"I think this class was something special, and I am sure we will do wonders."
Those are the words of a very unsuspecting Brad Vanneman getting ready to embark on what would be his redshirt freshman year. The class that Vanneman is talking about did have a lot of promise. It not only included Brad, but veterans Casey Paus, Joe Lobendahn, Evan Benjamin, and Manase Hopoi as well.
Vanneman has seen many changes in his years with the Huskies. Coming off a Rose Bowl victory in 2001 against Purdue it appeared to Vanneman and many others that Coach Neuheisel had the Husky program on the right track. What a difference five years makes. In those five years, Vanneman has gone from Neuheisel to Gilbertson to Willingham in the head coaching department and from defending Rose Bowl champions to fourteen straight PAC-10 losses.
Through all of that Vanneman says he wouldn't change a thing, "There's not a day that goes by where I've said I should have went somewhere else. I love being a Husky."
He acknowledges the recent rough times, but he hasn't let that get to him.
"I've never been discouraged to be a part of this program. I know we're struggling, but I want to be a part of the group that helps turn this program around for next year", he said.
In the win-loss column, this season doesn't look any different than last season, but when watching the team there is a noticeable difference in the way they are playing. There have been some inconsistencies and it seems like the Dawgs shoot themselves in the foot nearly every week with a turnover or a costly penalty. It's hard to believe, but the turnovers have been fewer than last season and the Dawgs have managed to stay close in most of their losses.
Vanneman attributes this growth to a sense of brotherhood on the team this year. Something that was missing last year, "Last year we went in our own direction. This year is more of us against the world".
"This year is so much different because this team is so tight-knit." There is no sense of here we go again", he continued.
By midpoint last season many, including coach Gilbertson, knew there was going to be a change made soon. A lame-duck coach struggling to get a win provided the breeding ground for instability. Much of the change in attitude this season can be attributed to confidence that coach Willingham exudes.
Vanneman agrees that Willingham has made a major difference in the attitude of the team, "Confidence and stability are the two words to describe coach Willingham. He's very confident in what he does. He knows that if we stay his course we'll get victories and play better and not make the mistakes that have been killing us."
"I just wish I could have one or two more years with him", he added.
One area the Dawgs have had some instability this year has been at offensive line. The loss of Joe Toledo early in the season seemed to slow the growth of the running game.
"It's one of those, who knows, kind of things. Who knows if Joe Toledo would have been healthy what we could have done", Vanneman said. "It's been great to have him back though."
Since getting Toledo back the running game has continued to be hit or miss. First the Dawgs lost starter Louis Rankin. Senior James Sims replaced Rankin and broke off a 140-yard, 2 touchdown day against the Sun Devils in his first start of the season only to follow that up with a less than dismal 53-yard effort against the Beavers this past Saturday at Husky Stadium.
The inconsistencies have left Vanneman perplexed. The senior-laden offensive line has struggled to find a working formula this year. For the line to be more dependable Vanneman points back to fundamentals, "We just need to keep playing hard and low."
As the center it's only natural to think of Vanneman as the commander of the offensive line. He has also progressed into becoming one of the leaders on the line in his senior campaign. He considers himself as the kind of guy that leads by example.
"I just try to get everyone into the right place and in the right frame of mind", he said.
He also gives a lot of credit to the other seniors on the line.
"We've got some guys who've played a lot a football and know the game", said Vanneman. "Especially with Joe back we seem to be communicating better."
Controlling the line was a major problem for the Dawgs against Oregon State. Even with Toledo back and the communication on the line being better, Vanneman and the crew had a difficult time protecting both Stanback and DuRocher against Oregon State. Whether it was a lack of communication or just a matter of calling the wrong play at the wrong time there were several instances when the Beavers were getting through to the quarterback untouched.
The pressure on the quarterback and run-stopping penetration by the Beaver front seven proved to be the impetus for another Husky loss. As the season nears its end UW is still looking for that elusive first conference win. Learning to win games takes winning a game or two first and that is the paradox the Dawgs find themselves in these days.
"You have to learn how to win. It's not an easy thing to do. You've got to learn how to do it first, but it takes winning to learn how to win", said Vanneman.
Those thoughts are reflected in Coach Willingham's answer to how to get this team on the winning track.
"Obviously, the answer to that one is, win. You learn how to do it by actually producing it", said Willingham. "Sometimes it is elusive and hard to get to, but you keep working toward it, you keep coaching in the right way. You keep pressing your team forward to attain that one goal."
When asked whether he thought the team was playing a bit tight Vanneman's response was, "Absolutely."
"I don't know how to describe it", said Vanneman. "We're just trying to get a win and we somehow fall short."
Falling short seems to be a good way to describe the Husky season. Back in September UW seemed to be showing some promise. They were starting the season with a new head coach that had been successful in turning around programs in his first season at both Stanford and Notre Dame. They were losing games, but they looked better doing it. They got their only win this season, against Idaho and they played a now 7th ranked (AP/USA Today Poll) Notre Dame team close. Since then they've regressed somewhat back to the team from last year that can't seem to make anything happen. They've lost their second leading tackler in Joe Lobendahn and there remain question marks at both running back and quarterback.
Despite the promise the team showed at the beginning of the season, either way you look at it Vanneman's recruiting class will have fallen short of his expectations, but by winning their final two games and closing their careers with an Apple Cup victory Vanneman and his class might be able to redeem themselves a bit.
"Hopefully we can get these couple and give Husky fans something to cheer about", said Vanneman.