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Originally published August 30, 2011 at 9:03 PM | Page modified August 30, 2011 at 9:04 PM

Huskies' goal: Make their special teams special

If acknowledging a problem is the first step toward solving it, consider this the year the Washington Huskies may finally turn things around on special teams.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Eastern Washington @ Washington, 4 p.m., ROOT

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If acknowledging a problem is the first step toward solving it, consider this the year the Washington Huskies may finally turn things around on special teams.

That's the one area where the Huskies have struggled to make progress during Steve Sarkisian's two years as head coach, something he admitted in rather frank fashion during his news conference Monday.

Asked what areas of special teams he wanted the team to emphasize during camp, he said: "All of it. Every phase of it. I don't like the fact that we got a couple fakes ran on us on field-goal block the last couple years. I don't like the fact that we haven't had a very good return team the last couple years. I don't like the fact that we haven't covered kickoffs like I think we can the last couple years.

"Every phase of special teams has been really pointed to as areas of improvement in all of our phases."

Indeed, players say they've never worked on special teams as much as they have this year.

"And it's not even just out on the field," said junior safety Justin Glenn, a regular on several units. "But it's behind the scenes stuff, too, in the film room, one-on-one meetings with coaches, working on the technique things, the little things that make the difference."

The Huskies hope the payoff begins as soon as Saturday's season opener against Eastern Washington at 4 p.m.

It has been a while since the Huskies have made a lot of game-changing plays on special teams.

The Huskies haven't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2007 or a punt for a TD since 2003. They also haven't blocked a punt since 2008 or a field goal since 2007.

The Huskies were also last in the Pac-10 last year in both punt returns (4.9 per attempt, 102nd in the nation) and kickoff returns (20.9, 83rd).

Those last two numbers could be the easiest to turn around with the addition and maturation of some young players.

True freshman receiver Kasen Williams is listed as a co-starter at punt returner along with senior Devin Aguilar, while sophomores Jesse Callier and Kevin Smith are listed as the kickoff returners.

"We have some options," said special-teams coach Johnny Nansen. "On kickoff return having Jesse and Kevin back there and also having Kasen back there (on punts), those guys could take the ball to the house at any time. ... Last year both of the guys returning were true freshmen, and with the experience and things like that it will help us this year."

It's hoped that added athleticism from the last couple recruiting classes, but also a little less reliance on having to use as many true freshmen, will help the coverage units. Many of the school-record 14 true freshmen UW played last season were regulars on special teams, and that inexperience cost the Huskies at times. UW allowed 24.1 yards per kickoff return and 10.1 per punt return a year ago.

"You're seeing the true-freshman numbers (on special teams) a lot lower," Sarkisian said. "But also, you're seeing those guys get more experienced in those phases of the game. So they might not be front-line starters on defense, but they really understand what we're asking them in the special-teams categories."

What isn't an issue are the kickers themselves. Senior Erik Folk has had a good camp, coaches say, appearing to shake off a late-season slump. And Sarkisian has been so pleased with fifth-year senior punters Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan that he plans to find ways to use both this season. Neither has a redshirt year remaining.

NOTES

• Tailbacks Chris Polk (knee) and Johri Fogerson (hip) again did not practice Tuesday, leaving their availability for Saturday's game in increasing question. Sarkisian does not meet with the media on Tuesday but said previously he did not anticipate making a decision on their status until Wednesday.

• Cornerback Quinton Richardson (ankle) practiced, mostly working with the No. 2 unit. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt said he didn't think Richardson was at full speed and was unsure yet if Richardson will be able to play. Sophomore Greg Ducre would likely start in his place.

• UW school officials said 53,000 tickets have been distributed and they expect a crowd of roughly 55,000. That could be the smallest crowd UW has had since 52,256 attended the season opener against San Jose State in 2006.

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

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