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Originally published Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

It's a do or Ty die season for Willingham

Tyrone Willingham was nearing the end of media day, aka The Hope Fest, when he encountered a question most pertinent to his future. "Do you think this...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Tyrone Willingham was nearing the end of media day, aka The Hope Fest, when he encountered a question most pertinent to his future.

"Do you think this team will be in a bowl game this year?"

Willingham responded unblinkingly. "Yes."

Somewhere, Joe Namath shrugged. It's not that risky a guarantee. If Willingham is wrong, he won't be around to explain his miscalculation.

If the Washington football coach is right, however, rewind to this day, credit him for his rigid resolve and then watch him sign a contract extension.

With practice under way, we can now unveil the inescapable theme of the 2008 Huskies season: Do Or Ty Die. Grab your magnifying glasses. Scrutinize the coach more than ever, if that's possible. This is the year everything becomes clear.

We'll be examining Willingham, but he's not the most important figure in this fight. Ultimately, the coach's fate lies with the snotty-nosed young talent on this roster.

If we don't agree on whether Willingham has had enough time to build a winner, we can concur with this certainty: In a must-win year, the Huskies are a great mystery, a team entangled by ability and inexperience. And it will take an extraordinary effort to accelerate this team's growth.

So before wondering whether the Huskies will make a bowl, you must first ask if enough of those highly regarded sophomores and freshmen will play beyond their maturity levels.

"We have to play older," Willingham admitted Monday.

And how, for steady paycheck's sake, do you coach maturation?

"The major key is to get your team to focus," Willingham said. "Usually those who are older have the ability to focus on the task at hand. They're not easily distracted. They can eliminate those things and stay on task. We believe we have some new weapons. We believe we have the tools.

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"Now if that's the case, can you stay on track? Can you stay focused? Can you eliminate all the things [that] take you away from that? That's where we will start at to try to get them to be older."

The Huskies are either inexperienced or unaccomplished most everywhere, but they especially lack proven commodities at running back, wide receiver and on the defensive line. Although quarterback Jake Locker provided wonderful glimpses last season, this will only be his second year as a starter.

So ignore every prognosticator. No one knows how good or bad the Huskies will be. Conventional wisdom says we should disregard them because youth normally can't handle Oklahoma or Notre Dame or the Pac-10. But the Huskies have capable athletes playing for their coach's future, an immeasurable that shouldn't be neglected.

This team doesn't live in sunshine. That doesn't have to be such a disadvantage, however. The resilient squads unite under these circumstances. In this instance, Willingham's stoicism is a virtue.

"Nobody has a better poker face than him," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said. "I respect him so much and his ability just to stay the same the whole time. When you're up and down, when you're all over the place, players read through that. If you're panicking, if you're pressing and they see that, it's going to make them panic. It's going to make them press.

"We know the deal. Everybody's got this deal. That's our business now more than ever. They pay us more, and they expect more wins. That's the way it is."

It's the same approach — with increased pressure — for the Huskies. With this team, the coaches are even more focused on teaching. It's essential. For Chris Polk, Kavario Middleton, Everette Thompson or any other fresh face who excites you to succeed, special attention is necessary.

The good news is that the coaches believe they have recruited passionate young players. Lappano marveled at his young offensive group's "thirst for knowledge." He praised freshman receiver Cody Bruns for the desire he displayed this summer. He praised freshman receiver Jermaine Kearse for being "mature beyond his years."

Lappano sees young players who are eager to get the ample playing time that's available this season. He has never bought into the talk that the Huskies are too young at the skilled positions.

"Sometimes, experience doesn't override talent," Lappano said.

If that's true, then Willingham and his coaches may survive this season and then experience a renaissance in the coming years. If not, chaos is lurking on the sidelines.

Of course, the Huskies' complicated rebuilding process would produce this conundrum. This program seems so close to a breakthrough, at least from a talent standpoint. And yet, it's just as close to another disaster.

Willingham must finish 7-5, at worst, this season for job security. So it won't take a miracle to turn the Huskies around. But it will require players defying developmental norms.

No high chairs allowed. The young Huskies are already sitting with the grown-ups, dealing with grown-up issues.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. For his Extra Points blog, visit seattletimes.com/sports.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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