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Times reporter Bob Condotta keeps the news coming about the Montlake Dawgs.

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March 28, 2008 8:10 PM

Five goals for spring

Posted by Bob Condotta

Spring ball is now less than a week away so it's time to really start examining what the Huskies hope to get accomplished during those 15 practices.

Here's a look at what I think are five of UW's biggest tasks this spring.

1, Rebuilding the defense.

This one couldn't be more obvious, but it's also as important to Washington's season as anything else. A lot of the curiousity will revolve around seeing what changes new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell makes to the scheme. He has said repeatedly that he will likely use both the 4-3 and the 3-4 next season, and I think the spring will be a time of a lot of experimenting to see what will fit best with the talent on hand.

Donatell has said he is "more about players than plays,'' meaning fitting the scheme to the talent. I don't think there will be any definitive "this is exactly what we are going to do in the fall'' type statements coming out of spring. For one, it makes sense to keep opponent as on-guard as possible. But I also think there is simply so much new that they will need the summer to evaluate what they saw in the spring and then make a firmer plan for fall camp.

2, Refining the passing game.

Another obvious need for improvement after the Huskies ranked 107th in passing efficiency last season (though I'd forgotten Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA all finished behind UW meaning four Pac-10 teams ranked among the bottom 12 in the nation, something that hasn't happened often in this conference).

Much of the focus will fall on Jake Locker, whose accuracy problems were well-documented last season. An even bigger issue, however, may be finding replacements for the five graduated receivers. There appears to be a lot of talent on hand, but questions will linger until they actually start producing. The Huskies also need to get the tight end more involved since there is some experience returning there.

3, Finding a running back

Louis Rankin might not go down as the most popular running back in school history given the eternal debate over his style, as well as his struggles in short-yardage situations. But you can't deny he was ultimately productive last season, rushing for 1,294 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. The yards per carry was the best for a UW running back since Rich Alexis went for 6.4 yards per carry in 2000 (and it equalled the average of Corey Dillon in 1996 when Dillon set the school record for yards in a season with 1,695).

Certainly, Rankin was helped by the presence of Locker, and he also was frustratingly erratic from game-to-game. Still, his final numbers can't be ignored, and while there are a number of exciting youngsters waiting in the wings, I think it's dangerous to assume the next guy will be able to step right in where Rankin left off. Brandon Johnson is the obvious leader to take over, and he showed a lot of promise in the Cal game. But he also doesn't look yet like the breakaway threat that Rankin was --- Johnson averaged 3.8 yards per carry and in the Cal game when both broke 100 yards Johnson had 121 yards on 23 carries to Rankin's 224 on 21. None of that is to knock Johnson, just to point out differences in their styles and production last season.

After Johnson comes J.R. Hasty, of whom it's impossible to know what to expect, and then redshirt freshmen Willie Griffin and Brandon Yakaboski. The wildcard in this is Chris Polk, who is listed as both a receiver and an RB, but in the eyes of some observers has a better future at the latter. One recruiting expert told me he was surprised UW was using him as a receiver because he has such a great future as a back, saying he was the best HS running back on the West Coast last season.

Also worth watching this spring is the impact of new running backs coach Steve Gervais. The biggest help to the running game, of course, is the return of Locker and a veteran O-line (four of five starters are back).

4, Identifying some defensive linemen

Aside from Donatell and whatever changes he may make schematically, the biggest area of intrigue on the defense this spring is the line, which must find three new starters, and lost five of its top six players from last season. The only real known commodity is DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, the lone returning starter and the only linemen returning who made more than two tackles last season. Like the running back spot, there appear to be some promising young players on hand, notably DT Cameron Elisara, and DEs Darrion Jones and De'Shon Matthews and the Huskies will be looking for those players to step up and show they are ready to consistently contribute.

Reality is, however, the line will remain in flux until the fall when true frosh such as Everrette Thompson, Craig Noble and Alameda Ta'amu arrive --- all may see significant action next fall.

5, Renovating the special teams

The third new assistant coach, Brian White, will begin to put his stamp on the special teams this spring. He at least has two experienced kickers returning in P Jared Ballman and PK Ryan Perkins, with Erik Folk also getting back into the mix after his injury-plagued freshman season.

His biggest task will be improving the coverage teams and finding some new returners. UW actually led the Pac-10 in punt return average last season at 11 yards per attempt thanks to Anthony Russo (10.1), who reallly hit his stride late in the season. UW wasn't very good in kickoff returns until Rankin took it over late in the season and averaged 24.4 yards per attempt, including the 89-yard TD against WSU.

Johnson got 13 KO returns last year and figures to be a candidate for that job again, but there figures to be a lot of experimentation in the return game this spring.

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