August 25, 2008

Willingham & Bellotti Discuss Season Opener

As Washington's season opener nears, Head Coach Tyrone Willingham and Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti, via teleconference, each addressed the media Monday.

Many teams choose to open their season with opponents that do not pose any real threat, games that are known as rent-a-wins and opponents referred to as cupcakes. However, that is certainly not the case with the Huskies, as they travel to Eugene to face the Ducks in hostile Autzen Stadium - not the kindest of places for a young team filled with many freshman to play it's first game of the season.

"I think it goes back further than just fall camp. I think it went back into winter conditioning, when you knew you had a conference opponent to open the season. It kind of changes the entire focus. There's no margin of error as we say, you've got to get out of the blocks pretty quick," explained Willingham. "Anytime you play an important ball game, you do have some butterflies, and the backdrop for this one is kind of special. It is one of our major rivals, and their stadium does come with a lot of noise. It is an extremely close player-fan contact. There is no real way to prepare those guys for that kind of environment, but hopefully these guys are young men that expect to exceed in any and everything they do. So therefore their mentality would be a little different than maybe a guy with some lesser skills. I think they will be primed and eager to play and play well in this environment."

Bellotti relishes the chance to play an important game to begin the season, noting that it will tell him what kind of team he has from the get-go.

"I do, I really do," replied Bellotti when asked if he believes the game against Washington will have a different atmosphere than most home openers. "Somebody asked me earlier if I like this type of opener, and I said actually, yes. It wasn't my choice, I had nothing to do with that part of it. But the fact that we're playing a rival, a Pac-10 game - I think we're going to find out very quickly what kind of team we are. I think sometimes you may play somebody where you don't know, even after you play the game, how good you can be. Now we're going to know. I think this is a test for both teams."

It was learned today that Oregon sophomore quarterback Nate Costa will undergo surgery to repair damaged cartilage in his left knee. Costa entered fall camp atop the depth chart, but split reps with fellow sophomore Justin Roper, who will now assume the role of starting quarterback. While it certainly hurts the Ducks to lose Costa, Bellotti feels confident in the abilities of Roper, who played in four games last season, starting the Sun Bowl, while going 32-of-61 for 342 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions throughout the four games.

"Justin is an amazing athlete. He's actually the fastest of all of our quarterbacks. He has deceptive speed in that regard. He has one of the stronger arms on our team and he has the experience of the bowl game. He was a little rusty in the Spring, but the last two scrimmages we've had, he has been the most outstanding quarterback, put up the best numbers and done very well," expressed Bellotti. "With Nate and Justin, we felt we had two players at that position that have the experience and have the leadership and the ability to do the things at quarterback we needed. I feel really good about Justin Roper because he has proven he can do this, and I think his development during the course of our bowl practices was instrumental in our team's confidence for that game."

The Huskies have a pretty dandy quarterback of their own in sophomore Jake Locker. Last season, Locker faired well against the Ducks, rushing for 78 yards and passing for 257 yards and four touchdowns to just one interception. Bellotti knows fully well the threat Locker possesses to his team.

"We have a very healthy respect for what he can do. He's the fastest, biggest, strongest quarterback in the nation in my opinion. I think he's one of the most dangerous threats out there in Division I football," exclaimed Bellotti. "He can throw the ball, he can run, and he's not going to run and get down or get out of bounds - he's going to run and move the pile and run away from you if he can. I have great respect for Jake Locker. He's a tremendous young man. I know that he's a great leader based on talking to him in person and meeting his family. He's a guy that we have to try to deal with."

Even with graduated senior quarterback Dennis Dixon and departed junior running back Jonathan Stewart gone to the NFL, Willingham recognizes the potency of the Oregon offense, which ranked 10th in the nation in total offense last season with 467.54 yards per game.

"Regardless of who they put in their system, this is a very formidable offense. You look over the years they've been in that offense - it has been amazingly productive. When it's at the height, it's very difficult to put a handle on," expressed Willingham. "It's simple, because you have all phases of the option running, with the ability to throw the football. When you've got everything going, that's a very difficult task for the defense to handle."

Willingham discussed how he will attempt to defend Oregon's option offense.

"What we've got to do from a fundamental position, is first of all, identify what are their key plays. We believe that one, they like to run the sweep as they did with Stewart - that's a heck of a play. Then we've got to be able to defend the option, and that means you've got to have somebody for the dive, somebody for the quarterback and somebody for the pitch. Doing that and trying to master the passing game is especially difficult," explained Willingham. "So from a fundamental standpoint, those are the things that you have to start with. But they don't allow you just to rest on the fundamental things. All of the sudden, you see what looks like the option, but yet it's one of those bubble pass screen type plays where now the receiver is isolated one-on-one out there. We've, in a sense, got to be able to handle all of the fundamentals, keep ourselves in the right place and try to eliminate, what I call, the individual plays by them. See if somehow we can get the advantage to be two-on-one, where we can make a play."

