Washington was ranked 26th in the preseason coaches poll. Now there really isn't a "26th" in the coaches poll, a 25-team list. The Huskies are merely first among the "others receiving votes." But 26th does fairly represent where the program stands in year four under coach Steve Sarkisian.
The Huskies are close to returning to the national picture. Folks know about them, respect them even. But the breakthrough from respectable to good has yet to happen.
"We're not flying under the radar anymore," Sarkisian said during a news conference Monday as the Huskies begin preseason camp. "Teams have circled us on their schedules."
Sarkisian made some bold -- and well-publicized -- offseason moves to bolster his coaching staff, particularly on defense. That one of them required firing longtime colleague and friend Nick Holt as defensive coordinator clearly demonstrated that Sark was willing to make tough business decisions to advance the Huskies up the next rung of the college football ladder. And, yes, that includes playing defense that isn't embarrassingly horrible.
What's clear is this is now Sarkisian's team, even if five fifth-year players remain from the Tyrone Willingham era. It features just 12 seniors, so it's still a young team. But there's plenty of experience coming back, certainly more than the official number of returning starters -- 13 -- suggests.
"We're becoming a more mature football team," Sarkisian said.
Still, the Huskies enter the 2012 season with quarterback Keith Price and lots of "maybe." The top three receivers from 2011 are gone, but sophomore Kasen Williams leads a promising crew coming back. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins appears to be a budding All-American, and the interior offensive line looks solid. But it's unclear who the tackles will be -- Sarkisian said Drew Schaefer, a two-year starter at center, will get a look at tackle. And the pecking order at running back is unclear after the departure of the highly productive Chris Polk.
The defense? The big surprise is how many potentially good players it could feature -- OLB Josh Shirley, end Hau'oli Jamora, DT Danny Shelton, safety Sean Parker, cornerback Desmond Trufant, etc. The turnaround under new coordinator Justin Wilcox could be dramatic, but let's recall more than a few folks (cough, cough) thought the Huskies' defense looked pretty salty in advance of the 2011 season.
In 2009, Sarkisian's first season, he played 16 true freshmen. Last year, he played four. It will be interesting to see how many break through this fall. Safety Shaq Thompson, one of several players likely to see action on both sides of the ball, seems like the only sure thing.
"I won't ever not play a kid because he's a freshman," Sarkisian said. "The best guys on the field are going to play for us. But I know it's harder for a freshman to get on the field now."
Another area of concern: Specialists. The Huskies are replacing two good ones.
The maturation of the program under Sarkisian, coaching upgrades and intriguing talent on both sides of the ball suggest a team ready to step forward. But when you pair the uncertainties with a brutal early schedule -- at LSU, Stanford, at Oregon and USC in the first seven weeks -- then it's not also difficult to identify some "maybe not."
That's not what Sarkisian sees, though. He sees another step in the rebuilding process. He sees a team built the way he wants to build it. He, not surprisingly, sees the hopeful side of "maybe."
"When your guys are speaking your language, your lingo, it's not coach-talk it's locker room talk, that's when I think you can really make strides," he said.