Fans of the University of Washington Huskies are still likely bemoaning the loss to Nebraska and any real chance at the national title barring all kinds of miracles.
But this isn’t a team that was built for this year, or bust, despite its 5-1 record, No. 7 standing in the AP poll and lofty preseason goals.
Of the top 46 players on the depth chart for Saturday’s game at Oregon State (UW lists starters and backups at 12 offensive positions with the interchangeable H-back and fullback spots) only 14 are seniors.
This is a team that coaches always felt would be a work in progress, that would improve as it got deeper into the schedule.
“This is a team that can keep getting better, right on through to the end of spring practice,” said UW coach Jim Lambright.
And that is exactly what the Huskies have done ever since the Nebraska loss - gotten better.
The offensive line has solidified itself as true freshman Chad Ward has entered the lineup at strong guard and Benji Olson’s back has healed sufficiently enough to allow him to play at full speed for most of the game at weak guard.
It’s now a line that features four juniors and a freshman as starters, and only one senior as a backup.
“We’re starting to get into a groove,” said offensive line coach Steve Morton.
Depth has emerged at running back in the form of Maurice Shaw, and at quarterback in Marques Tuiasosopo.
UW’s major offensive worry next year - barring any underclassmen turning pro - would be replacing seniors Jerome Pathon and Fred Coleman at wide receiver. Backups Ja’Warren Hooker and Mijo Austin are freshmen and have yet to catch a pass.
There are now only four seniors starting on a defense that has held three Pac-10 teams to a total of 45 points - linebackers Jerry Jensen and Jason Chorak, nose tackle Sekou Wiggs and free safety Tony Parrish.
And several of the preseason questions have begun to be answered as young inside linebackers Lester Towns and Marques Hairston have started to figure things out and as depth has emerged in the secondary (Toure Butler) and up front (Josh Smith, Jabari Issa).
The special teams are also drastically better than they were against Nebraska with Nick Lentz kicking, Hooker in the mix returning kicks and Sean O’Laughlin adjusting to punting at this level.
Shehee hits the top
Running back Rashaan Shehee became the leading rusher in the Pac-10 this week after gaining 136 yards against Arizona. He is averaging 112.8 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry and has a total of 677 yards through six games.
And Shehee isn’t shy about saying that winning the rushing title is a goal of his and that he wants to keep up the UW’s legacy in that department - UW has already had four leading rushers this decade in Greg Lewis (1990), Napoleon Kaufman (1993 and 1994) and Corey Dillon (1996).
“I’m going to try to do the best I can to stay on top of the Pac-10,” Shehee said. “That’s where Washington running backs belong, on top of the Pac-10.”
Chorak has no regrets
Chorak said he isn’t second-guessing his decision to return to the UW even though his senior year isn’t turning out quite as well as he had hoped from a personal standpoint.
Through six games, Chorak has four sacks and nine tackles for a loss, far off his 1996 pace when he finished with 14.5 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss.
“I know my stats aren’t going to be what they were last year because teams are focusing on me,” Chorak said. “But if I can get to 20 tackles for a loss and 10-11 sacks, that’s a hell of a year for me, and I’m on pace to do that. As long as we are winning and going to the Rose Bowl, that’s my main focus.”