End of preseason practice, Day 6: First two-session day. First time under the lights inside new Husky Stadium. 21 days until UW opens vs. Boise St.
The Huskies were seeing red again Saturday night.
They upped the tempo even more in full pads while focusing on “red-zone” situations inside the 20-yard line to end their first week of preseason practices at Husky Stadium.
The first-team defense — with converted tight end Evan Hudson still getting some time on the defensive line both inside and on the edge at end — got some initial stops in the red zone. Then the second-unit offense scored on a Cyler Miles’ quick-recognition throw outside to freshman Demore’ea Stringfellow, who beat soft coverage well off the line.
Coach Steve Sarkisian is making red-zone offense a particular emphasis this month. The Huskies scored 33 touchdowns on 52 trips inside the opponent’s 20 last season. That was a 63-percent TD rate. Sarkisian wants it at about 75 percent.
Last season, that would have meant six more red-zone touchdowns. Think six more TDs might have changed UW’s season from 7-6 to, say, 9-4?
So does Sarkisian. He’s come to believe the two biggest factors to winning any game are the turnover margin and red-zone touchdown efficiency.
"You are going to see more of this throughout this training camp. We are just going to keep putting ourselves in these scenarios," the fifth-year coach said of red-zone scrimmaging. "We are looking at the formula of success in a football game. You talk about turnovers and turnover margin and how critical that is. Then you talk about red-zone efficiency and the ability to score touchdowns in the red zone and defensively the ability to limit touchdowns and create turnovers in the red zone.
"So we want to get a high repetition of red-zone plays we want to call so our quarterbacks get familiar and get exposure to those plays."
Last year UW’s defense held opponents to 49 percent touchdown efficiency in the red zone. The Huskies would sure take that again this season.
That same rate, and 75 percent TDs on offense, are Sarkisian’s red-zone formulas to turning 7-6 into Pac-12 North division championship — and thus Rose Bowl — contention.
Jaydon Mickens, who had 20 catches while playing in all 13 games last season at wide receiver, continued to get some carries at running back. Freshman wide receiver John Ross, a first-week standout, is also getting carries out of the backfield.
Sarkisian is experimenting and testing the versatility in his deep pool of speedy, skill-position players.
"We’ve got a lot of great athletes on this team," Mickens said. "And we get to show it now."
Less is becoming more for Keith Price and the offense.
A large reason UW is playing much faster in no-huddle sets as its base scheme this preseason is that Sarkisian has made play calls shorter for 2013. Hand signals instead of long, convoluted phrases are making the relay of calls from coach to Price and fellow quarterbacks and then the QBs’ play calls before each snap to teammates a much more efficient, streamlined process.
"Everything we’ve done has gotten smaller," Sarkisian said of the playbook’s entries. "We’ve really tried to minimize our verbiage so we can go as fast as we can go. We’ve talked about it. We’re continuing to talk about it with the players to get their input on it, on how we can continue to reduce our verbiage so that we can go as fast as we can go."
The Huskies were really zoomin’ during their 90-minute morning practice in helmets and “shells” (small, foam-like pads instead of full-on plastic shoulder pads). They worked extensively on 2-minute drills for both the offense and defense.
Sarkisian said freshman Cameron Van Winkle “has a little bit of an edge in kickoffs right now” over 2012 kickoff man Travis Coons. That was the idea when the Huskies recruited the Washington state high school record-setting kicker out of Mount Si in the Seattle suburb of Snoqualmie last year.
Last year college football rules moved the kickoff spot up 5 yards, to the 35. That made touchbacks more attainable - in theory, anyway. But Washington had just 11 touchbacks in 63 kickoffs last season.
The Huskies expect Van Winkle’s kickoffs to sail deep into if not out of the back of the end zone, resulting in far fewer kickoff returns to defend this season — and thus better starting field position for the defense.
Van Winkle and Coons are also battling this month to decide who will be the primary field-goal kicker.
Read more about Van Winkle and his big leg here, from a feature I wrote on him during spring practices in April: http://www.gohuskies.com/ViewArticle.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=30200&ATCLID=208024995
Scary moment: Marcus Peters, currently the first-team cornerback opposite Greg Ducre, went down on the sideline during the red-zone drill holding his right leg and wincing in pain. Trainers and a team doctor surrounded him and walked with Peters as he limped over to the training table. Safety Sean Parker, a co-captain last season, met Parker half way to encourage him.
But Sarkisian reported after practice that Peters had merely banged his knees into a teammate’s knee and that he should be fine when the team returns to practice Monday.
The Huskies will spend their Sunday off from practice and on an afternoon Argosy boat cruise leaving from Pier 55 in downtown Seattle for lunch on Elliot Bay.
Sarkisian wanted to do a team-bonding event that also exposes the many Dawgs that aren’t from Seattle to a Northwest destination. Sixty-eight of the 98 players listed on UW’s current roster are from outside Washington.
"We wanted to get them out on the Puget Sound so when people ask them ‘What is the Puget Sound?’ They can say, ‘This is what it is. I’ve been out there,’" Sarkisian joked.