2011 College football preview
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian ready to make the right calls
Coach Steve Sarkisian calls the plays for the Washington Huskies, and this season he'll be calling them for an inexperienced quarterback, Keith Price.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Every 40 seconds, when his team has the ball, the computer inside Steve Sarkisian's head gauges the down and distance, factors in the defense, weighs the odds and gives him the play that best fits the situation.
The offensive play-calling belongs to him. And for Washington's coach, it is one of the biggest thrills of the job. That tick, tick, tick of the play clock, that rush to get it right, that high-flying chess game with the defensive coordinator across the field is as exhilarating as it is maddening.
It's like walking a tightrope, working without a net.
And this season, Keith Price's first as the Huskies' starting quarterback, could be the most challenging and thrilling of Sarkisian's play-calling career.
In his third year at Washington, his first without Jake Locker, Sarkisian faces one of those defining moments. He has to make this offense Price's offense, and every 40 seconds, he has to call the play that best fits his redshirt sophomore.
"It (Price's inexperience) is a big factor in play-calling," Sarkisian said in his office late last week. "So much of a play-caller and his quarterback is about the relationship. Knowing one another. Trusting one another. And putting the quarterback in the positions to do the things that he does well."
Even the most well-intentioned play can blow up in a hurry. There will be games, especially early in the season, when on paper and on film a play looks as if it will work, but Sarkisian might not think that Price is comfortable running it.
"There have been times in the past when I've loved a play, when I thought that it fit great with what the defense was doing, but I just didn't feel comfortable with the quarterback operating that play in that situation," said Sarkisian. "So I wouldn't call it.
"Inevitably, I think, coaches can try too hard. A lot of plays look good. Every week plays look good, and we have to make those tough decisions, what to put in the game plan and what not to. When you factor in a new quarterback who hasn't played a lot of football, you see him in practice, you try to gather as much information as you can, see what he does well."
But the difference between practice and games is the difference between rehearsals and opening night. Some young quarterbacks do things better in games than they do in practice. They rise to the moment. But other times they muff plays in games that seemingly they had mastered in practice.
"The challenge for us early in the season, as these situations arise, is to really figure out exactly what he (Price) is good at," Sarkisian said. "We'll have to figure it out as we go. We may not be able to wait until the Monday after (opening opponent) Eastern Washington.
"We might have to figure it out in the first quarter or at halftime. We need to get him the plays that he can operate and operate at a high level."
The Washington playbook, as thick as a New Oxford dictionary, sits on a shelf behind Sarkisian's desk. His chore this summer is finding the pages that best fit Price's style, where Price thrives and where he struggles.
Often the play-calling in training camp has been unscripted. On the fly, Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have thrown various sets and situations at Price as if they were giving him pop quizzes.
"We have to figure out how he responds after a good play, after a bad play, and after a period where maybe we've run the ball five or six times in a row and now here's the pass play," Sarkisian said. "Does he get antsy? I think we're getting a pretty good idea, but there's nothing like the game-day experience."
Price has been in the program for three years. He started at Oregon last season. He's a hard worker and a voracious student of the game. He has a good grasp of the offense.
"Right now it's about gathering information and then coaching off that information," Sarkisian said. "But the most information we'll get, more than from training camp, will come on Sept. 3 (the opener against Eastern Washington). That's when we'll see his composure. We'll see the things he sees and the things he doesn't see."
This challenge isn't new for Sarkisian. He road-tested his work as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at USC. He was there watching and helping Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez mature.
This isn't the first time he has called plays for kids.
"I'm a real believer in protecting the ball first," Sarkisian said. "There are times in ballgames when you have to go for it. You have to push the limits to make a play, because it's late and you're behind. But generally we're not great risk-takers.
"We don't want to put our quarterbacks in a position where they might lose confidence as we move forward. Most of the plays we call are calculated to protect the ball. The quarterback knows the play very well. The play gives us a chance to be successful, and we have an answer for the possibilities that the defense might give us."
Every Saturday the clock will be ticking. The crowd will be roaring. His young quarterback will be waiting for the next play to be called. The pressure will be enormous.
This is what Steve Sarkisian does. This is what he loves.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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