Washington opens the football season Saturday against San Diego State, ready to show off a defense the Huskies hope will be improved under new coordinator Justin Wilcox.
No matter how much a college football coach learns about his team during training camp, the first game of a season inevitably carries a sense of the unknown.
“There is always curiosity,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said this week, as the Huskies prepare to open at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against San Diego State at CenturyLink Field.
“You feel like you’ve got a great handle (on the team),” Sarkisian said. “But things change when the lights come on. Some guys play better than they have played in practice, and some guys don’t play quite as good as they have practiced. So I try to go in with an idea of what might happen, but I try also not to be shocked when things go a different direction.”
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And with the 2012 Huskies, the greatest curiosity surrounds a rebuilt defense in the hands of first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox, hired in January to replace Nick Holt, who was fired. The resulting coaching shuffle also meant that every position group on defense has a different coach than it did last season.
Players say they took quickly to a calmer approach, as well as changes in the schemes, the most significant of which is incorporating more 3-4 fronts.
One of the trademarks of Wilcox’s defense figures to be its versatility.
“You’re going to see a lot of different shifts, a lot of disguises,” said senior cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Also likely is a more aggressive nature, both up front and in the secondary, where defensive backs such as Trufant will be called on to play more man-to-man and pressure coverages.
“When the ball is up in the air, it’s about who has the most confidence and is in the best position to win those plays,” Trufant said. “It all comes down to one-on-one battles and we just have to win more battles than they do.”
It’s a style Trufant and others say they are excited to play. It’s also one that shows confidence in them from the new coaching staff. That’s something that appeared to dissipate as the 2011 season unfolded and the Huskies struggled, allowing a school-record 467 points. As the points and yards piled up, Holt seemed to increasingly play it safe.
Trufant acknowledges that above and beyond any play call, “We have to go out there and produce on the field.”
Still, increased faith from coach in player, and player in coach, can go a long way, and it’s something those around the program — offensive players as well — have noticed.
“I think they (the defensive players) are a lot more confident,” said receiver Kasen Williams. “They trust their coaches and are making a lot more plays, and I think they are going to come out this year and really prove some things.”
Trufant talked about increased comfort with the schemes when asked what fans should expect to see from the defense.
“I think you will see speed, and not just pure speed but knowing what is going to come (from the opponents’ offense),” he said. “I think with our knowledge of our playbook and what San Diego State is going to do, we are going to look pretty fast out there.”
Wilcox is making no predictions, acknowledging that he’s as curious as the next guy to see what he actually has, while preaching that what he’s most concerned about is seeing players practice what the coaches have been preaching.
“I think it’s time to go see what they can do — put the cards out on the table,” he said. “Especially with a young group, sometimes people have a tendency to forget what they have been doing and make something up, and that’s what you want to stay away from. … The guys have worked really well. We haven’t been perfect by any means and we probably aren’t going to be, to save you the suspense. I think their attitude has been great. Now we just want them to go out there and play fast and confident every snap and react to some of the adversity that is going to hit them.”
Sarkisian said at Pac-12 media day in July he thought the defense could turn around quickly. This week he said that he has seen constant improvement.
“I think we have made great strides,” he said. “I love what we have done schematically and what we have done personnel-wise. And again we have to go play.”
Trufant says players have mostly put last year in the past, other than when reminded by the media and others. Saturday night, a new year, and defense, begins.
“We have whole new goals to be met, whole new landmarks to set,” he said. “We’re just going out there with the goal to dominate and see how we do.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta