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Originally published November 2, 2011 at 8:54 PM | Page modified November 3, 2011 at 6:11 PM

Huskies hope to prove special teams can really be special

Oregon has used special teams to blow past the Huskies in recent meetings. The Huskies have improved on special teams this season and also have a huge tandem of Danny Shelton and Thomas Tutogi to create holes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Oregon @ UW, 7:30 p.m., ROOT

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If the first step in fixing a problem is realizing there is one, then the Huskies might have taken something away from their game at Oregon last year besides just another defeat.

A season of rough special teams for the Huskies hit its nadir in Eugene last year as the Ducks used three long returns — two on kickoffs, one on a punt — to blow open an eventual 53-16 victory.

"Obviously last season they had great success in the return game against us," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. "And it made it a real point of emphasis for us heading into the offseason, whether it's in the punt-coverage unit or the kick-coverage unit, to try to corral them. I thought that was a big factor in the game last year."

In fact, it often has been for Oregon in its current seven-game winning streak against UW, even in the years before Sarkisian's arrival in 2009.

A punt return for a touchdown in 2006 helped spearhead a 34-14 Oregon win in Eugene. A 50-yard punt return led to an Oregon touchdown in the Ducks' 44-10 win in Eugene in 2008. A blocked punt for a touchdown and a fake field goal that led to another TD helped key a 43-19 Oregon win in 2009. And each of the last two years, Oregon has successfully executed a two-point conversion after its first touchdown to steal a little extra edge.

"Special teams has been a real area where they have taken advantage of us the last couple years," Sarkisian said.

But as the game approaches Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at Husky Stadium, UW seems better positioned to battle Oregon in special teams.

UW finished last season ranked 98th nationally in kickoff returns, 97th in punt returns and 58th in net punting. UW was also last in the Pac-10 in kickoff coverage.

The Huskies rank substantially higher in every category this year, led by the kickoff-return unit, which is 11th nationally and first in the Pac-12 at 25.9 per attempt. Sophomore Kevin Smith is second in the conference at 30.2 per return. UW has also improved to 29th in net punting and 57th in punt returns, and by almost three yards in net kickoff coverage.

Asked the reason for the overall improvement, Sarkisian said: "I think part of it is depth and it's dedicating ourselves from a time management standpoint in practice of really working it. It's not always just about running down as hard as you can but understanding the types of returns you are getting and how to fit those returns so you are gapped out, in a sense, like you would be on defense."

When the Huskies played Oregon last year, they had a handful of true freshmen in key spots on the coverage teams. This year, UW is able to rely on fewer true frosh, with more players on special teams who have been out there before.

"The thing I think is all the young guys we were playing with before are coming along now," said special-teams coach Johnny Nansen. "We haven't changed the schemes at all, it's just our guys are starting to understand it and they are playing hard. The returners are seeing what they need to see and they are hitting it down there like they are supposed to."

The kickoff returns epitomize the apparent benefit of maturity — Smith and fellow returner Jesse Callier are each now sophomores, more comfortable in their roles are being thrown to the fire a year ago.

The team's emerging depth also has allowed Sarkisian to experiment. One intriguing personnel grouping that has paid off is the pairing of freshman defensive tackle Danny Shelton (listed at 6-1, 334 pounds) and linebacker Thomas Tutogi (6-1, 244) as a two-man wall in front of the deep returners.

Smith and Callier say they've noticed a definite difference having almost 600 pounds of blocker leading the way.

"They are big guys," Callier said. "So (opponents) don't want to run straight through them, they run around them. So that just creates holes."

Says Smith: "Whoever is coming in their way, I know they are not going to get past them."

Said Sarkisian of the Shelton-Tutogi tandem: "For big guys they're pretty athletic. As guys are running down at your returner, and you can't do the wedge anymore, you want to give them some deterrent of maybe not wanting to run through these two guys that, if you try, are going to hit you pretty hard. And so that's been the thought process behind it."

Oregon, though, will present challenges in every area as WSU found out last week when the Ducks blocked a punt for a touchdown, returned a kickoff for another and converted a two-pointer.

"They've got great speed on special teams," Nansen said. "And we've got to do a great job. We are getting to the point where we can match them a little bit, but we've still got to work at it and get our guys ready to go."

NOTES

• Sarkisian said WR James Johnson, who sprained his ankle against Arizona, is almost certainly out this week.

• Kasen Williams, who could get more time with Johnson out, tweaked his previously injured ankle in practice Wednesday. But he returned later and Sarkisian said he thought he'd be fine.

• LB Jamaal Kearse, who hurt his shoulder in practice Tuesday, was in red, but Sarkisian said it's not significant.

• UW officials said 64,380 tickets had been distributed as of Wednesday morning.

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

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