Huskies' special teams haven't been so special
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian frustrated by problems on special teams.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Steve Sarkisian didn't try to sugarcoat the problem.
In his opening comments to the media after Oregon's 43-19 win over the Huskies Oct. 24, Sarkisian said that the Ducks "destroyed us on special teams."
The Huskies had a punt blocked for a touchdown, gave up a first down on a fake field goal that led to an Oregon touchdown and allowed a two-point conversion during a critical stretch that turned the game.
And as frustrating as it was to Huskies fans, it was even more so to Sarkisian, who made special teams a priority when he got the job last December.
Sarkisian said UW's daily practices include more time spent on special teams than at USC, where he spent seven years as an assistant before coming to the Huskies.
"I just feel like that's one of the quickest areas you can get better," he said. "If you've got the athletes you can put out there and are sound, you can create plays and really change the momentum of games, as we are finding out on the wrong end."
Indeed, UW's problems on special teams have extended deeper than just the Oregon game. A week after the landmark win against USC, the Huskies allowed the opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown at Stanford. And the Huskies had a flurry of special-teams issues in the third quarter against Arizona that helped dig a hole that only a miracle interception could rescue.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly made it clear he thought the Ducks were better than the Huskies on special teams. He was quoted in last week's Sports Illustrated as having said in a meeting two nights before playing the Huskies, "We have a huge advantage in special teams and it's going to pay off for us, and it's going to be the difference in the ballgame." He also made a similar statement after the game.
Asked about Kelly's comments, Sarkisian shrugged it off saying "it was postgame talk, the emotions kicking in."
Sarkisian said he doesn't think what happened to UW against Oregon indicates any structural problems in Washington's special teams.
Instead, he thought the breakdowns were indicative of a team that was fatigued after playing eight straight weeks.
"It wasn't a matter of, 'Man, we've got to change our scheme because what they did really exposed us,' " he said. "It was a matter of just really not being locked in. I felt we were a mentally tired team. The things we had been doing very well all year all of a sudden we decided to slip on."
Still, other areas of the special teams have proven vexing all season. Washington ranks last in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns at 18.0 per attempt, and ninth in kickoff coverage (a net of 39.3 per kick). The Huskies rank fourth in punt returns but have just seven for 69 yards — the third-fewest yards in the Pac-10.
The return games have been particularly frustrating as the UW coaches have tried a number of different players but haven't gotten consistent results. The lack of punt returns, Sarkisian said, is just kind of circumstance, he says. "We haven't really had a lot of good opportunities at punt returns," he said.
Six different players have had chances returning kickoffs (not including up backs who have taken short kickoffs). But they have yielded mixed results. The latest configuration has had Chris Polk and James Johnson returning kicks, though Sarkisian said the spots aren't set and others could factor in Saturday against UCLA.
"Obviously we have been trying," said special-teams coach Johnny Nansen. "You see how many kids we have put back there to see who the right guy is. Hopefully we can get something out of it this week. We have been spending a lot of time on it."
Interestingly, what many thought would be the weakest area of the special teams — the two kickers, each new this year — has been the strongest.
Sophomore kicker Erik Folk, who was erratic throughout fall camp, has made 12 of 14 field goals, including the last-minute kick to beat USC and another to send the Notre Dame game into overtime. And JC transfer punter Will Mahan is averaging 41.8, which would be tied for the best for a UW punter other than Sean Douglas — the school's career leader — since 1982.
Locker better, but nothing defined yet
Quarterback Jake Locker practiced again Wednesday, taking about the same number of snaps as he would during a usual Wednesday practice, and appeared to make it through just fine.
However, Sarkisian said he wasn't ready to say that Locker will start against UCLA, saying how Locker responds to the activity in Thursday's practice will tell more.
"The big key is going to be [Thursday]," Sarkisian said. "We asked him to do more movement stuff today. The big key is how he responds to that [Thursday] and then to really get out and run."
Sarkisian said he would like to make a decision about Locker sooner to solidify the issue but that if he can't it could be a game-time decision.
• DT Cameron Elisara remains out with a stinger and is unlikely to play Saturday. That has meant some shuffling on the DL with DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim getting some time at DT this week. True freshmen Andru Pulu and Talia Crichton got a lot of time with the No. 1 defense at end with Te'o-Nesheim inside, a look the team could use Saturday.
• Safety Jason Wells, who hasn't played since September 2007, practiced well again Wednesday and is in line to see action against UCLA.
• WR Jordan Polk, out the last two games with a knee injury, practiced Wednesday and should see action against UCLA.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com.
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