Steve Sarkisian has done a solid job of transforming the Huskies from a winless and destitute program into a perfectly average squad. They’ve won seven games for three straight years, marking 2013 as the time to step past average. Realizing that it’s time for this to happen is easy, but actually accomplishing it is not.
While it’s not easy for bad teams to get back to mediocre or average, it’s also not terribly difficult. When a team is terrible, especially as bad as the 2008 Huskies were, there are so many areas for improvement. If every area of the team is bad, each area improved brings the team up. The players brought in don’t have to be amazing, they just have to be better than the bad ones they’re replacing. Often, just the change in coaching or attitude summons improvement from the holdovers. Improving from terrible is not that hard.
Improving from average to good or great is hard. Becoming good and then great requires good and great players, and unsurprisingly, those players are a lot harder to find. Sometimes, coaching can elevate average players, and sometimes offensive or defensive schemes can neutralize talent disparities. Most often, a team just needs to find better talent and better athletes. Talent often underachieves, but poor talent rarely beats elite talent. It’s just the way it is.
The good news for the Huskies is their talent is steadily improving. They’re not at the level of Oregon or Stanford or even USC, but they’re solidly on the next tier down. They now have experienced talent at all positions, and the depth is solid. They’re still short on seniors, but they won’t be counting on the same number of freshman and sophomores as in recent years.
Where the Huskies are still a bit lacking is in elite playmakers. They have some, like Sankey and ASJ and Kasen Williams. The defense has a number of players on the verge of entering that category, but none can be considered a game-changer at this point. The hope, and the surest way for the Huskies to move from average to great, is for more of these players brimming with potential to take a step toward fulfilling their promise. The Huskies need more elite players. They have players who could become elite, but they have to do it.
This is my list of the players who, if they can take a major jump, could key a Husky resurgence. I’m not asking for anything of which they are incapable. All of these players have athleticism or size or talents indicating ability to be a true difference-maker. I’m not including players who are near their potential already, such as the offensive trio above. I’m also not including Keith Price, because the quarterback is always a given. If he’s excellent, the team will thrive; if he’s not, they will struggle. I’m looking for players who aren’t stars yet, but who could easily reach that level. If they do, this could be an incredible season for the Dawgs.
1. Shaq Thompson is the highest-rated recruit the Huskies have landed in possibly forever. He’s an incredible blend of size, athleticism and instincts, and he could be the best Husky defender in a decade or more. He is the best bet the Huskies have for a wrecking ball on defense. The rest of the linebacking crew (ie. John Timu and Travis Feeney) also possess all-conference potential. The whole group taking a step forward could transform the defense.
2. It’s always risky counting on true freshman, but wide receiver John Ross looks like he’ll be a starter. I’m not expecting him to be a dominant, consistent producer. Ross does bring qualities the Husky offense has lacked. He’s fast and shifty, an elite talent in the open field. He will likely return kicks and get all manner of touches on offense. Ross doesn’t need to be Kasen Williams to help the Huskies, he just needs to provide them with a play-making dimension they’ve lacked in Sarkisian’s tenure.
3. Danny Shelton is UW’s lone reliable defensive tackle. He’s been solid the past two years, but he has potential to be much more than that. He’s a massive body with good strength and solid quickness. If he can make himself into a guy who constantly demands double-teams and can make plays in the opponent’s backfield, it will free up the linebackers and defensive ends to more easily defend the run and rush the passer.
4. Speaking of rushing the passer, the Husky defensive ends need to step up this year. It appears Cory Littleton beat out Josh Shirley for the rush end position, while Hau’oli Kikaha (formerly Jamora) returned from two years of injuries to win back his old job at the more standard defensive end spot. Andrew Hudson will see plenty of time there as well. All four players have excellent talent, but none have broken through, for various reason. A good pass rush is the last missing piece for the defense, so someone needs to emerge here.
5. Ben Riva started last year at right tackle. When he went down with injury early in the year, the line completely fell apart. That wasn’t solely because of his absence, but it sure didn’t help. Over the offseason, the Huskies experimented with Riva at the more important left tackle, switching him with Micah Hatchie. The move has brought rave reviews, and it appears Riva will hold the position. Hatchie has solid potential as well, but he seemed lost on the weak side last year. If Riva can solidify the position, the rest of the line should fall in place.
It seems silly to say, but the key to the Huskies getting better is to have more players play better. Some of that will come from improved consistency, but more will come from players making great plays. Don’t be surprised if the Dawgs are good this year, and these players could be a big reason why.