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March 5, 2013

Huskies gear up for spring practice




The season may not officially start until the end of August, but for the University of Washington football team, the journey starts on Tuesday.

On Monday, head coach Steve Sarkisian met with media to preview the upcoming spring practices. The biggest talking point from him was what the focus and emphasis of spring ball will be on.

There was a lot.

First, Sarkisian said he wants to expand the team's comfort zone.

"I think we're a team and program that's very detail-oriented; it's structured in a sense," Sarkisian said. "When we live within those regiments we perform really well."

But when they get out of their comfort zone - that's when things start to break down. So, Sarkisian went into specifics.

Sarkisian said: "The football itself will become an emphasis for us again. I thought we did a tremendous job defensively this past fall in creating turnovers. Offensively, it wasn't one of our better years in taking care of the football, so that will be a point of emphasis. Our ability to create explosive plays on the offensive side of the ball will be a big point of emphasis. You're going to see a bit more tempo or no-huddle offense…to create more explosive plays."

Also key for the Huskies this spring will be red zone efficiency, fundamentals, pad level, techniques at skill positions, development of leadership and competition.

Again, they have a lot to work on.

Through all of this, however, Sarkisian seemed excited, not anxious or weighed down by the amount of work they have or all they want to accomplish during the spring.

Instead of becoming stressors, Sarkisian sees the work as motivating.

"We obviously have a lot of work to do and a lot of areas on our team to improve this ball club, but it is a talented one, and one that's hungry to get back on the field," Sarkisian said.

It's also one that's going to have to come in and prove themselves quickly if they want to get a head start on the new class that will be joining them this fall.

Sarkisian said he doesn't think they're going to have to rely on the younger players as much to come in and play right away as they have in the past, but there will be some that will have to step up.

And they will all have the opportunity to play if they show they deserve the time.

"We signed a tremendous class, and they're going to come in and push these veterans to the limit to earn playing time," Sarkisian said. "These guys need to take advantage of this opportunity in these 15 spring practices to show what they're capable of doing and how much they've improved."

A lot of this competition will fall on the offensive positions, where last season, many struggled.

The team will use spring practices to get right again. To get back to playing the way they know they can.

Sarkisian said they've been an excellent red zone football team up until this past season, when for whatever reason they weren't playing very well in the red zone.

"We need to get back to playing with confidence down there and trusting the schemes we have in place," Sarkisian said. "It does have a distinct factor in winning and losing."

To do this, Sarkisian needs to get his quarterback right.

After a lot of scrutiny and doubt among fans on whether Keith Price should be the starter, he has a lot to prove. Lucky for him, his coach is still on his side.

"Keith Price is our starting quarterback, and the goal is to get Keith Price back to playing the way he was two years ago," Sarkisian said. "There's four guys behind him that are going to be chomping at the bit to get every opportunity they get to make this thing into a competition that's either going to push Keith to become a better player than he's been, or ultimately, try to surpass him."

Sarkisian said they'll make sure the younger quarterbacks get enough opportunities to show what they can do and also make up for any mistakes that they'll undoubtedly make when navigating the growing pains in spring practice. At the same time, he wants to make sure they're getting Price back to "where he belongs."

This will be Price's fifth and final season with the Huskies, and from day one, Sarkisian has been one of his biggest supporters.

Through it all, Sarkisian will look at Price's entire body of work to help him close his Washington career the way he thinks he can and should.

"The ups, the downs, the smiles, the tears, everything we've experienced together, so I don't know if you can completely wipe the slate clean every time, but we've been through a lot together and we've got one chapter left that we want to make this thing a great ending, so I hope for him that happens," Sarkisian said.

But that doesn't mean he has it in the bag.

Sarkisian has talked to Price, and the quarterback knows that the coaching staff isn't going to be stubborn enough to keep him as the starter if he's getting shown up by another player.

Going into the spring, Price will need to focus and figure out what he needs to do to perform at his highest level. Otherwise, another quarterback will get their opportunity to shine.

So what does Price need to do to keep his starting position?

"Taking care of the football the way I know he's capable of doing it. I think another is his mobility is going to be big for us," Sarkisian said.

The strength and explosiveness of his legs and movement in the pocket have been key points in the offseason to avoid those one-arm sacks and hits so he has the chance to show his real playmaking ability.

And ultimately, Sarkisian wants to get his smiling quarterback back.

