, it’s going to be critical for our coaching staff to find the line where we are doing enough, but not doing too much.”
It helped that all have been on campus since June, participating in UW’s summer bridge program for freshmen, working out with strength coaches, and taking part in voluntary drills with the veterans. UW coaches can’t be at the voluntary workouts. But they encouraged the players to work as full units in those drills, going 11-on-11, rather than the standard seven-on-seven, in part to accelerate the learning for the new players.
“They got a chance to see the speed of the game at this level before they come out here [this week] and it’s all fast and furious and they are going, ‘Wow,’ ” Lappano said. “They have seen it already, so that was critical that they were able to do a little bit of that.”
Middleton agreed it was good to get a head start.
“Getting the lingo down, the plays, retraining your mind, it’s difficult and time-consuming,” he said.
But time is of the essence now that UW’s future has truly arrived.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org