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Saturday, August 30, 2008 - Page updated at 11:01 PM

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UW kicks off search for clues to mystery team

A season of uncertainty begins with Washington looking for answers, especially on defense.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, right, instructs linebacker Donald Butler as coach Tyrone Willingham watches.

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ELAINE THOMPSON / AP

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, right, instructs linebacker Donald Butler as coach Tyrone Willingham watches.

Today

Washington @ Oregon, 7 p.m., FSN

EUGENE, Ore. — The curtain lifts tonight at Autzen Stadium.

On a season that figures to determine the future of Tyrone Willingham as Washington's coach.

On a team that is one of the bigger mysteries in recent UW history, with 16 true or redshirt freshmen on the first or second team who could see their first playing time today, including two true freshman starters.

And on a remade defense that could be the key to it all.

Kickoff for the Huskies' season opener at Oregon is 7 p.m.

Last year, when these teams met at Husky Stadium, Oregon won 55-34, gaining 661 yards — the third-most ever against the Huskies — including 465 on the ground.

It was the most rancid of a season filled with foul performances by the UW defense, collectively the biggest culprit in a 4-9 season that left Willingham on the brink. He responded by firing defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who had been an assistant for him for all of his 13 years as a head coach, and hiring Ed Donatell, who had been in the NFL since 1990.

Donatell, who was a graduate assistant under Don James in 1981 and 1982, has talked often since his return about reviving the school's glorious defensive past after a season in which UW allowed a school-record 411 points.

Exactly how he plans to do that, however, he and Willingham have kept under wraps, speaking only in the vaguest of tones about how the defense may be schematically different. Washington officially lists a 4-3 defense on its depth chart, but there is talk of the team likely utilizing more multiple looks, possibly some 3-4 at times.

In general, it's thought the Huskies will be more aggressive, playing more man-to-man coverage in the secondary in an attempt to free other players to bring pressure.

Players say the biggest change, however, may be Donatell himself.

"He's brought a lot of positiveness to us," said senior cornerback Mesphin Forrester. "He's brought a lot of smiles back. A lot of guys were down for the last couple of years, having bad defenses, being stressed out over losing, and Donatell brought a lot of positiveness to us. A lot of guys got their love back for the game and guys are happy back there now and making plays to better the football team."

Forrester was at the center of the biggest personnel change Donatell made to the defense, moving from safety, where he started last season, to cornerback. Donatell also moved redshirt freshman Quinton Richardson from safety to corner in the spring, and the two have kept their starting jobs, giving the Huskies some bigger bodies there.

"I feel me and Q being big, physical presences there can support on the run and still run with the fast receivers," Forrester said. "I feel like our secondary is going to be real great this year."

And despite the indefinite loss of E.J. Savannah, the Huskies also are optimistic about their linebackers with a now-healthy Donald Butler in the middle and Mason Foster and Josh Gage the other starters.

The big question is on the defensive line, where UW may give significant playing time to three true freshmen, including Senio Kelemete, slated to start at tackle. The only player up front with any experience is junior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.

"We know we are racing to get everybody ready," Donatell said this week. "We know that [we're] breaking in a new system, all those things that go along with it. But this group is willing. When a group is willing, a lot of good things can happen."

No matter how improved the defense, UW figures to give up points tonight against an Oregon team still loaded on offense despite the loss of quarterback Dennis Dixon to graduation and projected starter Nate Costa to injury (sophomore Justin Roper takes over).

Washington will try to keep the defense as rested as possible by using its veteran offensive line to open holes for true freshman running back Chris Polk and keep the Ducks off the field. The line will also be counted on to give more time to QB Jake Locker.

But the defense will have to take the field at some point, and Donatell says football basics will make the difference.

"It's fundamentals," Donatell said. "When you look up and say we won the game, you'll say they tackled, this team leveraged well. Those are the key ingredients. Our total intention is getting the job done."

Ducks' tackle suspended

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said starting offensive tackle Fenuki Tupou has been suspended for a violation of eligibility bylaws, The Register-Guard of Eugene reported in a blog. The 6-6, 330-pound senior started 12 games last year.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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