Tyrone Willingham (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
SEATTLE - With 18 practices to go before the week of their season-opener against Oregon, Washington Head Coach Tyrone Willingham met with the media Monday to talk about the Ducks, Jake Locker and baseball, as well as a major component of their linebacking corps missing from the fall camp roster
The roster that was handed out currently stands at 101 players, four less than the maximum pre-season limit allowed by the NCAA. Notable names missing from the list included 2007 leading tackler E.J. Savannah and freshmen Senio Kelemete and Vince Taylor. Willingham said that the roster is a 'fluid situation', and how many players will depend on when they get cleared - either by the NCAA Clearinghouse or by the school's own standards.
Three freshmen - Demitrius Bronson, Craig Noble and Dominique Blackman - were already not expected to be available for fall camp.
"The football team is ready to step up and go forward," Willingham said when asked about the loss of Savannah. "Not everyone gets it at the same time. It's our job as coaches to keep working to bring it out of them."
Willingham added that Joshua Gage, Donald Butler and Mason Foster would be starting out fall camp as the UW's No. 1 linebacking unit. Willingham said that he expects Butler to be a 'tremendous factor' on defense. "I've seen his leadership skills, they've always been there," he said. "It's now becoming his time."
"We did that through spring," added new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell about moving on without Savannah's services. "I'm pleased with the guys that can get in our depth. No one player makes a team. I can't tell you how many times we've gone in games without a top player, and we actually play better. We want to spike up, we want to pivot off injuries. We always tell the next guy in, your job is to come in and play as well or better than the guy you're replacing. That comes from the collective team."
It's nothing new for this staff, headed by Willingham in his fourth year at UW. This is a group that knows they are under a microscope, and are trying their best to make sure outside influences have a minimal impact on their goals; namely winning games.
"They share the same common goal, that's winning games," said quarterback Jake Locker. "That will never change, so it (hot seat) is not a distraction."
"It's business as usual," added UW Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano. "We know what it is. We have a veteran staff and have been through this many times. It starts with the guy at the top (Willingham). No one has a better poker face than him. He's always the same; he's not too high and he's not too low. And the players see that."
Juan Garcia, UW's starting center, suffered a lisfranc injury to his left foot near the end of spring practice. Garcia has been on record lately saying his foot might just be strong enough to be able to play against Oregon.
"How he's progressing is excellent to date," Willingham said of Garcia. "But know that there's practice, it's a different issue. We'll be very guarded with him to insure a best-case scenario."
Other players hurt in spring that were held out were guard Ryan Tolar and safety Jason Wells. Willingham said he expects Tolar to be 100 percent for fall camp, but isn't as sure about the senior from LaVerne, Calif. "We'll see," he said when asked about Wells. "I think he's prepared to go, but we'll see what's the right pace for him."
One addition to the Huskies' fall roster is Chancellor Young, a name that should be familiar to most Washington football fans. Young transfered from Duke in 2004 and sat out per transfer rules in 2005. He was all set to play, but missed the entire 2006 season to concentrate on his academics. It was assumed the former O'Dea star's football career was over. It was only on hold.
"We have a commitment to young people that keep battling," Willingham said of Young's situation. "He desperately wanted to get back on the team, and there was a window open for him. I'm excited about having him back."
Young could add some maturity to the mix, something Willingham feels is essential to the success of this team. "Number one, we have to play older," he said. "Freshman can't be freshmen. They have to step it up a couple of classes."
So how does a coaching staff get a team to 'play older' than they really are? "We've got to get them to focus," Willingham said.
The second part of Willingham's plan of attack for 2008 is stepping it up on the defensive side of the ball. "We have got to have great defense," he said. "We've given up a lot more points than any good defense should give up."
He added that new DC Donatell is 'fun, knowledgeable, focused, dedicated and committed'. "That pretty much covers it," he said with a smile.
"Our culture is energy," Donatell said of the defensive mindset he's bringing to that side of the ball. "It's guys having each others' back, hustling and protecting the team. It's all about team. It's all of us doing our job."
Offensively, the team will rally around their unquestioned leader, quarterback Jake Locker. The redshirt sophomore from Ferndale caused a stir this summer by playing professional baseball with the Bellingham Bells, but many - including Willingham - think his time on the diamond was well spent.
"Anytime you can compete year-around, it's fun," Locker said. "I was a three-sport star in high school, so I competed the year around. It will definitely help me."
"He got his (competitive) fix," added UW Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano. "And the great thing was, he knew when to pull it back. But I wasn't so sure for a while. First time I saw him playing, he was sliding head-first into third (base).
"We told him he could play baseball when he was getting recruited, and when you make a promise like that you have to keep it. So that's what we did."
Huskies fans are hopeful baseball helps Locker out in football the way it did for former UO quarterback Dennis Dixon. "When he came back (from baseball), he was twice as good," Lappano said. "And that's what's going to happen to Jake."
Nearly all of Washington's fall preparation is geared toward that August 30 tilt at Autzen Stadium. "A great deal changes," Willingham said. "We realize the importance that it brings. We've talked to them about it."
Willingham added that the staff has been putting things in place for this first game since January. "I like it because it's a level playing field," he said when asked about playing such an important game so early in the season. "It's the first ball game for both. A level playing field is not bad."
"I like starting with them because we've got to go down there anyway," added Lappano. "So let's go down there when they have uncertainty at quarterback. The big back (LeGarrette Blount) will be a good player. By the middle to the end of the year, he might be a great player. I remember with Chad Johnson the first couple of games he was driving me crazy. So it's better to play against players like that who aren't on top of their game as much as they will be down the road."
Conversely, Lappano isn't worried about the Huskies' relative lack of experience at the skill positions. "I think these guys are talented, they are going to do some things," he said.