NCF Nation: Everrette Thompson
It's about something that has been doing a perhaps surprisingly good job making Locker's life difficult the past few weeks: The Washington defense.
I know. No way. The Huskies lost their two best defensive players -- linebacker Donald Butler and end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- to the NFL from a unit that ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in total defense (389.5 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (26.7 ppg).
But the Huskies defense has consistently hinted during fall camp that it's not going to be the weakling counterpart to what should be an explosive offense.
"They've caused us some problems on offense," said coach Steve Sarkisian, who calls the offensive plays. "They've caused turnovers. They've gotten after the quarterback."
Foster, a senior and all-conference candidate, said the young guys who were forced into action last year are in far better physical condition. Along those lines, Sarkisian noted that junior noseguard Alameda Ta'amu is no longer just a massive mound of inert space filler -- who at his best is merely hard to move. After dropping 30 pounds to 330, he's a guy who can get into the backfield and make plays.
The secondary also appears significantly improved with corners Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson and safeties Nate Fellner, Nate Williams and Will Shamburger. The apparent successful return of end Everrette Thompson from a torn Achilles should bolster the pass rush.
But it's not just about maturing physically, getting healthy and conditioning better. A year ago, coordinator Nick Holt was only that slightly menacing guy who was always barking at them about not understanding what it takes to play great defense. Now the defensive guys and Holt are playing the same tune, one that probably sounds a bit like Rage Against the Machine.
"They've got a real mentality right now," Sarkisian said. "What I like most about it is they've really adopted Nick's personality. They are aggressive. They are tough. They are smart."
Of course, this also merely could be preseason optimism (or maybe the Huskies offense won't be all that potent). The unit certainly will be tested at BYU on Saturday. Sure, the Cougars only have 11 starters back and are replacing quarterback Max Hall. But they have won 43 games over the past four seasons: They are fairly close to the proverbial "reload not rebuild" category.
While there may be some sentiment about the trip for Sarkisian -- he was BYU's quarterback in 1995-96 -- the Huskies players probably don't look too fondly at the Cougars. In their 2008 game in Seattle, Locker scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown in the waning moments -- pending the PAT -- but he was flagged for a celebration penalty after flicking the ball into the air.
Just about everyone thought the penalty ridiculous, at least outside of Provo. Of course, barely anyone would remember the call if the Huskies hadn't blown the extra point and subsequently lost 28-27.
That was about as close to respectability as the Huskies would come during an 0-12 season that ended the Tyrone Willingham Era and brought in Sarkisian.
Moreover, one of BYU's quarterbacks -- it appears two will play versus the Huskies -- is true freshman Jake Heaps, a product of Washington State powerhouse Skyline High School. He picked BYU over Washington last winter, and there are just a few whispers that some of the Huskies might be eager to make him feel like he made a mistake.
"I didn't even really know he was from around here until a couple weeks ago," Foster said. "That's going to make it a little more exciting -- a big-time recruit from the state of Washington that went to another school and will play as a true freshman. It's going to be fun to get a couple of hits on him."
The Huskies -- suddenly -- have high expectations. Only two years removed from an 0-12 season, they are thinking about more than just earning their first bowl berth since 2002.
"It's a total turnaround," Foster said. "No more losing every game. The mindset is different. We're really looking forward to coming out in competing at the top of the conference this year."
A total turnaround likely would make Locker a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
But that's not going to happen if the defense can't make stops.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Nick Holt left the seven-time defending Pac-10 champions, USC -- and sunny Southern California -- to follow Steve Sarkisian to Washington, which has won 11 games over the previous four seasons, including a 0-12 finish in 2008.
|Jeff Golden/Getty Images|
|Nick Holt knows he has his work cut out for him at Washington.|
He left the Trojans' defense -- the nation's best unit -- to oversee the Huskies defense, which ranked 116th in the nation in 2008 after giving up 38.6 points per game.
The good news is things can only get better under Holt and Sarkisian. The question for long-suffering Huskies fans: How long is it going to take?
Washington is heading into the home stretch of spring practices, so it seemed like a good time to check in with the man charged with restoring a once-proud program's defensive tradition.
So, how are you adjusting to a beautiful Seattle spring?
Nick Holt: [Laugh] I'm adjusting. I have to get used to all the wetness. Heck, when it's sunny, it's really beautiful. You've just got to get used to wearing rain gear sometimes.
How hard was it to leave USC? You guys kind of had a nice thing going down there, particularly on defense?
NH: It's always hard to leave a really, really good place. But you look for opportunities, and you look to keep motivated and keep stimulated and to keep moving up the professional ladder. You keep on changing. That makes the world go around. It was a good opportunity and I think the world of Steve Sarkisian. I think he's a tremendous football coach and I wanted to be part of the program.
When you were at USC, what did the Trojan coaching staff think of Washington? Was it hard to get guys motivated to play the Huskies?
NH: In 2006, they played us tough [26-20 final]. It came down to the wire and we won on the last series of the football game. They were driving and time ran out. And in 2007, it came down to the last part of the fourth quarter [27-24 final]. We barely got out of Seattle. They always played us really competitively. Down at USC, we always respected the University of Washington. When we first got into the conference in 2001, during our early years at USC, Washington was one of the better teams in the Pac-10. It just so happens this past year they had a disappointing season. But whenever they had Jake Locker in the football game, we always had to be ready because he's such a good athlete. We were fortunate we didn't have to play him last year [58-0 final]. He was hurt. That kind of hurt their season. So, to answer your question, we've always respected the University of Washington. We've always thought it was a tough place to play because Husky Stadium is so loud and they have such great fans.
After you were hired at Washington, what did you do to evaluate the talent presently on the roster?
NH: The first thing we always do is look at film and make evaluations through cut-ups. Obviously, when we first got here we were recruiting, so we were multi-tasking. We're doing a bunch of things all at once. But we had our graduate assistants on the job right away, getting them to make evaluations cut-ups of all the returning players and all of the freshmen. The kids that didn't have game film, we went through practice films. We got about 20 to 25 plays on each player who was coming back. That was one of the first things we did after signing day -- we started evaluating what we have coming back and how they are going to fit into our package. And obviously during winter conditioning we got to see kids do agility drills and conditioning drills and you get further evaluations and information on these kids.