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September 1, 2006

Stanback and Gunheim keys to success

Last Saturday the Huskies concluded a preseason camp that coach Willingham called successful. This is the time of year when die-hard Dawg fans used to dream of an undefeated season and a run at the national championship. But in the last few years, those dreams have seemed as unlikely as the elimination of a planet in our solar system. While Pluto was officially eliminated last week, the Huskies haven't been. Yet.

Predicting the outcome of the upcoming season is always popular. One can look like a genius by making outrageous predictions, such as the lowly Detroit Tigers will win the AL Central this year and finish with the best record in baseball. Who would have thought that last March?

Instead of making bold predictions about a successful season let's take a look at a couple of players that need to have successful seasons in order for the Huskies to have a chance at seeing some improvement and possibly, just maybe, a shot at a bowl game.

Anyone who writes that Isaiah Stanback needs to have a solid year for the Huskies to succeed certainly is not making any kind of groundbreaking or bold statement. But Stanback needs to have his best season under center for the Huskies to have any chance at success this year.

Last year Washington ranked at or near the bottom of every offensive category in the PAC-10. The only bright spot, if you want to call it that, was their sixth-ranked rushing attack. Some teams can actually get away with reliable play from the quarterback (run the offense and don't turn the ball over), but the Huskies need more than that. Losing their top rusher and five offensive lineman to graduation doesn't bode well for the team. Top that off with losing expected star, J.R. Hasty, to academic ineligibility and suddenly Stanback will be needed to do a lot more.

There's hope though. Stanback showed brief flashes of brilliance last season. Unfortunately, he would sometimes follow those flashes up with game-changing mistakes. As the year wore along Stanback's play became more consistent and you could begin to see him developing into a leader for the offense. Already during preseason camp, players have commented on Stanback growing into that leadership role.

"The last couple years have been difficult for him," tight end Johnie Kirton said of Stanback. "There is something different about him this year and it's in a good way."

Maybe it's because for the first time this team seems like Stanback's team and Stanback feels the same way. He's more confident and that translates into being more comfortable on the field. There's few that would deny Stanback is a gifted athlete and possibly the only playmaker the Huskies have on the offensive side of the ball. A more comfortable Stanback may lead to a talented quarterback finally living up to his potential and making game changing plays on the football field. That's just what the Husky offense needs.

Last year, the defense wasn't much better than the offense, but they were consistently in the middle of the pack in the PAC-10. One especially atrocious area was pass defense. The secondary was shaky, at best, and by seasons end riddled with injuries. At the end of preseason camp, coach Willingham praised the work of the secondary, especially calling out C.J. Wallace's physical play as a tone setter.

For the most part, the secondary hasn't changed since last season and they still lack a "shutdown" corner. Even though the Huskies seem to be missing a needed ingredient for building a great defensive backfield, they do have a speedy defensive end that can make a secondary look a lot better.

Junior Greyson Gunheim led the team last year with five sacks and began to emerge as the defensive difference-maker the team needs. Getting in the quarterback's face and forcing him to make decisions will lead to more poor decisions and that will lead to more interceptions and fewer big plays down field. Gunheim's 4.5 speed is just what the doctor ordered for a Washington defense that could use more pressure on the quarterback and more turnovers than they've seen in recent years.

Both Gunheim and Stanback seem to be maturing into their roles. Both seem more comfortable in coach Willingham's system and have the athletic ability to change games. If Stanback and Gunheim can channel that talent more consistently than they have in the past, they could make the difference between a successful season or another disappointment for Husky fans.


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