Sarkisian said he wants to see "Keith playing the game of football the way he's capable of playing it with the smile, the flair, the competitive nature that is natural to him, not something that's manufactured."

The coach said this is developed through confidence and belief, and now Price has to take all of the work he's done during the offseason and translate it to his current performance.

And so, what do the four younger quarterbacks need to do to truly compete for that starting spot?

Sarkisian said: "I need to see guys play good football. I know that sounds pretty simplistic but…at the end of the day it's guys who understand our plays and what we're trying to get done, guys that don't turn the ball over, guys that throw the ball to the right guy, do it accurately, guys that the other 10 players that are on the field with them rally around, rally behind, want to play with, make plays for, and at the end, exude the confidence needed that exemplifies Husky football, and I think that's something we all cherished about Keith two years ago."

This confidence and the overall embodiment of the characteristics of the entire roster are what Sarkisian is looking for in his quarterback.

"That's what Husky football is. That's how Huskies play the game," Sarkisian said. "That's why we fell in love with Jake Locker, Marcus Tuiasosopo, Mark Brunell."

Those are some big names and big shoes to fill.

Lucky for the quarterbacks on the current roster, one of those beloved past Husky quarterbacks is the new position coach.

Tuiasosopo will finally get to start working with the players this week; something Sarkisian is excited about.

But it's more than just the quarterback position that Sarkisian is excited to start watching develop.

On Monday, Sarkisian went through all different areas that he's excited to see this spring.

He's excited to see Ryan McDaniel and Dwayne Washington at running back. He's excited to have wide receiver James Johnson back on the field. He wants to see wide receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins take the next step forward in becoming all-conference-type players. He wants to see receivers Jaydon Mickens and Marvin Hall make strides on the offense. He wants to see continuity, confidence and leadership on the offensive front. Defensively, he wants to see safety Sean Parker really assume a leadership role in the back seven. He wants to see defensive back Marcus Peters play with the consistency he's capable of playing with. He wants to see the continued development of the linebacker position. He would like to see Danny Shelton be the dominate nose tackle he's capable of being. He wants to develop the pass rush.

Oh, and he can finally watch some of the Class of 2013 start to integrate into the current roster.

Safety Trevor Walker and quarterback Troy Williams both enrolled early at the University of Washington, so both are eligible for spring practice.

Sarkisian won't set his expectations too high too early for these two guys. Instead, he just wants to see them keep it together and "not get too wide-eyed."

"I think that's always one of the challenges for the guys that enroll early, they don't have that summer to get acclimated," Sarkisian said. "For Troy and Trevor, I'd just like to see them stay composed, keep their competitive nature and not be too hard on themselves. They're going to have some ups and downs this spring. That's all part of it.

They're going to have some real flashing, high-flying plays we're all going to want to talk about post-practice, and then they're going to have some rough days where they're not at their best, but that's all part of growing up."

But really, they all will have work to do and growing pains to work through.

In general, Sarkisian has one big area he wants to get right during the spring: the passing game.

"That encompasses a lot, especially because of the years we've had in the past in the ability to throw the football and be effective in that," Sarkisian said. "The passing game is probably the biggest thing offensively that I want to come out of the spring feeling better about."

After a loss to Washington State in the Apple Cup followed by a loss to Boise State in the Vegas Bowl, Washington will be coming into spring practice ready to go, and ready to show they have something to prove.

They haven't let those losses go. They can still taste it.

"I don't think that taste is going to go anywhere for awhile, which is OK," Sarkisian said. "We lost two football games late in the year that we should've won, and the end result is we're sitting here talking about a 7-6 football team when we could've been talking about a 9-4 football team."

But Sarkisian doesn't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

It's left a fight. A hunger.

"What I do know is there's zero complacency in our locker room right now. This is a hungry group that wants to redeem themselves for the opportunities that we let get away from us, so the end result can be a positive impact," Sarkisian said.

And Sarkisian is as excited as ever to get started.

Maybe he feels he has something to prove, too.

"I don't know if I've ever been as excited for a spring practice because of the one area that I feel like I have the most impact on our roster and in our team is the passing game," Sarkisian said. "That is probably the biggest area of our football team that needs improvement, and so I'm as excited as ever, maybe more, about this spring practice because I feel like I'm going to have my hand in the practices.

I'm excited about that and I'm excited about this team. It's a great group of guys that have a chance to be pretty special, and we have a lot of work to do."

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