Ah, spring. A time when flowers and optimism bloom.
Even Washington coach Tyrone Willingham got caught up in the good feeling Monday during a luncheon to kick off spring football practice.
Asked why the Huskies turned down a chance to play a 13th game at Hawaii next season, Willingham said, "My thought was that we will have a 13th game."
Was he guaranteeing a bowl game for a Washington team that went 2-9 last season and 3-19 the last two years?
"Not guaranteeing," said Willingham, entering his second year at Washington. "But the expectation of our program is that, yes, we should be a bowl team."
Quarterback Isaiah Stanback took it a step further.
"I see myself in a big bowl next year," said Stanback, whose team opens spring practice Thursday. "Coaches always say 'bowl game.' But I don't look at just any bowl game. I have my eyes set on big goals, and that's what I plan on achieving."
A bowl game, big or little, won't be an expectation of too many outside the program, however. Certainly, few Huskies fans are fired up, if ticket sales are any indication. Athletic director Todd Turner said season ticket sales are about "7 or 8 percent" down from the same time a year ago, when about 52,000 were sold, not including roughly 7,500 students.
"They continue to slide a little bit and that concerns me," Turner said. "But the best marketing we can do is win."
Washington hasn't done much of that lately, coming off the worst two-year run in its history. And while coaches and players are optimistic, UW has some significant questions as it enters the spring.
Offensively, the Huskies must find four new starting linemen after graduating five of its top eight players and identify some playmakers at receiver and running back after losing their best deep threat (Craig Chambers, who transferred to Montana) and leading rusher (James Sims, graduated). Bellevue grad J.R. Hasty will officially join the fray for the latter battle.
Defensively, UW has to replace two of its top-five tacklers, linebackers Joe Lobendahn and Evan Benjamin, and solidify a secondary that ranked among the nation's worst a year ago.
One position that seems relatively stable, however, is quarterback, despite Willingham's proclamation that all 22 starting jobs are open. Stanback started every game last season and has had a solid offseason, keeping in shape by running track and avoiding injury.
"It's his job to lose," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said.
Stanback's role, however, could change.
Lappano said after reviewing the offense in the offseason he wants to put Stanback in more situations to run.
"We looked at a couple of things in the offseason designed for him to touch the ball more as a runner than he did a year ago," Lappano said. "He's just too good with the ball and out on the run not to utilize him more, and we're going to have to do that."
Lappano said he's not ruling out that Johnny DuRocher could make a run at Stanback, but that the junior "has to be more consistent throwing the ball, has to be more accurate."
Third-stringer Carl Bonnell is healthy again, but Lappano said he hasn't done some of the necessary work off the field.
"He needs to understand that playing quarterback in this system takes a lot of work and a lot of film study," Lappano said.
Sampson returns to team
Shelton Sampson, who left the team five games into last season, will return to the team and begin practice on Thursday, his mother, Rosalind, said Monday night.
"He just decided he wanted to play again," she said.
Sampson saw sparing action as a running back last year, then was moved to cornerback the week before the UCLA game. He then quit the team the week after the UCLA game, apparently unhappy with the switch.
A graduate of Clover Park High in Lakewood, he has rushed for 483 yards on 115 carries in his UW career. He will be a senior in eligibility. It is uncertain what position he will play.
• Thursday will be the first of 15 spring practices. The annual Spring Game is April 22 at 12:45 p.m. at Husky Stadium.
• Willingham said senior CB Josh Okoebor suffered a recurrence of a knee injury that caused him to miss the 2004 season. Okoebor won't be available this spring and his future is uncertain.
• Willingham said DT Dan Milsten (ankle) remains on the roster but is out for the spring.
• CB Clarence Simpson is not on the roster for reasons Willingham would not divulge. But the coach said Simpson could return.
• OL Erik Berglund, who left the program in the fall of 2004, has returned as a walk-on.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com