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New coach, new hope at UW


 Isaiah Stanback is a candidate to start at quarterback for the Huskies under new coach Tyrone Willingham. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Isaiah Stanback is a candidate to start at quarterback for the Huskies under new coach Tyrone Willingham. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – Good thing there’s a bit of a quarterback controversy at the University of Washington, even if the controversy is whether the Huskies have even one legitimate quarterback among four candidates.

Otherwise, new coach Tyrone Willingham isn’t giving his constituents much to talk about.

Willingham’s circumspect ways have turned out to be, at least initially, an odd fit for a program in deep need of some positive gab after the nadir of a 1-10 season in 2004 – technically the worst in school history.

It isn’t just that practices, aside from a few quick minutes, are closed to the public and press. It isn’t just that statistics from the final scrimmage weren’t released. It isn’t even that Willingham perpetuates the charade of not naming a starting quarterback, even though his mind is made up. Even away from practice, Willingham hasn’t been forthcoming. Some early examples:

His feelings on the upcoming season? “My thoughts are wishful thinking.”

His offensive philosophy? “Win.”

The Huskies’ most critical area? “How they respond to the teams we play.”

And don’t even bother asking about that messy business of his dismissal at Notre Dame – not that Huskies fans care much about that.

They only want to know that there’s a smidgen of hope that wasn’t present at Montlake last season, when the Dawgs were winless in the Pacific-10 – losing by an average of 18 points a game – and employed a quarterback system that teetered between the merely comical and the calamitous.

Heading into the final week of preparations before the season opener against Air Force at Qwest Field in Seattle – which threatens to set a record for lack of spectator interest, given the advance ticket sales – Willingham insisted he had not yet picked a starter from among his four quarterback applicants. He had not even officially narrowed the field, though a deep thigh contusion limited Carl Bonnell’s opportunity to show his wares.

The prevailing opinion, buttressed by the released depth chart, is that one of three 2004 holdovers – junior Isaiah Stanback – is the most likely to start against Air Force over newcomer Johnny DuRocher. Yet even that’s based on the assumption that last year’s most-of-the-time starter, Casey Paus, was so dreadful that there’s no way he’ll again be entrusted with the offense.

Of his quarterbacks, Willingham will say only this:

“I think the team needs one personality,” he said. “Please understand, the philosophy is to win. If it’s best to use three quarterbacks rotating through, we will find a way to win. But the preference is to have one young man lead our football team.”

Stanback’s 2004 numbers were awful – he completed just 34 percent of his passes – and there were many deer-in-the-headlights moments, not unexpected when his first career start was made against USC. But his elusiveness and unpredictability could, with experience, be a real plus for the Husky offense, which was ninth in the Pac-10.

What’s more, he may have a stronger arm than DuRocher, who is more of a traditional drop-back quarterback and whose mobility is limited.

In any case, Willingham declared himself to be “not in a hurry” after the final scrimmage.

“Only when I’m comfortable that they are saying the right things with their play will I say, ‘Yes, this is our quarterback,’” he told reporters.

Of course, the theory that a mobile quarterback is a must for the downtrodden Huskies isn’t necessarily valid, if you buy Willingham’s assessment that the offensive line is the strength of the team. Four starters return there, led by center Brad Vannemann, and with tight end Joe Toledo moving to tackle, it’s easily the most veteran unit.

“I think if you have an outstanding offensive line, then that makes your entire football team a lot better,” Willingham said. “And so we want to develop into that type of program that has a great offensive line.”

But at the moment, there is nothing great about Husky football in any regard.

The Dawgs are betting on the come at all the other offensive skill positions, even tailback, as returning starter Kenny James – who’s rushed for 1,300 yards in two seasons – has been limited with a bruised shoulder. That’s provided a chance for sophomore Louis Rankin, who had all of nine carries a year ago. Likewise, at wide receiver, there’s some young talent – Sony Shackelford and Corey Williams in particular – but no one even remotely proven, especially with Apple Cup standout Craig Chambers in the doghouse.

There’s less mystery on defense. The Huskies were horrible on that side of the ball last season, but were constantly put in peril because of offensive ineptitude and turnovers. The linebacking corps of Evan Benjamin, Scott White and Joe Lobendahn is solid – not exceptional, but solid – and Manase Hopoi is one of the Pac-10’s better defensive tackles.

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