Huskies abandon huddle, go up tempo

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SEATTLE — After six spring football practices the last 12 days, the Washington Huskies can exhale a bit.

Under a new format that stretches out practices from the end of winter quarter to the beginning of spring, UW won’t practice again until April 2.

And UW players might be ready for a break after a hectic start to spring practice in which the Huskies have emphasized installing a new no-huddle, up-tempo offense. The Huskies have been running upward of 130 plays in two hours during the practices.

“Everything is so fast,” said linebacker John Timu. “You can’t even bend over and breathe.”

Which, of course, is the point. UW coaches say practicing almost exclusively no-huddle isn’t just to find a better fit for the offense, but also to help prepare the defense. The Huskies will likely see a steady diet of up-tempo attacks next season — at least eight of the 12 teams on UW’s schedule are expected to run some version of it on offense.

It wasn’t much of a secret that, while UW’s defense was vastly improved last season, it had trouble against up-tempo teams such as Oregon (a 52-21 loss) and Arizona (a 52-17 defeat).

“We’ve got to get acclimated to that,” said junior defensive end Josh Shirley. “That’s where we have struggled in the past. We have to strengthen our weaknesses, and this is one of them.”

On offense, though, the Huskies have often been at their best with the no-huddle the last few years. And using it as a regular foundation of the offense, UW coaches feel, will better suit fifth-year senior quarterback Keith Price, as well as the other quarterbacks on their roster.

Sarkisian said UW will use the break in spring practices to assess its progress with the no-huddle. But he sounded pleased after Saturday’s practice, in which coaches called plays from the sideline using headsets during several live sessions, simulating game-day conditions.

“It’s been great,” Sarkisian said. “We got a lot of it in in two weeks’ time, and for it being new to us as coaches and as players, I was actually very impressed with the guys and their ability to retain it and then execute it, especially in this setting when there were no scripts and they had to just get the signal and go play.”

Sarkisian said he was particularly impressed with Price, who has done everything he can to quiet any talk of a possible quarterback competition. Sarkisian called Price’s play in practice Saturday “tremendous. ... It was a really competitive drill, and I thought he was at his best.”

For players, running so many plays has made for a very different feel in practice.

“It’s a lot of running, and we are big guys, and every big guy likes to take it slow,” said center Mike Criste. “But it’s actually helpful for us. I think we have gotten a lot more used to it now.

“When we started out, we were a little more tired. But as we have progressed the last two weeks, it’s gotten a little (more) bearable.”

Timu said he thinks it’s already helping the defense. Playing against an up-tempo offense, he said, is as taxing mentally as it is physically, with defenders sometimes struggling just to get aligned correctly. Missed assignments — or just being slow to cover a player or area — can lead to easy touchdowns.

“The tempo is so fast, it’s hard to think and try to play at the same time,” Timu said. “So practicing against it every day just helps us, getting us right mentally.”

That’s the goal, according to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

“It’s teaching you to condition your body and your mind,” Wilcox said. “To be able to execute at a high level for however long it takes, and there’s not a lot of time in between, you are going to get tired. It’s inevitable. Nobody is waiting on anybody.

“So to be able to operate in that frame of mind when you are on the verge of exhaustion and still be able to make the play — we did not do a good job of that last year. So it’s good for us to practice it.”

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