JOHNSON: Husky History and the path not taken

During Coach Willingham's tenure at UW, he has periodically raised eyebrows with the timing of his roster-related decisions. But one golden move he made last season (under intense pressure) was the decision to preserve freshman phenom Jake Locker's redshirt. Even Locker himself pleaded in Willingham's ear at one point while witnessing the Huskies fold against woeful Stanford.

But Willingham refused to relent. And because the head coach held firm, gleeful fans can now settle in for three full years (and possibly four, if he spurns the NFL) with Locker leading the way.

By August 2010, Dawg fans could be thanking their lucky stars that Locker is still at UW. Of course, there are no guarantees in life—Locker could turn into college football's version of Ryan Leaf. But if Jake Locker the freshman is to be likened to a game of Blackjack, the Huskies are holding a 7 and a 4 and are asking for another card.

But Husky history is replete with "what-if" scenarios. I think back now to sitting in the Husky Stadium sunshine in September 1997. That day marked the only time I have ever felt a pang of fear in Husky Stadium. In the first half, on national TV, UW quarterback Brock Huard got hit and crumpled to the turf with a banged-up ankle. Who else recalls the alarming sight of Huard tottering off the field—with the realization that a pure freshman was running out there to take his place?

The Huskies lost to Nebraska that day 27-14, but that freshman replacement was Marques Tuiasosopo—who threw for 270 yards and a touchdown. It was a remarkable performance, considering the circumstances.

But in fast-forwarding to November of 2001, the hapless Huskies found themselves overwhelmed in Miami, losing to the Hurricanes 65-7. Marques Tuiasosopo wasn't there, of course, because his redshirt season had been lost due to Brock Huard getting hurt four years prior. Washington would have likely still lost that night in the Orange Bowl—but with Tui the Dawgs would have put forth a fight.

Another what-if scenario also dates back to 1997, when the Huskies finished the season 8-4. Ten players from that team were drafted by the NFL the following spring—which suggests Washington underachieved greatly by winning only eight games.

The irony from '97 was that there could have been an 11th draftee—running back Corey Dillon. During the 1996 season, despite not starting until October, Dillon powered his way to 1,555 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns. Former UW recruiting coordinator Dick Baird states now that had Dillon shouldered the starting roll all season, the '96 Huskies would have ended up in Pasadena.

Dillon bolted for the NFL after the '96 campaign, angering then-coach Jim Lambright in the process. It leads one to wonder how good the '97 Huskies could have been with both Dillon and fellow running back Rashaan Shehee running wild behind All-American linemen Olin Kreutz and Benji Olson. Even with the brittle Huard missing substantial time, the Huskies would have won 10-11 games.

For old-timers, the biggest what-if scenario takes us all the way back to 1950. The Huskies trailed powerful California late in the game, and had the ball on the Bear 1-yard line while facing a fourth down. UW quarterback Don "The Arm" Heinrich made the decision to call for a pass play. While dropping back, he was hit and coughed up the football. Cal recovered—and this cost the Huskies a trip to the 1951 Rose Bowl. Washington finished the campaign with an 8-2 record.

But in terms of modern Husky football history, the most intriguing what-if scenario rests with running back Greg Lewis. It was in 1987 as a freshman that Lewis played in a handful of games, actually getting yanked from the UCLA game (that he started) because of a fumble in the first quarter. In retrospect, his carries that season were relatively meaningless. By the 1990 season, Lewis was a senior and arguably the best running back in America. He rushed for 1,279 yards, and always maximized whatever blocking he had in front of him with brilliant vision and a tough, forward-driving running style.

The following season of 1991 saw Washington finish 12-0 and win the national championship. It is audacious to dicker with that outcome. Yet, that team would have been even better had Greg Lewis not burned his redshirt back in '87, and was a fifth-year senior. As it happened, the starting tandem of backs in '91—Beno Bryant and Jay Berry—were good but not great. Bryant was scary if he broke free into the secondary, but oftentimes lacked superior strength to break tackles at the line of scrimmage. Barry was a tough and functional back with good vision, but he lacked the explosive breakaway speed possessed by Bryant.

Had Greg Lewis been the starting running back for the national championship team, the 1991 Washington Huskies would have been a perfect football team.

As for the current-day Huskies, perfection is not the goal. They're aiming first for competence. What the 2007-2010 seasons hold is anybody's guess. But we can sit here today grateful for Willingham holding firm—and showing foresight—in preserving Jake Locker's redshirt last season.
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net

His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com

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