The results of spring practice aren't always written in ink. They're often recorded in pencil, likely to require the other end of the writing implement come August as players return from injury and new talent pushes into the depth chart. But there are a couple conclusions you can draw as the Huskies completed their last workout before Saturday's Purple & Gold Spring Game.
Beginning at the only position referred to as a "controversy" when in question, Isaiah Stanback appears to have a stronger grip on the first-string quarterback job than he did at the end of the 2005 season. Johnny DuRocher, who broke his wrist in his first significant opportunity of the season against Oregon State in November, hasn't fully regained his midseason momentum. In the April 8 scrimmage open to the media, DuRocher had less success in the challenging weather, struggling with his accuracy.
The state of the position has earned good marks from coach Tyrone Willingham. Carl Bonnell, the junior-to-be from Bethel High School, has taken large strides to push the incumbents after a season lost to a nasty thigh contusion.
"The biggest area of improvement (for the team) would probably be the overall knowledge displayed by our quarterbacks," Willingham said Thursday. "As a group they seem to be much more comfortable with what we're doing and how to do it."
Stanback and DuRocher are expected to share the offensive helm of the Purple team, while Bonnell and senior walk-on Felix Sweetman will handle the snaps for the Gold squad. Stanback has earned the praise of offensive coordinator Tim Lappano for improvements in his passing, progressions, and pocket awareness.
One of the few things inscribed in heavier graphite regarding the secondary is Dashon Goldson's switch to cornerback. The two-year starter at free safety and one of the team's leading tacklers, Goldson will bring his size (6-2, 195) and coverage skills to the edge. The move was first considered last year when injuries and inexperience rendered the cornerback position an Achilles heel, but the staff ultimately decided that the native of Carson, Calif. was a bigger asset at FS.
While the position and the position coach, J.D. Williams, might be new for Goldson, the continuity of the system in the second year under Willingham is paying dividends.
"We have pretty much the same players as last year, but we have a new attitude coming in," said Goldson. "Everybody's been amped up for spring ball. Last year I think everyone was a little hesitant, not knowing what to expect. But we came into spring ball this time knowing what was expected and what we should focus on."
Injuries have made the rest of the secondary a little harder to project. C.J. Wallace, the standout at strong safety has been held out following shoulder surgery. Darin Harris has been sidelined from the competition for the open FS spot by a back injury. Chris Hemphill and Durrell Moss, who's moving from CB, have been slowed by hamstring pulls. Jason Wells, the junior transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, has made a positive impression, but has been hindered recently with an ankle sprain. CB Josh Okoebor is out until fall camp with yet another setback in a string of knee injuries.
Former tailback Shelton Sampson is back in the fold after a midseason departure and will bolster the DB ranks, which includes City College of San Francisco transfer Jordan Murchison. The cornerback is competing to join former high school teammate Matt Fountaine as the backups behind Goldson and Roy Lewis.
It's no wonder then that Willingham's top priority for Saturday's scrimmage is "health"—avoiding additional injuries. The action, which is free to public as part of the Spring Fling activities (see gohuskies.com for details), will feature 12 to 15-minute quarters with a running clock stopped in traditional fashion during the final two minutes of each half. The coach indicated that he would mix and match the first and second units to keep it competitive and that there would be a quick whistle to protect the quarterbacks. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:45.
Two of the units worth watching will be the offensive line and receiving corps. The O-line is the least experienced group following the loss of five key linemen, including four starters, from last year's team. The learning curve has been hindered as line coach Mike Denbrock recuperated from a medication-triggered flare-up of Crohn's disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract. In his place former graduate assistant Kyle Benn handled the coaching duties for the first three weeks of spring drills.
After an uneven start and a poor showing in the early scrimmage, the offensive line has displayed some signs of improvement. Stanley Daniels, who started seven games at left guard, returns as Clay Walker, who started the other four games at LG, has moved to center. Juan Garcia has overcome the serious leg injuries of 2004 and the torn labrum (shoulder) last season to claim the inside track at right guard. Chad Macklin, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound junior, is expected to man the right tackle position where he started twice last season.
The biggest question mark is at left tackle where redshirt freshman Ben Ossai, one of the most pleasant surprises of the spring, is challenging sophomore Nathan Flowers. Willingham noted that the group is a top concern.
"I don't know if it has the farthest to go, but an area that I think still will be the heartbeat of our football team has to be, obviously, our offensive line," the coach commented. "Its growth, its improvement, its maturity will make all the difference in the world."
With the returning WR starters, Sonny Shackelford (high ankle sprain) and Anthony Russo (hip), slowed this spring it will be interesting to see which of the pass catchers can separate themselves from the pack. Chancellor Young, the former O'Dea standout who returned home after a year at Duke, has caught the coaches' attention, along with Corey Williams, Cody Ellis, and walk-on Alex Mercier. A graduate of nearby Bishop Blanchet, Mercier transferred from Pasadena CC and is one of the spring success stories. The music major has also made his mark off the field, helping to write and produce the recently-cut hip hop tune, "Husky Nation."
Tailback Kenny James has returned to form after his 2005 campaign was all but ruined by a recurring shoulder contusion. Willingham's list of impressive spring work also included Tahj Bomar, who is expected to fill the middle linebacker spot that was Joe Lobendahn's territory; safeties Wells and Mesphin Forrester; and the newcomer at long snapper, Danny Morovick.
With "competition" being Willingham's keyword for the spring, the team has been divided into roughly equivalent squads for the Spring Game. The coach hopes for a spirited effort and expects a fairly even score. Husky fans might be hoping for more offensive output than last year's 3-0 score. Regardless of points or stats, Saturday's action provides the press and the fans a rare glimpse at the roots of the 2006 Huskies.