The University of Washington football team begins practice Monday with coach Tyrone Willingham on the hot seat and untested running backs, receivers and defensive linemen.
Here’s the one thing everyone can agree about the Washington Huskies entering this season — Tyrone Willingham’s back side is a little warmer than his front.
Not a single listing of “coaches on the hot seat” — an annual staple of college football previews — has gone without including the name of Willingham, who is 11-25 in three seasons as UW’s coach and has just two seasons remaining on his contract with no talk of an extension.
As the Huskies get set to open practice Monday in preparation for the season opener Aug. 30 in Eugene, however, that is about the only certainty.
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Among the most pressing of the numerous questions facing the Huskies as camp opens:
Who will run the ball?
The most consistent thing about the Huskies a year ago was their running attack, led by Louis Rankin and Jake Locker. But Rankin is gone and the Huskies don’t want Locker taking any more hits than he did a year ago — and a lot fewer, if possible. That means finding someone to take over for Rankin, who, while frustrating at times, had the highest season rushing total for a UW back (1,294 yards) since Corey Dillon in 1996.
The leading candidate is sophomore Brandon Johnson, who rushed for 196 yards last season, 121 in a win over California. He had offseason arthroscopic knee surgery but is said to be fine. Former Bellevue High star J.R. Hasty would have been another candidate, but his scholarship was not renewed and he is expected to finish his career at Central Washington.
Other candidates are redshirt freshmen Willie Griffin and Brandon Yakaboski and true freshmen Terrance Dailey, David Freeman and Johri Fogerson, one or two of whom could play this season.
A wild card is Chris Polk, listed as a slotback but one of the top backs in California last year and likely to get his share of carries.
Who will catch the ball?
Like the running-back spot, coaches like the emerging talent here, but it is young, young, young. The leading returning wide receiver is sophomore D’Andre Goodwin, who made six catches a year ago. He looked to be the go-to receiver in the spring.
Sophomore Curtis Shaw also returns after making four catches. Otherwise, it’s all redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. The latter group includes Anthony Boyles and Devin Aguilar, who were ineligible last fall but arrived in the spring and at least have 15 practices under their belts already.
Who will play on the defensive line?
This area is only slightly more experienced than the running-back and receiver positions, but given that the line is a spot where significant seasoning is best to compete in the Pac-10, it might be even more of a concern.
The only player back who has started a game is junior defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim. After that, no one is back who has made more than three tackles, though some players have been in the program awhile, such as junior defensive end Darrion Jones, a converted linebacker who has battled injuries, and senior Johnie Kirton, moved from tight end to defensive tackle in the spring.
And like the other spots, there’s some highly rated young talent coming in and one or two true freshmen could see action (though UW may take a bit of a hit as incoming defensive tackle Craig Noble will likely have to delay his entry while waiting to be cleared academically).
Has Locker solved his passing accuracy problems, or did he just spend all summer playing baseball?
The biggest area of needed improvement for Locker is his passing after he completed just 47 percent of his throws last season, lowest by a UW quarterback in the past 35 years other than Casey Paus in 2004.
Locker appeared to have a better handle on his passing in the spring, however, saying the biggest key was becoming more comfortable with the playbook, which helped to eliminate any hesitancy. When he announced last winter he would play this summer for the Bellingham Bells of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League, some worried his preparation for the season might suffer. But Locker played only 10 games for the Bells, none after July 13.
What’s the situation on Juan Garcia and E.J. Savannah?
After Locker, Garcia, a senior center, and Savannah, a junior linebacker, are two of the most important Huskies. Garcia is a two-year starter and an emotional leader. Savannah was the leading tackler a year ago.
They each enter the fall with health issues. Garcia suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in the spring, with the initial worry that he might miss the season. Garcia, however, decided not to have surgery, hoping it would heal on its own, and said a few weeks ago the recovery has gone better than hoped and that he might be able to return in September.
Savannah suffered a broken humerus while reportedly arm-wrestling in late May. The injury was diagnosed as needing a two-to-three month recovery and he spent the summer with a cast on his arm. Savannah might have more to worry about, however, as Willingham hinted at media day that his return could be delayed for issues other than his arm, though he didn’t elaborate. Willingham might make Savannah’s status clearer on Monday when he meets with the media to kick off practice.
How much impact will the coaching changes make?
Hard to know for sure until the season starts. But one reason many on Montlake are optimistic of a rebound is the presence of new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who replaces Kent Baer, fired after the Huskies allowed a school-record 446.4 yards per game last season.
Donatell figures to bring a fresh approach, likely mixing things up and experimenting with different looks, including a 3-4 alignment. Also new are special-teams/tight-ends coach Brian White and running-backs coach Steve Gervais, formerly coach at Skyline High.
So how many games does Willingham have to win to cool down that seat, anyway?
No one is saying, but anything less than 6-6 probably won’t get it done, and an impatient fan base would surely like more than that to feel good about recommitting to Willingham. UW will have to make a move one way or the other after the season, either extending Willingham or making a change, as recruiting is already beginning to suffer due to the uncertainty.
Those who cover the Pac-10 aren’t optimistic: The Huskies were picked eighth in the conference’s annual media poll a few weeks ago.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699
|Breaking down the upcoming UW season|
|Tyrone Willingham’s attempt to get the Huskies back on track and save his job won’t be helped by a schedule that some have called the toughest in the nation. It features five teams ranked in the Top 20 of the USA Today/coaches preseason poll, and another five who received votes.|
|Aug. 30||at Oregon||Oregon has won by an average of 44-23 in three games against Willingham and UW.|
|Sept. 6||BYU||Cougars picked to win MWC, receiving 29 of 34 first-place votes at conference media day.|
|Sept. 13||Oklahoma||First visit to Seattle by Sooners, who are rated No. 4 in USA Today poll.|
|Sept. 27||Stanford||Hopes for a Stanford surprise rest on the return of nine returning defensive starters.|
|Oct. 4||at Arizona||Battle of “hot-seat” favorites as Wildcats coach Mike Stoops is also feeling heat.|
|Oct. 18||Oregon State||Figures to be emotional after last year’s brawl in Corvallis.|
|Oct. 25||Notre Dame||Coaching matchup — Weis vs. Willingham — figures to overshadow the game itself.|
|Nov. 1||at USC||UW has played well against USC the past two years, losing by a combined nine points.|
|Nov. 8||Arizona State||Dennis Erickson is 0-3 as a head coach in games at Husky Stadium.|
|Nov. 15||UCLA||Some guy named Neuheisel now coaching the Bruins.|
|Nov. 22||at WSU||Cougars have won three of past four, have never won four of five.|
|Dec. 6||California||Huskies moved game back to add a couple of byes to the schedule.|