Steve Sarkisian knows offense, having developed a host of top quarterbacks and skill-position players in his time at USC. That has continued in Montlake, even getting Jake Locker to show enough promise that the Tennessee Titans spent the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on him. Sark again has a quartet of front-line talent to work with and some emerging defensive talent, too, but needs dramatic improvement on the offensive and defensive lines to turn the Huskies into a championship contender.
Top senior prospects
QB Keith Price: After a breakout sophomore season where he threw for a single-season school record 33 touchdowns, Price regressed badly (1.46:1 TD-to-INT ratio in 2012, compared to 3:1 in 2011) behind a horrid offensive line that allowed 38 sacks. Sarkisian spoke of needing Price to trust the offense again after a loss in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, indicating that constant pressure left him shell-shocked. Price has good arm strength and mobility, so he could put himself back in draft consideration by rediscovering his confidence.
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins: Seferian-Jenkins can make a strong argument he is the best tight end in college football. He holds single-season and career school records for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. ASJ has great hands, knows how to position himself against defenders downfield and has lined up all over the field. He finds ways to get vertical despite a lack of burst, but will need to run a fast 40-yard dash to allay those concerns. He was suspended from all team activities after a DUI arrest last April, but was reinstated in late July.
LB Shaq Thompson: With the proliferation of spread passing offenses and tight ends capable of being deployed anywhere in the formation, Thompson represents the evolution of defenses in an attempt to keep up. He played nickelback and linebacker as a true freshman, amassing 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Listed at 225 pounds, some weight watching could foreshadow a permanent move to linebacker or that coaches want him as more of a hybrid safety/linebacker.
RB Bishop Sankey: Sankey isn't flashy, but is a steady all-around running back with good receiving skills. He gashed a tough Stanford defense for 144 yards and a touchdown in the upset win. Tired legs could be a concern after carrying the ball 289 times as a sophomore (third-most in a single season in school history) -- he is likely to see a similar workload in 2013.
WR Kasen Williams: A solidly built technician with good hands, Williams finds ways to keep the chains moving. He doesn't create many big plays because of a lack of speed, which limits the ways he can be used. Williams was recently charged with a misdemeanor for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or marijuana while under the age of 21.
DE Josh Shirley: Shirley has recorded 15 sacks in two seasons as a situational pass rusher and is expected to graduate to a full-time role this year. Took a major step forward at the end of 2012, forcing four fumbles in the final three games. Shirley was set to attend UCLA, but was released from his scholarship after being arrested on campus with two other recruits.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31 vs. Boise State: The Broncos and Huskies met in the postseason last December and now will christen the rebuilt Husky Stadium. Bishop Sankey ran for 205 yards and added another 74 receiving in the 28-26 loss, but Boise State was without star defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (sent home for violation of team rules).
Oct. 12 vs. Oregon: Shaq Thompson will be taxed by having to account for both seam-attacking tight end Colt Lyerla and all-purpose dynamo De'Anthony Thomas in this underappreciated and bitter rivalry.
Nov. 15 at UCLA: Keith Price has to hope his offensive line is sorted out by now, or else Bruins outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be a frequent visitor in the backfield. If Price has time, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams can make some hay against a rebuilt secondary.