SEATTLE (AP) — The last time Washington took the field, Keith Price outplayed Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
And the Huskies defense became a national punch line for ineptness.
Plenty has changed at Washington since last December’s Alamo Bowl. But ultimately, giving up 67 points to Baylor remains the thing many remember about the Huskies.
The first steps in trying to change that image come Saturday night when Washington hosts San Diego State to open the 2012 season.
It’s a dangerous game for the Huskies: the first game at CenturyLink Field, their temporary home for this season, while breaking in a new defensive coordinator and facing San Diego State’s unique 3-3-5 defensive system.
Oh, and there’s that showdown a week from now in Baton Rouge against No. 3 LSU that’s drawing some attention too.
If it didn’t help previously, this is one time when Washington’s last-second escape against FCS Eastern Washington in last year’s season opener might provide some help in making sure the Huskies aren’t looking ahead to the matchup on the Bayou.
“I’ve only been looking at San Diego State. Lots of people were scared last year when we almost lost to Eastern and that was supposed to be a game we were supposed to handle pretty soundly,” Washington wide receiver Kasen Williams said. “We don’t want that to happen this year. At the end, we can worry about LSU next week.”
What most will want to see are the changes new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has made to a unit that was the worst in school history a season ago.
Wilcox was hired away from Tennessee after Washington coach Steve Sarkisian fired Nick Holt and most of his defensive staff following the Alamo Bowl debacle, when Price’s seven total touchdowns running and receiving amazingly weren’t enough.
Wilcox has some new, young talent to use in trying to improve the Huskies defense, highlighted by freshman nickel back Shaq Thompson. Wilcox is likely to use multiple fronts and play five defensive backs a majority of the time, partly due to injury problems in Washington’s linebacker corps.
Ask the guys on the other side of the ball who have gone against the Huskies defense through training came and they say they believe the improvement will be noticeable immediately.
“Our defense, they get after it. I see a huge change. I’m not trying to blow no one’s head up, our defense is really awesome,” Washington running back Jesse Callier said. “I just can tell in our defensive player’s body language, I can see their body language is like more confident. I can see them more confident that way.”
The first test for Washington’s new look defense will come from a familiar face. Ryan Katz started 14 games at Oregon State, including the entire 2010 season in Corvallis. But he fell out of favor with the Beavers and transferred to San Diego State for his senior season. Katz made one start against the Huskies, in Seattle, back in 2010 when Washington pulled out a 35-34 double overtime victory that was finally clinched when Katz’s two-point conversion pass for Joe Halahuni fell to the turf.
“I started following San Diego State last year toward the end of the season. I liked what they had coming back and it’s definitely shown since I’ve been here,” Katz said. “I’ve grown close with the guys and it’s been great working with them and getting to know everyone. I’ll just look forward to getting out there Saturday and playing with them for the first time.”
What Katz won’t have is an experienced workhorse running back to lean on. Adam Muema got his chance in a few games last season, but was mostly an observer watching Ronnie Hillman rush for nearly 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns. Hillman is gone to the NFL and Muema gets his first chance to carry the load against a Huskies defense that allowed nearly 169 yards per game on the ground last year.
The Aztecs also feature wide receiver Brice Butler, who transferred from USC for his senior season.
“I think Brice is going to have a good year. What’s really strange to me is, last year we didn’t have any wide receivers,” SDSU coach Rocky Long said. “Last year, we were moving defensive backs to wide receivers so we have a couple wide receivers to put out there. This year, it seems like all we have is wide receivers.”
Before last year’s season opener, no one was quite sure what Price would bring. He ended up having one of the finest seasons in Washington’s history. That same question now applies to running back, where the Huskies are trying to replace Chris Polk, the second-leading rusher in school history. It’s up to Callier and sophomore Bishop Sankey to take on the running load and lessen the pressure on Price.
“They almost look alike at times in their stature on the field,” Sarkisian said. “Maybe just the 4 and the 5 separate them. We will see what it looks like on game day.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.