The Washington Huskies enter the second year of the Tyrone Willingham era featuring more questions than one of Barbara Walters' note cards.
UW fans can only hope the season doesn't resemble one of Walters' shows, with everyone in tears when it's all over.
Here, then, just a few of the more pertinent questions facing Washington as spring ball begins today.
So UW is 3-19 the past two years and likely to be picked to finish near — if not at — the bottom of the Pac-10 again. Is there anything to get excited about this spring?
Two initials and one word — J.R. Hasty. The Huskies have to find a running back somehow, someway. They haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Rashaan Shehee in 1997, and James Sims' 495 yards last year were the fewest for a leading rusher for UW since 1973. Louis Rankin is listed as the starter, and Willingham praised the offseason work of senior Kenny James earlier this week.
But the player inspiring the most curiosity is Hasty, a redshirt freshman. Willingham resisted the urge last fall to remove the redshirt. But now all the wraps are off, and the spring will go a long way toward determining if the Bellevue High grad will be able to live up to the hype.
We realize this is a bit like asking which was the worst call in the UW-UConn hoops game — two hands might not be enough to count them all — but: What's the biggest concern facing the Huskies this spring?
UW spring game
Saturday, April 22,
Probably the offensive line. Four of five starters, plus one key reserve, used up their eligibility. And it's not as if that was a sterling group — witness the last-place rushing total. The only regular starter returning is left guard Stanley Daniels (though right guard Clay Walker started four games). A tentative depth chart lists two players as starters who have almost no experience — left tackle Nathan Flowers and center Juan Garcia.
What's second on the concern-o-meter?
Linebacker. Joe Lobendahn and Evan Benjamin are gone, leaving only the talented but inconsistent Scott White as a returning starter. Senior Tahj Bomar likely steps in for Lobendahn and showed promise in two starts, and sophomore Chris Stevens — who also had some moments late in the year — is slated to succeed Benjamin. But the depth is thin. Trenton Tuiasosopo and E.J. Savannah are listed as the backups to Bomar and Stevens, respectively, and each is coming off injuries that held them out of practice all last year. Willingham says they are good to go, but until they show they are healthy, caution is probably prudent.
What area could show the most improvement?
The secondary. It was undeniably bad a year ago — UW was last in the Pac-10 in pass-defense efficiency a year ago and allowed 24 touchdown passes, the most in school history. But all four starters return, and new coach J.D. Williams — the older brother of Curtis Williams and the secondary coach at Cal the last four years — seems like a great fit. JC transfers Jason Wells and Jordan Murchison will be available for spring ball, which should greatly aid the depth at cornerback. Still, there are some injury concerns as strong safety C.J. Wallace will be limited due to a shoulder problem.
Is there any chance Isaiah Stanback isn't the starter for the opener?
Fairly small, it appears, though not as slim as the odds that Willingham takes over host duties on "Chappelle's Show."
Coaches say the job is Stanback's "to lose." And considering that they are talking about revamping the offense a bit to allow him to run more — an offense that also fits incoming freshman Jake Locker (should baseball not get in the way) — all signs point to Stanback.
How's the receiver position
with Craig Chambers gone?
Chambers was UW's most frustrating player, but also its best deep threat, and his loss (he transferred to Montana in hopes of a fresh start) will hurt. But the rest of the receivers return led by Sonny Shackelford, and Willingham cited junior Anthony Russo for his work in the offseason.
"He put himself in a position to be a much-improved player," Willingham said.
Corey Williams, whose promising career has been waylaid by injuries the last two years, is apparently fully healthy again, which should help. And then there's O'Dea grad and Duke transfer Chancellor Young, who may have the most speed of any of the receivers.
Any other reasons
The defensive line could be solid despite the loss to graduation of Manase Hopoi. Starters Wilson Afoa, Donny Mateaki and Greyson Gunheim return, all now seasoned vets. The big unknown is Jordan White-Frisbee, who looked like a future superstar two years ago before missing last season with a foot injury. Coaches flirted with moving him to the offensive line but he's now back on defense, and his return could provide a huge lift.
Any other newcomers
Redshirt freshman Ben Ossai, listed as the backup left tackle, earned plaudits from Willingham earlier this week. Redshirt freshman defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim has been a favorite of line coach Randy Hart's since he arrived on campus. And there are four JC transfers on hand for the spring who could all play immediately — Wells, Murchison, defensive end Anthony Atkins and long snap-specialist Danny Morovick. The other JC transfers — safety Ashlee Palmer, receiver Marcel Reece and offensive lineman Aaron Mason — will arrive in the fall.
How's the attitude?
Willingham says it's better. And there's no doubt that the program feels more settled than any time since before Rick Neuheisel was fired. "We have a better understanding of our young men, so I label that an improvement of where we were a year ago," Willingham said. How that translates onto the field, they'll begin to find out today.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org