Sarkisian raises stakes in year 2 at Washington

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SEATTLE (AP) -In the haze of purple and gold balloons, the band playing the fight song and a soundtrack of annoying barking from fans, Steve Sarkisian dropped a little nugget the first time he ever spoke at Washington.

"I don't think it's going to take us very long," he proclaimed in December 2008, while taking over a program that had just finished an 0-12 season.

A mere 20 months later, Sarkisian doesn't just hope Washington will build on the respectability regained in his first season at Washington.

He expects victories. Lots of them. And to still be playing around the first of the year.

"We expect to do well, we expect to win," Sarkisian said. "I think that transformation process from the coaching staff into our players may have taken some time, but I don't see one guy on our football team that truly doesn't believe we're going to be a good football team this fall."

For the first time in seven seasons, Washington begins the year with the expectation of a bowl game, a place the Huskies haven't been since the end of the 2002 season. It would seem unthinkable for a program that two years ago was the punchline for the rest of college football, if not for the talent the Huskies have returning.

Washington brings back 17 starters from last year's team that finished 5-7 and likely would have gone to a bowl game if not for fourth-quarter struggles on the road at Notre Dame, Arizona State and UCLA.

And if heading into the offseason with blowout wins over Washington State, 30-0, and California, 42-10, didn't provide the Huskies with enough momentum, quarterback Jake Locker announced barely a week after the season ended that he was staying at Washington for his senior season, bypassing the riches that awaited him in the NFL as a high first-round draft pick.

"Once I had thought about it and considered all the things it came down to, getting a degree, better preparing myself for the NFL and then having the opportunity to go to a bowl game and experiencing college for one more year, it was really easy for me to make that decision," Locker said.

In his first year under the tutelage of Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, Locker raised his completion percentage and passing touchdowns, while lowering his interceptions and tempering his natural instinct to tuck and run whenever trouble arrived.

One beneficiary of Locker's new focus was tailback Chris Polk, who became just the second Washington running back since the late 1990s to top 1,000 yards. Polk is back and healthy after offseason shoulder surgery and has more depth behind him with the arrival of freshmen Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper.

"The only goal I have is Rose Bowl. That's what we're focusing on. We've just got to keep pushing and go out there and make each other better," said Polk, who ran for 1,113 yards last season. "If we do our job then it should be pretty realistic. The only people that can stop us is us, so we've got to stay focused on and not become complacent."

They'll be running behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters from a year ago, but with some in different positions. Most notable is guard Senio Kelemente moving to left tackle to protect Locker's blindside.

Locker will have wideouts Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson as his main targets. The trio combined for 131 catches and 16 touchdowns last season.

No matter how much skill the Huskies possess on offense, their success in 2010 will largely be determined by a defense that a year ago was 79th in the country in total defense.

The challenge for defensive coordinator Nick Holt is finding replacements for defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and linebacker Donald Butler. Te'o-Nesheim left Washington as the all-time leader in sacks, while Butler was the Huskies' leading tackler last season.

Washington's secondary could be a strength with cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Nate Williams and honorable mention all-Pac-10 linebacker Mason Foster returning.

"I think people are excited and anxious about what is to come," Sarkisian said. "It's like last year was a little bit of the appetizer, (but) what is the main course? ... I think people are excited for what's next, what are we in store for next."

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