Huskies open spring practice
Sean Parker zoomed across the turf and stayed step for step with tight end Michael Hartvigson a corner route.
"GREAT coverage!" new defensive backs coach Keith Heyward yelled.
John Timu peeled back from his linebacker spot to intercept a pass over the middle thrown by a surprised Keith Price. Will Shamburger soared to intercept a pass from Derrick Brown. Then, with both the offense and defense roaring for the final, decisive play in the first mini-scrimmage of the Huskies' 2012 spring practice, safety Ken Egu tipped a pass to Matthew Lyons. The linebacker made an acrobatic interception to win the day for the defense.
The guys on D jumped up and down, barked and danced as coach Steve Sarkisian whistled the lively, two-hour morning practice to its completion.
Sure, it was only April, in no pads, on the back, East Field behind Husky Stadium's renovation.
But it was hopefully a sign of good things to come.
"They were pretty excited. And it's great for our defense, quite honestly," Sarkisian said Monday morning, after the first of 15 spring practices to kickoff his fourth year at UW. "It's about not only learning the defense but building some morale up on that side of the ball with some of those guys.
"It was great to see."
It was exactly what Sarkisian wants to see this year from a defense that has a young, new coordinator in Justin Wilcox, new defensive-line coach in Tosh Lupoi, new linebackers coach Peter Sirmon in with Wilcox from Tennessee, and Heyward up from Oregon State to lead the secondary.
Washington has invested in the four new defensive assistants. Their mission is clear: remake and re-tool that side of the ball. Price tied UW's 92-year-old school record with seven total touchdowns and Sarkisian's prolific Huskies scored 56 points Dec. 30 in San Antonio -- but they allowed 67 to Baylor in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game ever.
Sarkisian, a former college and pro quarterback and maestro of the offense, has been spending more time and effort with the defense in the early months of 2012. And that's not just because the team's new, tighter confines for practices amid the neighboring construction have the head man more centrally located than in Husky Stadium previously, allowing him to watch all drills.
"We are starting at ground zero on the defensive side of the ball," Sarkisian said before the debut Monday. "We have to teach every aspect from it, from stance and start and alignment and assignment."
The first impressions of the new defense, albeit in shorts and helmets: more multiple, 3-4 looks along the front with stand-up, pass-rush ends to get off the edges more quickly; tighter coverage on receivers coming off the line; aggressive plays on passes in flight.
Plus loud, excited - and young -- new coaches.
Wilcox is 35. He looks like the defensive version of the 38-year-old Sarkisian, down to Wilcox's team hoodie and black W visor with a red pen stuck out its back.
Lupoi is 30 with a young face and energy to match. He leaped and yelled and encouraged while continually running in and out of the defensive huddle in all black, including socks and shoes. The all-go assistant up from California in one of Sarkisian's January coaching coups spent 30 minutes on the field following practice working with starting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on hand and footwork for defensive linemen.
Sirmon is 34, and like Wilcox is a native of the Northwest. Heyward is 35 and looks younger.
"I thought from an efficiency standpoint, with five new coaches (including offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau) and guys learning a new system defensively, I thought it was good," Sarkisian said following Day 1 of spring.
"I kind of get along with these guys already; my comfort level is good with them. Obviously, understanding their coaching style might take a minute, but I think I already have a pretty good idea."
STRONGER PRICE "BEST IN YEARS"
Price ran outside on speed options. He rolled out and fired darts on the run. He basically looked like he had two pain-free legs.
That alone was an improvement over last season.
As a redshirt sophomore, Price did everything but work on the demolition of Husky Stadium in 2011. He threw for a UW-record 34 touchdown passes replacing Jake Locker, despite having three sprained knees, a sprained ankle and a bruised shoulder. Those left him so battered, then-roommate Chris Polk was carrying him to his car and driving him to treatment at times last fall.
Asked how much better he felt than last season, when he got his first sprained ankle in the opening win over Eastern Washington, Price flashed his signature grin.
"It's probably the best in years," the quarterback said, chuckling.
"I just got rest. The injuries I had were six to eight weeks (for recovery) - and I was playing every week. It was just a matter of me getting off my feet and getting rested."
Price and the UW training staff changed his weight-lifting regimen, taking away some exercises and adding others to strengthen his legs and add flexibility.
Sarkisian is working with Price on taking fewer sacks and throwing the ball away under pressure more readily, to better preserve his body.
"A lot of those (injuries) were on me, just taking ill-advised sacks and not getting rid of the ball," Price said.
"Oh, I feel good."
Sarkisian knows the changes aren't meant for a payoff in April, or even when the season begins Sept. 1 against San Diego State. It's why backup Derrick Brown will get plenty of first-team time this month.
"I'm thinking October and November," Sarkisian said of Price. "How do we keep building him up to stay strong for an extended period of time? That's going to be our continued focus with him in the weight room, the training room and as we practice."
QUICK HITTERS: The players are enjoying the 8 a.m. start time for practices - and were rewarded Monday with a terrific sunny Seattle mornings. "I love it," senior C Drew Schaefer said of the early practices. Sarkisian's previous spring drills were in the late afternoon. This year his staff worked with UW's Student Athletic Academic Services department to arrange later-day classes for the players, so they could have spring drills around the same time as their offseason workouts. "It's exactly what I thought," Sarkisian said. "We've been getting them up at 5:30, 6 in the morning all offseason. I didn't have any reason to think they wouldn't come out with energy. This is late for them." ... WR Kasen Williams says he's added 15 pounds, up to 215 since his freshman season. Sarkisian wants him to be stronger coming off the line against press coverage, along with being more exact in his route running downfield. "The best thing is, I feel faster as well," Williams said of the added bulk. ... RT Erik Kohler did limited work with the second team. He continues working back from assorted injuries he got while starting last season. Starting guards Colin Tanigawa (knee surgery) and Colin Porter (surgery on both shoulders) are missing this month, leaving UW with 10 available offensive linemen. "We really want to emphasize development," Schaefer said, nailing the ultimate purpose of spring ball. ... The Huskies will have another no-pads practice Wednesday morning. They will be in half pads Friday and then go full pads for the first time April 9.
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