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Washington Huskies get an off-season makeover

Players work with strength coach Ivan Lewis to slim down, become stronger and improve conditioning. Coach Steve Sarkisian wants the Huskies to be true contenders in the Pacific 10 Conference.

August 27, 2010|By David Wharton

Less than a year has gone by since Washington announced its emergence from college football purgatory. In a big way.

The Huskies, coming off a winless season, a program in shambles, upset third-ranked USC on the way to a very respectable 2009 season.

Hopes will run even higher this fall with Coach Steve Sarkisian entering his second year on the job and star quarterback Jake Locker resisting the NFL to return for one more go-around.

So why is this team looking for something, well, less?

Defensive lineman Cameron Elisara explains: "A lot of guys have dropped weight."

Call it addition by subtraction. Or phase two of the revival beside Lake Washington.

Despite last season's promising developments, Sarkisian thought his players needed a makeover to become true contenders in the Pacific 10 Conference.

"The game of football in 2010 is about speed," he said. "Very rarely do you line up with a guy head-up on you and you just butt heads and drive block and sumo wrestle like the good old days.

"The defenses are constantly moving, not only laterally but vertically," he said. "The offenses are more spread out; you have to be able to play in space."

His roster did not exactly fit this sleek profile.

The Huskies went 5-2 at their picturesque home stadium but were a far different team on the road. Winless in five away games, they tended to falter as the clock ticked down, losing to Notre Dame, Arizona State and UCLA in either overtime or the fourth quarter.

So the coach took a page from the master plan during his tenure as a USC assistant, calling upon strength coach Ivan Lewis to spend the off-season shaving weight off big guys and making little guys stronger.

The results were evident even before training camp began.

"You see our guys walking down the street, we look more fit," Sarkisian said. "We look like we're better-conditioned athletes."

That included the interior defensive line where Semisi Tokolahi dropped 43 pounds, Alameda Ta'amu lost 18 and Elisara dipped 25 below his one-time playing weight.

Across the line, center Drew Schaefer leads a slimmer offensive front.

Locker noticed a difference after the first few practices, saying the team "kind of hit the ground running."

The offense figures to be a strong point, the mobile quarterback continuing his quest to become a truer passer. He will be flanked by deep-threat receiver Jermaine Kearse and tailback Chris Polk, who last season became the first freshman in school history to surpass 1,000 yards on the ground.

The defense, however, remains a concern after giving up more than 389 yards and 26 points a game in 2009, ranking near the bottom of the conference in both categories.

Although Mason Foster anchors a solid group of linebackers, the Huskies have much to prove in the secondary and along the line, where they hope all that conditioning pays off.

"The aches and pains are not as much this year," Elisara said. "You have a lot more fun when you're not worried about how tired you are."

The leaner, meaner Huskies will put their new look to a test right way, playing at Brigham Young in the season opener. After home games against Syracuse and eighth-ranked Nebraska, they travel south to face a 14th-ranked USC team hungry for revenge.

Sarkisian wants to see his players "in hostile environments, in tight games in the fourth quarter, and understanding this is where we're supposed to be as a program. We're supposed to be in tough games in the fourth quarter on the road."

This time around, the Huskies hope that less is more.

"We've all noticed it," Elisara said. "With the conditioning comes a better state of mind."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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