The Husky defense was nothing to write home about last season, ranking 104th nationally in pass defense and 103rd overall in total defense. However, Willingham feels good about the defense he'll be putting on the field come Saturday.

"I like our defense from what I've seen. Obviously we talked about the inexperience at some of the places, but we also talked about some of the enthusiasm, some of the intensity that they bring. Just being new, being untarnished, not having any of the blemishes that we've had in the past," said Willingham. "Those guys bring a little different attitude. They don't know, and sometimes it's a good position not to know. Our coaching staff - their energy, their enthusiasm with this group, I think has been excellent. So I'm excited about what our defense will bring."

In hopes of righting the defensive ship that veered off course, Willingham brought in Ed Donatell to replace Kent Baer as Defensive Coordinator. When asked if the Oregon game will be a good measure to see if the change in coordinators paid off, Willingham responded.

"I think there are too many unknowns for me to say that. Obviously there are unknowns with their offense, whether they'll be able to have that kind of productivity that they've had in the past, with the change in quarterback, change in the running back," said Willingham. "I think there's some things on their side that gives us an unknown, and obviously there's changes on our part that make it kind of an unknown to say what the measurement will be."

Washington fans certainly won't miss Stewart, who torched the Husky defense last season to the tune of 251 yards rushing and two touchdowns. While the Ducks certainly don't have a running back of Stewart's caliber this season, Willingham feels there is a stable of quality backs who can cause trouble for the Dawgs' defense.

"Even though they're missing Stewart, I think there's still some very strong runners that they have there," said Willingham. "Especially with the new junior college transfer that seems to offer a little different dimension. He may not be quite as fast, but has more of a power element to him, so they're going to be very formidable."

The running back that Willingham speaks of is junior college transfer LaGarrette Blount. Blount, a December graduate who reported to Oregon in January, rushed for 68 yards on five carries in the Ducks' Spring game.

"LaGarrette Blunt reminds me a lot of Reuben Droughns, a young man that played for us several years ago, that's still playing in the NFL. He's a bigger back at 238-pounds. He's really strong through the contact zone. He's a power back, and I think he'll compliment Jeremiah Johnson very well in that regard," expressed Bellotti. "I don't know if he'll make us forget Jonathan Stewart, but I think he's ready to play and ready to help and contribute right now. They'll be a great one-two punch."

Not many thought that senior center Juan Garcia would be in position to start this Saturday after he suffered a Lisfranc injury in April, but alas the sixth-year Husky has found himself in such a situation. Willingham discussed the positive impact of Garcia's return to not only his teammates, but also his coaches.

"I think first of all to the football team, it tells them how important Juan thinks the team is and the game is. I think in this day in age, that's something that's always in question, is how important, how much value does something really carry to the individual next to you," explained Willingham. "When you can really see a graphic example of that, it just has to impress you. And it's not just the players, it also works on coaches too, for a young man to make that kind of sacrifice, to put himself back in position to play. It's what the game is all about, because it is a game of courage, it is a game of commitment and it is a game of sacrifice. When you see that, it is truly enriching to everyone."

Garcia declined surgery, opting to let the injury heal on it's own, even though numerous doctors told him he should have surgery. So far, Garcia's decision, while initially thought to be a questionable one, has proven to be a good one.

"I know that from what I've read, it's sort of a miracle that he didn't have the Lisfranc surgery, and it's helped him repair it - that's sort of an amazing deal," said Bellotti. "That may lead to some other people doing the same thing. He's certainly a staple, their senior center. I'm happy for him. I'm not happy for us [to have to play against him], but I'm happy for him."

Something else people would not have predicted, or at least I wouldn't have predicted, would be to see true freshman defensive tackle Senio Kelemete listed as a starter for the season opener, especially since he missed a good portion of Fall practices, waiting to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

"The nice thing about Senio, is when we looked at him coming out of high school, we thought that of all of our defensive players, this young man might have shown himself as one of the better ones, in terms of his overall playability," expressed Willingham. "His late arrival has made things quite interesting and quite exciting the last week or so. We've given a fair opportunity to all and he's shown himself to be able to do some things a little bit different than some of the other guys."

Willingham only allows the media to watch the first 25 minutes of practices, which usually consists of stretching and mingling. In turn, the media can't form, for the most part, an honest opinion of the team. However, they aren't alone, as Bellotti admitted he has much to learn about the 2008 Huskies.

"It's a combination - there's some new faces on their coaching roster too. I don't know really what their defense is going to be like or what their special teams is going to be like. I think their offense up front - it's fairly junior and senior dominated on the offensive line. Certainly you have Jake Locker. I know they have some young kids at the skill positions now like Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. I don't know that much about those guys, but we recruited some of them, so we're aware of their skills and talent," explained Bellotti. "On defense, it's a relatively new group, just a couple of seniors. Anytime you have youth combined with new coaching, you're sort of hamstrung. On a first game basis, we tend to try to prepare for everything in a semi-generic mode, but this may be a little bit more of that, simply because you've got some new coaches along with young players."

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