Pac-12 North Preview: Washington

The Year That Was
2010 was supposed to be the big leap for Steve Sarkisian’s club … and it didn’t quite happen. On one hand, Washington — just two years after a winless season — went 7-6 and won its first bowl game since 2002. Sarkisian is also a perfect 2-for-2 against USC, his former program.

But when compared to the incoming hype — about Jake Locker in particular — last fall’s up-and-down season was a disappointment. Locker’s Heisman campaign was derailed by
a week three debacle against Nebraska and the Huskies were as inconsistent as their
senior quarterback. Washington turned in three straight clunkers — including a 41-0 trouncing against Stanford — and could not scrape consecutive wins together until a late three-game winning streak.

Key Departures and Returnees

Locker was drafted by the Tennessee Titans and can finally get to work. Also gone: second-leading receiver D’Andre Goodwin  and standout linebacker Mason Foster, who racked up an absurd 162 tackles last fall.

The Huskies do return two offensive stars. Chris Polk (1,410 yards, nine touchdowns) was one of the most underrated  tailbacks in the conference, while leading wideout Jermaine Kearse is back for his senior season. Massive defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) returns, as does a budding star in corner Desmond Trufant.

Player to Watch

It has to be Polk, who most Cal fans remember for this heartbreaking play last November. He has quietly put together two straight 1,000-yard seasons, but the Doak Walker watch list member won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2011. Polk should be the heart of the Huskies’ offense.

Key Questions

1. How will Keith Price perform under center? Price, a sophomore, played sparingly in 2010 when Locker was injured. His most extensive action came in a loss to Oregon (127 yards, one touchdown) and he was named the 2011 starter after an impressive spring. How will he fare in the fall? As Cal has learned, even a loaded backfield is not enough without successful quarterback play.

2. How will the linebackers shake out? Senior Cort Dennison will be a lock in the middle, but the Huskies lost senior leaders in Foster and Victor Aiyewa. The defense looks to be improved this fall, but those two departures make linebacker the big question mark.

Outlook

We pretty much know where the Huskies won’t end up in the Pac-12 North: certainly not above Oregon or Stanford, and probably not below Washington State. The media poll pegged Washington third in the division’s mushy middle — ahead of Cal and Oregon State. That feels about right for now.

The Huskies should have an edge in skill players over the Beavers, who must replace Jacquizz Rodgers. (His brother, James, is recovering from a knee injury.) With favorable Pac-12 home games (Colorado, Arizona, Cal, WSU at QWest), Sarkisian and company should hover around six or seven wins. If Price delivers, another bowl berth is certainly a possibility.

Image source: Rapettif under Creative Commons