Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham addressed the media today, and discussed any and all things Husky football. Willingham is excited to be back in the swing of things and ready to start fall practices.
"This is really a fun time to be back. We kind of kicked this thing off is Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, but this is the first time we get an opportunity to do it at home," expressed Willingham. "It's really the first time you're kind of back with football again. We've been through the phases of winter conditioning, spring practice and summer training, and now it's back to being football again. We get an opportunity to put our hands on our young men and have that day-to-day interaction that really makes it special. I think our team is eager to be back. I think they're eager to get going and see if we can do some very positive things this season."
One of the main story lines this season surrounding the Washington program, will be whether or not Willingham can do well enough this season to get off of the hot seat so to speak. Willingham acknowledged the effect his situation can have on the team.
"I think to some degree it has to, because our young people are a part of the community, a part of the world. So it's kind of hard to restrict them from all the things they hear, read, what people are saying around them. But the real key for anybody that wants to be able to achieve, is your ability to focus on your task and not let the outside influences dominate your mindset, your thinking, your ability to get done what you need to get done," explained Willingham. "The major key is to get your team to focus, because usually those that are older, have the ability to focus on the task at hand. They're not easily distracted. Certain things don't enter into their thought process. They can eliminate those things and stay on task. Can you stay on track? Can you stay focused? Can you eliminate all the things that take you away from allowing yourself to be your best? That's what we'll start at, try to get them to be older."
Washington opens it's season against Oregon, in a game that could make or break the Huskies season. However, Willingham likes the idea starting the season with such an important game - one he's been preparing for, for quite awhile.
"I think everyone, with the Oregon game being the first one, recognizes the impact that it can have and the intensity that it brings. Because this is a conference game, it catches the intensity and the focus of people a lot different," explained Willingham. "You've got to come out of the blocks ready to go. I would probably say we've been putting some things in place for them since January. We both start with this being our first ball game, so a level playing field is not bad."
If the Huskies are going to be successful, sophomore quarterback Jake Locker will need to be successful, which is no surprise to anyone who follows the program. Willingham isn't focused with making Locker do this or do that, but rather utilizing his talents to help the team in the best way possible.
"We need Jake to keep doing what he does well. He's a super all-around athlete that has the ability to pass it and run it, which is rare skill in most quarterbacks. He puts a great deal of pressure on a defense, just knowing that he can run with the football. A quarterback that is a dual threat is probably as great of a threat as you'll have to defense in a football game. Obviously what I need him to do is just to grow in his mastering of the system, because it's that development that will allow him to respond to situations even quicker than he did his freshman year," explained Willingham. "I think the game dictates what he will do what his role will be. It would be wonderful if we had the ability to hand it off 70 plays and that decide the game for us, that would be great. But if we needed to throw it 70 to win, let's do it. I want him to be smart. There's a time and place for everything. I just want him to be smart. That's something that playing a year and having that experience under your belt, makes you that much better."
The player that was going to snap the ball to Locker, sixth year senior Juan Garcia, was slated to make a huge impact this season, but suffered a Lisfranc injury in April, which may ultimately end his career. Willingham is pleased with Garcia's recovery thus far, but remains guarded concerning the situation.
"Obviously I think there's a great concern as to how well he's progressing. We think it's excellent to this day, but now we begin practices, and that's a different issue," said Willingham. "So the first posture that we will take is we will be very guarded with him - what we do, how we structure him to try to ensure the best case scenario for him."
Junior linebacker E.J. Savannah, the Huskies' leading tackler last season, is currently academically ineligible, but Willingham is hopeful he can get back on track, and will be patient with Savannah through the situation.
"I think there always, as a coach, becomes a point where the one is not greater than the many. Some would say that's in the beginning, but I've always said that there is an I in team. Obviously it's not spelled with an I, but it takes individuals to make it come together as a team. It's the commitment of each individual that does in fact make the team. With that in mind, I do think you have to do things to some degree in regards to the individual, but always keeping the team at heart," WIllingham expressed. "My thing will never to be frustrated with anyone, because we're all different. You can't look at any of them the same. Their lives are all different. It's all part of hopefully my awareness and understanding that allows me not to be frustrated with the young men. The term I would use, is you're always disappointed when those things happen because you don't want them to happen with anyone."
With Savannah out for the time being, the defense and more specifically the linebacker corp, will rely on junior Donald Butler to lead the charge. Willingham discussed Butler's ability to be a leader.
"Obviously Donald will be a tremendous factor in our defense first of all, and also in the leadership. I've been one that's always been very excited about Donald Butler. I tell a story of when we had young men in camp in the summer of his senior year. He walks in, and we had a conglomeration of all-stars on a particular team, and he steps right in the huddle and takes charge of all of them," explained Willingham. "It was very clear, and you could see his leadership skills, see his speed and see his ability to hit and lead. Those things I've always been a fan of. I think it's not that he's grown into that - I think it's always been there, but it's now becoming more his time."
