SEATTLE — Keith Price always wears a smile. Even when he was hobbling on one healthy leg, which was the case during most of his first season as Washington’s quarterback, he was smiling.
It’s how Price gained the nickname “Teeth Price.”
But ask him about his remarkable sophomore season for the Huskies and his school record for touchdown passes (33), and about leading Washington to a second straight bowl appearance, and Price becomes almost sullen.
“We didn’t win enough games. I’m all about wins. You can ask coach, every loss I almost cried in the locker room,” Price said. “I’m very competitive and I think we could have had a better season.”
Price was the best player on the field the last time he suited up, accounting for seven touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl. But his performance was overshadowed by the ineptitude of a Washington defense that surrendered a then bowl-record 67 points to Baylor in the 67-56 loss.
The defense will be different in 2012 thanks to a complete remodel of the defensive coaching staff led by new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. But even if the defense is better, it might be hard for the Huskies to improve on their record from a year ago thanks to one of the toughest schedules in the country.
“That was last year. It’s such a different deal. I would say, I’m not troubled by it. It’s actually if anything been a positive,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I think our guys have really come into this camp with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
That chip comes from Washington becoming a punch line after the Alamo Bowl turned into an embarrassing track meet that was the final straw in a disappointing tenure for Nick Holt as the Huskies defensive coordinator.
And it’s that defensive side of the ball, led by Wilcox and an influx of new assistants, that will ultimately determine whether Washington can survive an early season gauntlet and take another step in the yearly progression of improvement that has gone in-step with Sarkisian’s first three years in charge.
Could Washington be a better all-around football team in 2012 and fail to improve upon, or even take a step back from its 7-6 mark in 2011? Absolutely.
Could the Huskies also be the type of team to surprise the entire Pac-12 and maybe be playing for a conference crown thanks to a favorable second-half schedule? The raw, yet young talent on the roster says it’s possible.
Wilcox was a rising coaching star after making Boise State known for more than just its flashy offense. He went on to Tennessee for two seasons, but was drawn back to his native Northwest when the Huskies job became available.
His task: take the worst defense in Washington’s long history from 2011, erase the ugly national perception after the Alamo Bowl and make the Huskies defense respectable again.
“I hate hearing about the past,” safety Sean Parker said. “We always move forward and I’m always focused on the task at hand.”
Wilcox has brought different ideas, like hybrid and odd fronts that have been toyed with during spring ball and fall camp. It hasn’t helped that a handful of expected starters have been sidelined with injuries and the Huskies are perilously thin at linebacker.
If Price can have another breakout season, it’ll take some pressure off Wilcox’s defense. Whatever Price and the rest of the Huskies offense does will be expected. It was put on film last year when Price became the Washington standard-bearer while throwing for a school-record 33 touchdowns yet never truly being fully healthy the entire year. Even with the loss of Chris Polk, his bullying running style and touchdowns on the ground, the Huskies offense is still expected to be dynamic and potent.
Price has talented targets in wide receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey will likely split the carries while trying to make up for the loss of Polk. The offensive line is a concern with potentially three new starters.
Then there’s the Huskies’ brutal early schedule. They travel to Baton Rouge for a night game in Death Valley against LSU in Week 2, then start Pac-12 play with a gauntlet of Stanford at home, at Oregon and home for USC.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” Williams said. “People say we have one of the hardest schedules in the nation and it’s a good challenge for us because that’s going to show us how good that we are as an offense, how good we are as a team.”