April 23, 2006

Flingin' first half hints at a brighter future

On a postcard-worthy afternoon on the shores of Lake Washington, the Spring Game began beautifully-if you were wearing purple. Isaiah Stanback led the Purple team, consisting primarily of first-unit players, on a crisp opening drive that started with completions to Anthony Russo and Corey Williams and a 10-yard bolt off-tackle by Kenny James. On the fifth play of the possession, Stanback led Russo beautifully for a 43-yard touchdown strike that elicited a roar from the crowd of several thousand.

With one drive the team more than doubled the entire scoring output of the 2005 Spring Game, which was as ragged as one would expect after a few short months under a new coaching staff. The latest Purple & Gold game-a 24-3 "victory" for the Purple-was a much more promising display. The second drive by the Purple people was lightning quick-two plays, one touchdown. Wide receiver Chancellor Young, the former O'Dea star, got behind the secondary and Stanback delivered a missile through a gusty west wind for a 55-yard score.

Stanback, whose arm strength has never been in question, was accurate on 6 of 9 passes for 190 yards for Saturday's most prominent stat line. On the final possession of the second quarter-action was truncated by a rolling clock-the former Garfield QB connected with Cody Ellis for a 67-yard strike to the 1-yard line. James punched it in as the Purple squad scored on each of Stanback's first three possessions under center.

"I think my accuracy has improved," said Stanback, who has been concentrating on proper footwork. "One thing I really want to work on this summer is consistency. Sometimes I get too comfortable and I relax and throw some bad balls. I think all the QBs and the receivers have improved."

While the Gold secondary, which included several inexperienced defensive backs, assisted Stanback's production with some miscommunication, the play of the first-unit cornerbacks was a bright spot. Cornerback Roy Lewis made his presence felt with seven tackles and three passes defended, both game-highs, including a foiled fade route in the corner of the endzone. Former free safety Dashon Goldson demonstrated that he's ready for the other starting spot at corner with good coverage, breaking up one pass near the goal line and spoiling a flea-flicker by picking off Felix Sweetman's pass intended for tight end Johnny Kirton.

Another sign of improvement was delivered by the defensive line, which generated some discernable heat. DE Greyson Gunheim capped an assertive spring with a sack and a swat of a pass attempt. Wilson Afoa, Brandon Ala and Erick Lobos also tallied sacks, as well as several QB pressures. Sophomore Chris Stevens, the leading candidate for the weakside linebacker job, recorded a 12-yard sack and showed good quickness coming off the edge.

"(The pass rush) is getting better," said defensive coordinator Kent Baer. "It's been a real concentrated effort this spring to try and improve it and we're finding some guys who can do it."

The pass protection on the whole was decent, but the green offensive line still has a way to go with the run-blocking. With the exception of a couple runs, the success on the ground was muted and several holding calls erased some nice gains. With four starting spots to fill, the line has been in flux. Clay Walker and Juan Garcia shared the first-unit duties at center and right guard for much of the early action and redshirt freshman Ben Ossai earned the opening nod at left tackle with a strong April.

"I'd probably say that's an area I did not feel as comfortable with as I'd like coming out of the ball game," coach Tyrone Willingham said of the ground game. "The growth of the offensive line is extremely important to our success."

The coach indicated that James has a slight edge at tailback looking ahead to the opening of fall camp. Louis Rankin, whose 104 carries last season was second only to James Sims, led the rushers on Saturday with 50 yards on six carries, including a nice reversal that went for 30 yards. Redshirt freshman J.R. Hasty, who had 30 yards on 10 carries, looked a little sluggish at a higher weight, but had little room to work with on the Gold team.

The only truly bad news on the sunny Saturday was the injury to Ryan Perkins, who was contending for the place kicker's duties along with Michael Braunstein. Slated as the backup punter behind Sean Douglas, Perkins suffered serious damage to his right (kicking) knee when Ceasar Rayford tumbled off a block by the short man in the punting formation. The injury may jeopardize Perkins autumn activities.

Carl Bonnell, back from last season's serious thigh contusion, flashed some potential with several crisp completions in the early going and a 36-yard scamper on a QB sweep. With a promising spring, the former Bethel standout is pressing Johnny DuRocher for the backup job. DuRocher, in his second year after the transfer from Oregon, had an uneven April, including two fumbled snaps in the first half. But DuRocher responded with a more confident fourth quarter to finish 6-of-17 for 65 yards in split duty with each squad.

Several inexperienced players emerged to improve the depth at linebacker and DB. Dan Howell, a capable backup at strongside 'backer, was active and tallied four tackles, as did redshirt freshman E.J. Savannah from the weakside spot. The comeback of Trenton Tuiasosopo continues, with a solid showing after the career-threatening injuries from a bicycle accident in the winter of 2005.

"Jason Wells had an excellent spring," Willingham said of the safety transfer. "The guy arrived here four days before we started spring practice, has an injured ankle early on, and never misses one snap. To me, that's impressive. You've got Mesphin Forrester coming on in the safety position. You've got Chris Hemphill who up until his hamstring injury was doing some nice things. So I think there are a lot of good things there."

On special teams, the highlights included a wind-aided 57-yard punt by Douglas that was punctuated by crunching hits from Goldson and Matt Fountaine on the unfortunate returner, Sonny Shackelford. Displaying some genuine quickness, walk-on Alex Mercier looked good on several punt returns, including a long one erased by a clip.

We'll have several more reports this week on the spring's developments and on several newcomers who will make an impact in August leading up to the Sept. 2 opener against San Jose State. Until then, Husky fans can enjoy a little lime juice with their tequila on this sun-soaked weekend.


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