The Huskies' 2007 defense was bad, and that's being polite. Willingham acknowledged such and stated that every defensive player must play older if the Huskies are succeed in 2008.
"The one thing is we didn't make the plays that we had to make when you have to make them. In every football game, there's opportunities for the defense to get itself off of the field, and you've got to make those plays. We gave up too many big plays and did not get ourselves off the field when we had opportunities to," Willingham expressed. "The first thing that this football team, in my opinion has to do, and I think they're aware of this, we have to play older. Our freshman can't play as freshman. Our sophomores can't be sophomores. Nor can our juniors be juniors. Everybody's got to step it up a couple of grades, which means play with more maturity, more focus. To be a good team in this league, a great team in this league, you've got to have some great defense, and that has been one of the areas that has probably been our weakest in the last couple of years. We've given up a lot more points than any good defense gives up, so we've got to change that. If we can do that, than it takes a lot of pressure off of your offense, and gives your offense a lot more opportunities, and hopefully our offense can be even more productive than it's been in the past."
Washington lost five games by seven points or less last season, and Willingham hopes the Huskies will have the preparation to come out on the winning side of nail biters this season.
"You have to look at every aspect of the football game and see how you can get better. The first thing in looking at those close ballgames, is one, what's your conditioning. Were we in good enough shape to win those football games? Two, did we put our players in the right spots as coaches to give us that opportunity to win those games? Three, what is the confidence level of our football team and how do they feel about themselves when you're at that moment," explained Willingham. "Because if there's any reservation, any hesitation, then you don't make those plays. And then it's all of the sudden, you're sitting around thinking when is the shoe going to fall, and that's a mentality that you can't have if you're going to be successful."
One of the freshman that may very well step it up a couple of grades is Chris Polk. Willingham had great things to say about the standout freshman receiver.
"We felt Chris was an explosive athlete that could have some impact. It was delightful to see some of the things he did this spring. He's one of those players that I said makes you say wow," exclaimed Willingham. "That all of the sudden you see something and you just go wow. That's that kind of explosiveness that seems like very special players have."
Polk enrolled for spring practices, something Willingham feels has greatly benefitted the once USC commit.
"That is such a big plus for him. First of all, it establishes a comfort level with everything around him. Number one, he knows where he's going, he knows where his meetings are. That sounds like nothing, that sounds like something you can pick up in a day or so, but it's just a comfort level," explained Willingham. "He starts ahead of those guys with the offense, knowing what's going on. He knows his coach and he has an idea about him. He doesn't have to go through that process of learning, of growing. I think it's a huge advantage anytime you can spend time in the system. It puts you head and shoulders, I think, above all of the other guys."
However, Willingham envisions more freshman making an impact this season.
"Obviously there are certain places that we have some needs. Obviously our defensive line turned over, so therefore there's an opportunity for some of those guys to step up and have some immediate impact," said Willingham. "Our running back situation, our receiver situation - those are areas that traditionally guys can come in and not have the nature of experience that are needed at some of the other positions, and step right in. Of course we have some needs there, so I think you can anticipate someone in those positions having an opportunity to have some impact."
Playing true freshman on the defensive line isn't the ideal situation, but the Huskies may just have to do that this season. And while he understands it's not the position Washington would like to be in, Willingham was able to draw positives out of possibly playing freshman on the line.
"That up-front group has to be the first group to play older. They really have to step it up. Step the game up, step the play up, step their execution up. When you often have inexperience, usually they borderline on youth most of the time," expressed Willingham. "If that is the case, there's one ingredient that they really bring to the game that's usually different, and that's a little bit more passion. If they can bring that to the game, even though they may not have experience, than we've got a chance to get something done."
The Huskies lose 1,000-yard running back in Louis Rankin to graduation. However, there are some talented, but unproven players looking to step in and take the departed senior's place. One of those players being sophomore Brandon Johnson.
"Number one, we have Brandon Johnson returning. He did some things throughout the year to put himself in that number two position," explained Willingham. "But anytime you lose a 1,000-yard rusher, you're always looking for someone to try and fill those shoes, and hopefully we can get someone in that group to step up and do it. If not, do it by committee. So we will be open to any positive input that that group can have to help get where we want to go."
Willingham ended the conference preaching team mentality.
"The joy of football is that regardless of how talented a quarterback, a running back, a defensive back, or any other is, one guy can't do it," Willingham expressed. "It takes a whole team to do it, and that's the great thing about football."