The biggest question looming over the Huskies entering spring practice is one that will stick with them for the next two seasons; can Keith Price remain 100 percent healthy? Keeping Price healthy over the course of the next two seasons will determine if the Huskies can fully build off of the base success that Sarkisian has built in his first three seasons in Seattle.
Husky fans were given a tantalizing lack at what the Huskies offense can look like with a fully healthy Price in the Alamo Bowl. Price's speed and decision making on his feet opened up the field and playbook in a way that makes the Huskies a much more dangerous opponent, the kind of one that can compete with the elite teams in college football.
The Huskies offensive line play has been woeful since Marques Tuiasosopo was under center and the struggles of last season's unit has a lot to do with why Price couldn't stay healthy as they couldn't keep him safe through even one half of play against the vaunted defense of Eastern Washington. Price was able to hobble effectively through the early part of the season and improve his pocket passing skills, but his complete lack of mobility was exposed by better opponents later in the schedule and led to the Huskies not competing well against Stanford, Oregon and USC because they blitzed relentlessly and there was nothing that Price could do to escape.
Listed at 6'1 195 pounds last season, Price's thin body shoulders some of the blame for his injury problems. With the level of athletes playing in modern college football, it is simply very hard for a quarterback that light to stay healthy. I was always incredibly surprised that Darron Thomas, who has a body similar to Price, was able to pull it off and stay relatively healthy throughout his career at Oregon but I can't really think of anyone else who has. Word on the street is that Price is putting a huge focus on bulking up this off-season and hopefully he has some Weight Gain 4000 because he kind of looks like one of those lanky guys who simply may never be able to bulk up.
For an offense that a lot of people are excited about (myself included), it is somewhat surprising that there are more huge questions at key positions heading into spring, with the biggest of those questions being who Price will be handing off to after three years of Chris Polk putting the team on his back. Much like it was strange to see anyone but Jake Locker throw the ball for the Huskies at the beginning of last season, it will take a while before seeing anyone but Polk handle the majority of the carries seems normal.
The general consensus seems to be that the offense will switch from grinding it out with a workhorse getting around 30 carries to a backfield by committee. Junior Jesse Callier has the most experience but has yet to do too much to set him apart from the other backs in the fold. Callier is a smaller, shifty back who likes to run outside of the tackles that seems to go down easyily, which has the potential to really frustrate Husky fans after three years of Polk. Sophomore Bishop Sankey showed some great burst in limited carries in 2011, and of any backs on the roster, seems like he has the most tools to potentially be a feature back. The wild card is sophomore Deontae Cooper. Cooper has been a practice superstar the last two years but has been derailed by knee injuries both years. If he is even half as good as some claim he is and can somehow stay healthy, he will definitely be a fixture in the backfield in 2012.
Overall, it is unlikely that any combination of backs on the Husky roster will be able to work together to replace Polk and his tough running, but it will be interesting to watch if one of the backs can set themselves apart in spring practice.
With the departure of a running back who was great at milking minimal holes for big yards and getting a few yards when there was absolutely nothing there, the improvement of the Husky offensive line will be crucial. Unfortunately, Senio Kelemete, who as far and away the Huskies best lineman graduated and pleasant surprise Colin Tanigawa may not see much action, if any, in 2012 due to a knee injury.
For improvement to happen, Juniors Erik Kohler and Colin Porter need to make gigantic steps forward after brutal sophomore slumps. These guys were expected to lead the first Husky offensive line in a decade that didn't get pushed around week after week but have failed to live up to the enormous potential they showed as freshman. Keeping these guys healthy will also be especially important as the graduation of Kelemete, Nick Wood and Skyler Fancher coupled with Tanigawa's injury leaves the Huskies with almost no depth along the line in the two deeps.
Despite the frustration they inflicted upon Husky fans with perpetual dropped passes, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar were the Huskies go-to receivers the last two seasons and were consistently open. There may be lot of excitement about Kasen Williams, and he will go into spring football expected to continue his evolution into an elite receiver, but Kearse and Aguilar were the two most productive receivers on last year's team.
While Williams is expected to be the number one receiver, the question coming into spring is if senior receiver James Johnson can ever remain consistent and healthy and be the complimentary option the Huskies will need to keep defenses from being able to focus solely on Williams. Johnson looked like he was going to be a star early in his freshman season only to slowly disappear down the stretch, lose most of his sophomore season to a mysterious injury and after looking like he was ready to finally breakout early last season, fade down the stretch again.
Junior Kevin Smith looked like he would possibly be that sidekick guy or at least an incredibly solid number three receiver, but it is unlikely that he will be at full strength come the start of the season and his complete absence leaves a huge hole in the receiving corps for the spring and potentially fall. The number three spot during spring will instead be a competition between a cluster of receivers who have little to no experience other than Cody Bruns, who will be returning after redshirting last year due to personal reasons and has only a handful of catches.
It was four years ago that Steve Sarkisian coached his first ever spring practice at Washington and Husky fans can rest easy knowing that the questions back then were much more scary and the talent pool much shallower. There is a ton of excitement for the Huskies offensive unit, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some serious questions as the team heads into spring practice. However, there is a lot to be excited about and spring practice will give the team the opportunity to get an initial gauge on how they can answer these questions correctly.