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Pac-12 preview: Washington Huskies headed in the right direction

Published: Saturday, July 30 2011 11:58 p.m. MDT

Head coach Steve Sarkisian guided the Huskies' football team to its first winning season since 2002 last year.    (Reed Saxon, Associated Press) Head coach Steve Sarkisian guided the Huskies' football team to its first winning season since 2002 last year. (Reed Saxon, Associated Press)

Editor's note: This is the third in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season. Today: the University of Washington.

LOS ANGELES — Former Washington quarterback Jake Locker, who was the eighth player taken in the 2011 NFL Draft, was wise beyond his years. The Tennessee Titans' rookie left quite an impression with his college teammates.

"He was a father figure to us on and off the field," said junior running back Chris Polk. "So after seeing us model ourselves after him, we know what's needed and we have more leaders now."

Washington and Locker ended an eight-year bowl drought with a 19-7 win over Nebraska in last year's Holiday Bowl. It highlighted a transformation by the program in head coach Steve Sarkisian's second year at the helm.

"I think we've got a football team — that you saw at the end of last season — starting to play a brand of football that we believe in," Sarkisian said. "That is one that is physical, that believes in running the football, and in playing sound defense."

The Huskies, he added, are also fortunate to have veteran leadership as they grow.

Part of that responsibility now falls on Polk, who was the Pac-10's second-leading rusher last season.

"I can't be the guy in the back anymore. I can't be quiet," he said. "I'm going to have to step up and accept my leadership role."

Polk, however, acknowledges it's not an individual thing.

"It's all of us," he said.

A united effort is just what Sarkisian wants. The former BYU quarterback likes the way things are going.

"I love where we're headed," he said. "I love the fact that our community is rallying behind a football program and a style of play that they believe in."

Last season's 7-6 record was Washington's first winning campaign since 2002.

OFFENSE: Is there life after Locker? That's the big question as sophomore Keith Price steps into the starting role at quarterback. Fortunately for the Huskies, they have Polk and senior receiver Jermaine Kearse around to ease the transition. The duo is joined by five other returning starters on offense.

DEFENSE: Eight returning starters should give the Huskies a solid foundation to attack opposing offenses. Unfortunately, the three losses may be tough to overcome. Mason Foster, Nate Williams and Victor Aiyewa made a combined total of 349 tackles last season. The trio, obviously, left some big shoes to fill.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kickoff returner Jesse Callier averaged nearly 23 yards per opportunity in 2010. Teammate Kevin Smith was second with nearly 22 yards per return.

PLAYMAKERS: Polk and Kearse are the top dogs. Polk rushed for 1,415 yards last season, while Kearse netted 1,005 yards receiving. Safety Nate Fellner is a big-play guy on defense. He had eight pass breakups and five interceptions in 2010.

TOUGH STRETCH: A late five-game run that begins with a trip to Stanford and concludes with visits to USC and Oregon State will expose the dogs as contenders or pretenders. Between road dates, the Huskies host Arizona and Oregon.

EXTRA POINTS: Washington is 9-9 in conference play under Sarkisian. ... After the Oregon game on Nov. 5, work on a $250 million renovation of Husky Stadium will begin. The Huskies will play their 2012 home games at CenturyLink Field. ... Washington opens the 2011 season against defending FCS champion Eastern Washington.

email: dirk@desnews.com

Washington Huskies

2011 media poll: 3rd, North

2010 record: 7-6, 5-4

Head coach: Steve Sarkisian (12-13, third season)

2011 schedule

Sept. 3 EASTERN WASH.

Sept. 10 HAWAII

Sept. 17 at Nebraska

Sept. 24 CALIFORNIA

Oct. 1 at Utah

Oct. 15 COLORADO

Oct. 22 at Stanford

Oct. 29 ARIZONA

Nov. 5 OREGON

Nov. 12 at USC

Nov. 19 at Oregon State

Nov. 26 WASHINGTON ST.

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