Luke Kravitz (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
With only two home football games left for the senior class, their time to make an impact is dwindling. This Saturday will prove to be one of the last chances for these players to not only talk about what needs to change, but walk it as well. And the Arizona State Sun Devils can be beaten.
With the only positive this season being the growth of the younger, talented players, where does that leave the veterans? It seems like it's been a long time since Washington has had a sizable group of seniors that have been able to impose their will and leadership on their teammates. The last four games could be used two ways: They could be a time to show the younger guys what they need to do to win, or they could use the time as a personal audition to try and take their game to the next level. Or both.
While most football players dream of playing in the NFL, it will be interesting to see what the players value more in this difficult situation they have found themselves in. Is it the team? Or is it all about them? Individual performances rarely win football games on a consistent basis. The team needs to be trained how to win together, thrive together, and defeat other teams as a unit. If the team continues to count on individuals like Jake Locker to win by themselves then their season's fortunes will turn on nothing more than an injury report.
If the seniors use these last couple games to demonstrate leadership - and not just talk about it - it could have a lasting affect on this young team. The problem with the leadership on this team is where it is coming from and where it should be coming from. On successful teams, it all comes from the same place - the veterans. Teams should be able to count on their senior class to demonstrate the right way to win. With so few seniors, it has proved to be a difficult test for the class of 2009.
“It’s hard to point at any specific thing going on that the seniors could necessarily help with,” said offensive line coach Mike Denbrock. “Aside from making sure the leadership and there experiences and the things they have gone through get translated to the younger kids in our program so those guys can learn as fast as they possibly can, and help us."
The seniors have been trying though, but there has been little response.
“We’ve found it hard to make change and to help motivate action due to lack of seniors on the playing field and just generating leaders on the team," added senior fullback Luke Kravitz. “You could say they they’re (the seniors) not good enough or maybe there is something else. There is kind of a disconnect between our group and the rest.”
Is there more to the story then what meets the eye? Where are the seniors and why aren’t they playing? The lack of seniors could be due to a coaching decision (see: 'Suddenly Senior' Day against Stanford in 2006) and the relative strength of Tyrone Willingham's recruiting classes, but what about the ones that are still on the team? Why aren’t they playing?
“When you are a fifth year senior or a senior you should be playing here," said UW offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. "If you’re not something is wrong. Our job is to play the best player. I don’t care if you’re a true freshman or a senior. We play the best players and that’s what we try and do.”
“When you talk about older guys leading the team and being leaders those are the guys that have been playing, they have been through it and have paid their dues and now they are on the field," added Kravitz. "They attribute it to their hard work and the time they have put in and they can stand behind that and tell someone they are in the wrong. That is just not the case this year. There is so few guys playing that have all that credibility. It’s still there, but in the eyes of young-minded kids they don’t see it.”
With only a handful of seniors making a significant impact this year, their voice has apparently been drowned out by the younger chorus of starters. With the most noticeable players being freshmen and sophomores, the experience and advice the veterans have passed down are seemingly given nothing more than lip service. The player chain of command has found its weak link, and it is right at the top.
What is a senior supposed to say to a starter when he has barely sniffed the field? The team’s pecking order has done a handspring: gone are the three-year starters, replaced by true freshmen. We talked about it earlier. Life in Willingham's world is upside-down, and there can be no better proof than who holds the mantle of leadership. Because it isn't held by those about to graduate.
“When it comes down to seniors having authority and being able to tell younger ones what to do, we lack in that," said Kravitz. "We’re not the ones out there playing and making plays. We’re pretty vocal with the people around us, with our team of course. In the end it seems like it falls on deaf ears.”
"Some of these guys, I look at them and just go, 'Man, I just feel like kicking them off the team or something,'" said senior center Juan Garcia, playing in his sixth year. "But it's not their fault. It's the environment they came in. They were (heralded) recruits coming out of wherever they came out of and they are like, 'Man, I should have gone to another school and this and that,' and they kind of feel like they got screwed by coming here. In a way, it's frustrating. But winning cures everything and we haven't been winning. When you aren't winning, it kind of falls apart.''
One of the younger guys who has been quickly spotlighted into a leadership role due to injury is Washington quarterback Ronnie Fouch. “Leadership comes from the senior class and the leaders of the team," he said. "Yeah I am a redshirt freshman but it’s my job as a quarterback to lead these guys and keep everybody focused on offense. We can’t let anybody be too frustrated or be a cancer to the team.”
With Fouch playing and guys like Kravitz watching, whom should the guys look to for leadership? This would seem to lead into the apparent disconnect between the older and younger guys. With seniors Mesphin Forrester, Darin Harris, and Casey Bulyca all injured, it appears the distance between the classes will continue to grow. The time for the seniors to take back control is now, before it is too late.
Unlike the senior classes before them, they still feel they can turn the recent losing culture of Washington football around. “I think at this point, really what we’re trying to do as some of the older guys is of course get these few victories and make the turnaround right now so they can bring something through into next season," said Kravitz. "It’s really just establishing that change that we haven’t established since we’ve been here, as depressing as it sounds."
With only four games left and this chapter of the senior's career coming to an unsuccessful end in terms of wins and losses, there is still a lot to play for. “Us seniors got together this last week and talked about how we need to put our need of not wanting to leave zero and whatever and kind of leave a stepping-stone for the young guys,” said defensive tackle Johnie Kirton. “We don’t want them to get used to losing. We need to feed them a little bit so they know what it feels like to win, and pick it up from there.”
Kirton also has ambitions of playing at the next level. If he can continue to show his athleticism like he did when chased down USC running back C.J. Gable last Saturday he might have a shot. “I got to get me a couple sacks and make a couple more big plays and hopefully someone has an eye out for me,” he added. With a focus on demonstrating how to make plays and helping the team down the road, Kirton could be one of those veterans responsible for turning the tide at Montlake.
Another senior whose number has been called sparingly this season but is chomping at the bit to make a difference, is former walk-on receiver Charles Hawkins. “We have to have guys that make plays," he said. "Not a lot of guys can make plays right now. That’s what it comes down to, that’s why we aren’t winning. I want to be a guy who hopefully in these next couple weeks my role increases a lot and I can be a guy that makes plays and helps us and get some positive things going. We still have four games, that’s a lot. We have an opportunity against four teams that we can compete with and definitely beat. For myself, I want to be a playmaker and try to end the season out with things that help us start going up instead of going down like we are right now.”
With the seniors leaving and this season coming to an end the real question is; what will the team look like next year? “It’s tough to picture next year right now in the situation we’re in. I’m really excited to see some of these guys after taking their lumps this year, having to grow up real fast,” said Hawkins. “I think next year after having a year under their belts some of their athleticism and abilities will come out. As far as next year I see us making a lot big plays. Right now it’s the execution we’re not getting down, the little things we’re not doing right all the time.”
The challenge will be holding everything together right now. With a new coach coming in (and what will probably be a lackluster recruiting class too), keeping all the current young leaders on the same page will be essential to the team’s future. The seniors need to continue to try and instill a winning attitude and work ethic for the younger guys to emulate - even if the message is going in one ear and out the other.
Maybe in these last four games they'll grow up.