- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Call them seeming contradictions if you will, but Washington begins spring practices Tuesday with two mixed messages.
Senior Keith Price is the Huskies' starting quarterback. Unless he isn't.
There is a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the Huskies' potential in 2013. And general frustration with the program.
With 20 starters back, including a handful of seeming budding stars, the Huskies have the look of a top-25 team that could make some noise in the rugged Pac-12 North Division after three consecutive 7-win seasons, campaigns that have progressively soured fans pining for the proverbial "next step."
This, coach Steve Sarkisian acknowledges.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be in a position to compete for a division championship," he said.
Sarkisian also acknowledged the Huskies' offensive struggles in 2012. While an equal share of the blame should go to poor offensive line play, which was aggravated by injury issues, the easy guy to point the finger at is Price, whose play decidedly regressed after a strong debut season in 2011.
Price went from a darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender to eighth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, trailing three first-year starters and California's oft-criticized Zach Maynard. The Huskies averaged just 24 points per game, down nine from the 2011 season.
"We need to get our offensive numbers back to where they were two years ago," Sarkisian said.
And that starts with Price. Unless it doesn't.
"Keith Price is our starting quarterback -- the goal is to get Keith Price back to playing the way he was two years ago," Sarkisian said. "But there are four guys behind him who are going to be chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to make this thing into a competition that either is going to push Keith to be better than he's been or, ultimately, try to surpass him."
So this is Price's job. Unless... "As I've said to Keith," Sarkisian said, "we're not going to be stubborn enough that if we think another guy is playing better that guy won't get that opportunity to beat him out."
The bottom line meaning behind Sarkisian's statements is fairly straightforward: 1. He wants Price to win the job; 2. But he wants the Huskies to win as many games as possible in a critical season for him and the program; 3. He's going to play the guy who gives him the best chance for No. 2.
The quarterbacks will be working with a new position coach, Marques Tuiasosopo, whose name immediately evokes pleasant memories for Huskies fans. He quarterbacked the program to a No. 3 final ranking after the 2000 season, the Huskies' last Rose Bowl victory. A former dual-threat player, he's got an NFL pedigree, an easy-going style and a natural follow-me-to-the-gold! ability to lead. He also will allow Sarkisian to be more big-picture with the offense.
If the Huskies get the Price of 2011 -- or someone else who can produce a top-10 in the nation passing efficiency rating -- there are a lot of toys to play with, starting with RB Bishop Sankey, WR Kasen Williams and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. A young offensive line that got pushed around in 2012 should be much better, and the (eventual) return of former starters Colin Tanigawa and Erik Kohler will provide another boost.
The dramatic improvement of the defense in Year 1 under coordinator Justin Wilcox also suggests strong reasons for optimism.
Of course, the program has been glutted with optimism the past few seasons. Seven wins were a revelation in 2010. Not so much in 2012, particularly when the Huskies blew their final two games, most notably a shocking fourth-quarter collapse against Washington State, something that Cougars fans never, ever, ever bring up these days.
Sarkisian, as is his wont, can find a silver lining even there.
"I don’t think that taste is going to go anywhere for awhile, which is OK," he said. "We lost two games that we should have won. The end result is we are sitting here talking about a 7-6 football team when we could have been here talking about a 9-4 football team. But I don’t know if that’s all bad. If we would have finished 9-4 and found a way to finish those last two games, I don’t know what January or February would have been like for us as a football team. We may have still been hungry and I would like to think so and striving for more. We might have grown a bit complacent. What I do know is there is zero complacency in our locker room right now."
That lack of complacency must start with Price. He needs to regain his mojo. The same could be said for Sarkisian.
Washington will open a remodeled Husky Stadium this fall, a facility that will immediately rank among the nation's best. That will add to the anticipation of a special season, one that Huskies fans have turned purple -- appropriately -- holding their collective breath anticipating.
Said Sarkisian of Price, "We've been through a lot together and we've got one chapter left that we want to make a great ending."